|Al Unser Sr.|
Al Unser Jr., now 53, still lights up a room with that big smile, those warm eyes and a hearty laugh. Of course, his stature as one of racing's all-time greats is the ultimate sealer.
The two-time Indianapolis 500 winner best known for saying "you just don't know what Indy means" has never really left IndyCar racing, although the temptations of alcohol led to breaks in appearances. Which makes this weekend special.
Unser Jr. is back at Indianapolis Motor Speedway to compete in the second Brickyard Vintage Racing Invitational, a competitive car show of muscle cars, amateur enthusiast drivers and former racers on the road course. Thirty-three former 500 drivers, including five members of the Unser family, will compete in Sunday's Indy Legends Pro-Am.
Unser Jr., who won last year's Pro-Am but jokes this year's car will be detuned to give others a chance, said the joy of watching the people and cars experience Indy is the allure.
"To see them light up like they do running here at Indy, it makes it all worthwhile," he said.
Unser Jr. said he's been alcohol-free for "a little more than three years."
"You've got to take it one day at a time, but it gets easier each day," he said Thursday.
He looks good.
"I'm truly in a much different place than I ever have been in my whole life," he said.
|Al Unser Jr.|
Unser Jr. is keeping busy this year by competing about 15 times with a Lincoln, Neb.-based autocross team. Autocross is a timed sport on a closed circuit – often a parking lot with orange cones – showcasing the talent of the driver, which obviously suits this driver.
The opportunity to co-drive with Chuck Bentley in a '67 Camaro was too appealing for Unser Jr. to pass up, and the fact he'll race four family members for the first time – his father Al, uncle Bobby and cousins Johnny and Robby – makes this weekend extra special.
According to IMS historian Donald Davidson, the Unser family got its first taste of Indy in May 1940 when the uncle of Jerry, Bobby and Al – known as Uncle Louis – tested a car but did not race it. Louis worked on several 500 crews in the years before Jerry arrived as a driver in '58 for his first and only 500. Jerry's twin brother, Louis J., was a mechanic on that car, which started a run of 73 500 appearances by six driving Unsers, the last being Al Jr. in 2007. The group won the race a record nine times.
The family has been equal parts tragedy and ecstasy. Jerry lost his life in '59 practicing for the 500. Louie stopped driving in the '60s when he was in the early stages of multiple sclerosis. Al Unser missed the '69 500 after breaking his leg riding a motorcycle in the IMS infield. Al Jr. failed to qualify for the 500 in '95 despite being the reigning champion, and then he was absent the next four years as Team Penske stayed away as part of the sport's split.
But the Unsers consider this their racing home, and this weekend is a celebration of their accomplishments. It starts with Al Jr., who is back and looking good. Curt Cavin/Indy Star