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Unser Steers Away From Demons

Success led to alcoholism and other problems for Little Al, who has been sober for more than a year.

September 20, 2003|Martin Henderson | Times Staff Writer

His name is Al. His girlfriend made jokes about him to his face. Called him "Al Coholic."

He started drinking when he was 16, climbing out of a sprint car and having a beer shoved in his hand. "That's basically when it started," Al says. "I went from being a sophomore in high school to being an adult literally overnight."

He continued to accept the beers. And more. After Carburetion Day at the 1992 Indianapolis 500, he and the woman who was then his wife went drinking with his crew chief, "and we ended up in a knockdown, drag-out fight."

Three days later, he won the biggest race in the world.

It didn't stop.

Last summer, two days after losing his gearbox at Kansas Speedway and finishing 17th, he went into a strip club in Indianapolis.

"I was drinking quite a lot," Al says. "There were shots of tequila, all kinds of things at the club."

On the way home, he argued with his girlfriend. He hit her, then got in the driver's seat of his SUV and left her at the side of the freeway. It was 3:30 a.m. when the cops picked her up, and when they showed up at his motor home -- parked at Indianapolis Motor Speedway -- they weren't interested in the alcohol. They were interested in the domestic battery and violence.

His name is Al Unser Jr.

He woke up the next morning with a hangover and knew exactly where he was.

Rock bottom.

*

His drinking problem was one of the worst-kept secrets in the garage. He was in the big leagues in 1983 and in 1984 won his first race at 22. His face was so wholesome, he was nicknamed "Opie." "Over the years," he says, "I'd worked with just about every crew member out there. Yeah, pretty much, I was the last to know that I had a problem."

Looking back, he wonders when he lost control of himself.

"Probably after I won the Indy 500 the first time," Unser says of that 1992 victory. "Maybe after I won the national championship in 1990.

"I'm sure it happened when I accomplished all my goals from childhood, which was basically winning the Indy 500."

There were a lot of parties, "a lot of bad decisions." Unser lived in the fast lane -- on the track and off it. Rumors of drug use have circulated. Unser makes no admission but repeats: "I'm going to say that I've made a lot of bad decisions under the influence of alcohol."

The last time he was under that influence, Unser struck his girlfriend of five years, Jena Soto. The misdemeanor charges were later dropped.

The incident ignited a storm of negative publicity in an industry that mostly steers clear of such things.

"The only word that comes to mind is devastating," Unser says. "I was truly embarrassed. Yes, for myself, but I wasn't the only one involved there. I was embarrassed for Jena, embarrassed for my family name.

"When they took me to jail, the officer patting me down said, 'This is the first time I've ever patted down an Indy 500 champion.'

"When that guy said those words, it all started coming through to me. My car owner, my sponsors, it just keeps going. There was more than just me who was being embarrassed. It goes all the way to the 10-year-old boy who has me as an idol."

*

Unser remembers the date clearly. "I stopped drinking on July 9th."

The Classy Chassis served him his last adult beverage. But more than a year removed, he talks about his problem with ease. He doesn't hide it. He offers his cell phone number "if there's anything you're a little vague on."

He spent 18 days in rehabilitation, "an insane asylum" on the East Coast, he says. "It wasn't a celebrity deal, it was the bare minimum."

Al Unser Jr. is still a big name. He won two CART championships and, with 31 victories, ranks sixth in all-time victories. He won two IROC championships when it really was an international race of champions. And he has added three victories in the Indy Racing League, including one this year. Southern California, too, has been good to Unser; he won six times at Long Beach and hopes to add a victory at Fontana on Sunday.

At autograph shows, such as the one in Auburn, Ind., last month, he finds friends. Unser has discovered that he isn't alone.

"You wouldn't believe how many people have actually had a problem with alcohol, and how many people say they're proud of what I'm doing, and they've had 10 or 15 years without a drink," he says. "The support has been overwhelming."

Unser has gone 14 months without a drink. "I'm learning more about myself than I ever knew," he says. "It's a daily process."

The past year has been one of his best, he says, and not because of what's taking place in owner Tom Kelley's Corteco-sponsored Toyota. Unser is sixth in the driver standings and, at 41, is still relevant on the track.

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