Al Unser, Jr. Battles Drivers and Demons

There are two Al Unsers, Jr. The great Indycar driver, who won two Indianapolis 500s and two national championships, and the addicted Al, who spent much of his off track time with drugs and alcohol. Al Unser, Jr. discusses both men in his autobiography, Al Unser, Jr. : A Checkered Past, as told to Jade Gurss. Gurss is the author of Beast, the story of the 1994 Mercedes -Ilmor engine that dominated the 1994 Indianapolis 500 which Unser won.

Unser, Jr. is brutally frank as he tells his story, using raw language at times. He does not rationalize his behavior in any way. He honestly talks about his triumphs on the track and his failures off of it.

Unser begins his racing career in karts with the help of his father, Al Unser, Sr. As a member of one of racing’s royal families, he feels the weight of continuing the legacy established by his dad and uncle Bobby. Unser is able to figure out the racing line quickly and starts winning races.

Al Unser, Jr. after winning the 1992 Indianapolis 500

Unser enters Indycar with the help of Rick Galles, an Albuquerque car dealer. Galles is willing to spend whatever it takes to produce a winning team. Unser chronicles his Indycar career, from the disappointment of losing his 500 duel with Emerson Fittipaldi in 1989 to his two victories in 1992 and 1994. His 1992 win over Gordon Johncock is still the closest finish in race history.

Unser starts his career as an aggressive driver in the style of Bobby Unser. An incident with Mario Andretti at Long Beach in 1989 and a talk with Andretti before the race at Nazareth causes him to get his aggressiveness under control.

While Unser enjoys success on the track, his life off the track is a time of drug consumption and family strife. In the chapter “Two Al Juniors” Unser talks about his infidelities, his arguments with his wife, Shelley, and his drug use. He admits to being fortunate that he raced in an era before the Indycar series had a stringent drug testing program.

Throughout the story, Unser recounts his failed tries at rehab facilities and his never ending battle with marijuana and alcohol. He is frank in discussing in detail the night he contemplated suicide

Unser is a good friend of Tony George. He understands his reason for starting the IRL, but he is unhappy with the way he implements it. The fear of a total CART boycott of the 500 leads George to add the NASCAR Brickyard 400 to the IMS schedule. Unser cites George’s plan not to invite the CART teams to Indy as the big error.

Unser says, “That’s where he went awry. That’s where he went sideways…he should have still invited the top teams. It was a self-inflicted wound, and no one was bold enough to tell him not to do it.”

The autobiography concludes as Unser finds Jesus and seeks redemption. he is free of the demons that once ruled his life. Unser is now a driver coach for Alliance racing, a Formula 4 team.

Al Unser, Jr. admits he is not a perfect person, on or off the track, but he has battled to improve himself after o many years of self loathing. The ending is inspiring and hopeful.

Al Unser, Jr. : A Checkered Past is available at Octane Press.