Al Unser Jr. was always a ferocious competitor on the track and he now appears to be winning the biggest off-track battle of his life.
The two-time Indianapolis 500 winner is a recovering alcoholic.
In 2002, he underwent treatment for alcohol abuse after his then-girlfriend, whom he later married, said he hit her in the face while he was drunk. Prosecutors did not file charges.
“I went 56 days without a drink after that,” Unser said. “Even though I learned what I learned in that rehab, I refused to believe it. It finally overcame me again.”
Unser was arrested in January 2007 on a Nevada freeway after he sideswiped another car and bumped it into a concrete median. He was charged with driving under the influence. Lesser charges, including misdemeanor hit-and-run, failure to render aid in an accident and failure to report an accident, were dropped as part of a plea deal.
But the message finally got through to Unser, who will turn 47 today, the same day he is honored as grand marshal of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
He became a regular at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and has performed hours of community service for alcohol treatment-related causes.
“Everything is going really well. It’s been well over two years now without a drink and I’m working my program and all is well. My [wife] Gina is right there with me. . . . Life truly has turned around for me, my children and my whole family.”
Unser, who retired from the IndyCar Series after finishing 26th in the 2007 Indianapolis 500, is even back behind the wheel this week -- at one of his favorite tracks.
In the days when he was known as “King of the Beach,” just showing up gave him a shot of adrenaline.
“I knew when I got here, I was going to have a chance to win, a real good chance,” said Unser, who did just that six times in 15 tries, including four in a row from 1988-91. He still holds the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach record of 545 laps led on the temporary street circuit at the edge of the downtown area.
Little Al was entered in Saturday’s Pro-Celebrity race and he could hardly wait to race again.
“It feels great,” Unser said last week after a practice session here. “It’s not an IndyCar and, quite frankly, at that level, I’m done. I won’t be getting into another IndyCar again. But it’s been fun. These [Toyota] Scions are front-wheel drive and they’re just fun little cars to drive.”
Still, the competitive streak that propelled Unser to 34 career open-wheel victories is still there.
“We’re here to win,” he said. “The old racing bug, it’s still in me.”
And being in Long Beach makes it even more exciting.
“This was always the race before the Indy 500 and I really felt if you win the race that’s right before the 500 you could take that momentum into the speedway for the month of May,” Unser said. “And it just happened to be a street circuit and we seemed to excel on the street circuits.
“There’s just some racetracks across the country for any race car driver that whatever he does, it’s the right thing.”
But Unser said he wasn’t really yearning to get back on track. Instead, he is enjoying a new role in the IndyCar Series, replacing his father, Al Unser Sr., in an off-track position. The four-time Indy 500 winner plans to spend more time at the Unser family museum in Albuquerque.
“So now I’m a full-time driver coach/official, and working with [vice president of competition] Brian Barnhart in race control has been a true blessing,” Unser said.
Barnhart said IndyCar is lucky to have Little Al on board.
“Al Jr. was with us part time last year and, now that he is full time, he has shown a great deal of passion and commitment for the position immediately,” Barnhart said. “He is incredibly dedicated, attending all of the driver meetings and reaching out to drivers. He provides plenty of input and feedback from race control in terms of driver conduct on the racetrack.
“He is incredibly well respected by the competitors and his peers and one of the biggest advantages -- no disrespect to Al Sr. -- Al Jr. raced with some of these guys. That is important from a respect standpoint, but he also knows what these cars are like. . . . He can relate to what the car is doing and why it is doing it and relate that to the conduct on the racetrack and if something is being done in a sportsmanlike or unsportsmanlike fashion.”
For Al Jr., helping other drivers isn’t something new.
“Al was always there for other people,” said longtime rival Michael Andretti, now an IndyCar team owner. “If there was a problem, on or off the track, he was willing to help. He was always an intense competitor, but you felt secure racing him side by side. And he has always been a good guy.”
The 2009 season began two weeks ago in St. Petersburg, Fla., and Unser spent a lot of time there helping NASCAR journeyman Stanton Barrett make the transition to racing an IndyCar. Barrett, also a Hollywood stuntman, qualified 21st out of 22 entries but finished 12th, four laps behind winner Ryan Briscoe, in his IndyCar debut.
“We spent a lot of time with Stanton Barrett down in St. Pete and he got better and better and better,” Unser said. “It’s just great to see and be part of something like that.
“Every driver has intricacies and challenges. What I get to do is try to figure that out and help them be better race drivers. That is fun. I’m just looking forward to the rest of the season.”