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Unser to Seek Help for Alcohol

Motor racing: Al Jr. will enter treatment center. Charges dropped in incident with girlfriend.

July 19, 2002|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser Jr., acknowledging that he has been plagued by alcohol-related problems for some time, said Thursday that he will enter a treatment center to deal with the situation.

He will not participate in Saturday night's Indy Racing League event in Nashville and perhaps several more races.

Unser was arrested early in the morning of July 9 after an incident in Indianapolis, where he had an altercation with his girlfriend after the two had spent the evening at a strip club. The Marion County prosecutor announced that misdemeanor charges would be dropped after hearing Unser's decision.

"I have a problem with alcohol abuse," Unser said. "Nearly every poor choice I've made in my life occurred under the influence of alcohol. I don't understand why I have the problem, but I know I have to straighten it out. And I now am ready to do so."

Unser made his announcement at a news conference where he was joined by Tom Kelley, owner of the Kelley Racing team for which Unser drives, and Gregory W. Gyllstrom, chief executive officer for Corteco, Unser's car sponsor.

"Al has been a key member of the Corteco family since joining us earlier this year," Gyllstrom said. "When anyone in our company faces a difficult problem, we want to do everything we can to help. He has done a great job for us on and off the track and we enjoy working with him."

In nine races this season, Unser's best finish was a second to Jeff Ward at Texas Motor Speedway in the closest finish in IRL history. He also finished second to Buddy Lazier in an International Race of Champions last Saturday at Chicagoland Speedway.

Tony Renna, test driver for Kelley Racing, will drive the No. 7 Corteco car until Unser returns from treatment sometime in August.

The July 9 incident was only the latest for the 40-year-old second-generation driver from Albuquerque.

His ex-wife, Shelley, filed a restraining order after alleging physical abuse while he was drinking.

"I am embarrassed and sorry for any behavior of mine that has hurt others in the past," said a contrite Unser. "I know I have a problem that needs to be addressed, and I now have a plan to straighten it out. I am ready to enter a substance-abuse center and I look forward to the help that I know I need."

The center's name or location, or the type of treatment Unser will receive, was not disclosed.

Unser's drinking was no secret in the racing fraternity, but his remarkable ability to show up sober on race days kept it undercover.

Tony George, IRL founder and president, has been in Unser's corner for years, helping to get him a ride in the IRL after he was dropped by Roger Penske's CART team before the 1999 season.

"I was very disappointed to learn of the events involving Al Unser Jr. last week," George said in a statement from IRL headquarters. "Today's announcement is the right thing for him to do, and I fully support it. All of us who are friends and fans of Al are pleased with his decision and look forward to his returning to the Indy Racing League. The league is satisfied with the steps that Al is taking and does not contemplate any action."

Kelley said that the No. 7 car will be ready for Unser as soon as he returns.

"Al has done a tremendous job for us this year and we love working with him," he said. "Although we were disappointed by his actions and are strongly against substance abuse of any kind, we give him a lot of credit for dealing with his problem."

Unser joined Kelley, one of the IRL's highest-profile teams, at the last minute before the start of the 2002 season after the Galles Racing team dropped out of racing. With Galles, he won two races in two years.

In a career that began in 1982 as a 19-year-old CART rookie, Unser won the Indy 500 in 1992 and 1994, the CART championship in 1990 and 1994, and the IROC championship in 1986 and 1998.

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