Just What Happened To “Just Al”?
While second and third generation drivers Graham Rahal and Marco Andretti have begun to cross into veteran status in the Izod IndyCar Series; another third generation driver, Al Unser III, continually sinks into deeper obscurity. From arguably open-wheel racing’s true first family, Al Unser III once seemed as if he would follow the same footsteps as his successful father, grandfather, great uncle and cousins. Somewhere along the way, a lack of funding and bad breaks intervened.
Like his famous father, Al Unser, Jr., in earlier days – Al III could pass for a baby-faced teenager, when in actuality he is much older than his other counterparts with famous last names. At age 27, Al III has reached the point that one must wonder if it is ever going to happen for him.
He grew up much like his Dad, living and breathing racing with every step. Racing is deeply embedded into the Unser DNA. Long before an Unser ever turned a lap at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Unser name was already entrenched into the lore of the famous Pikes Peak Hill Climb. The first Unser to race in the Indianapolis 500 was Jerry Unser, who qualified a solid twenty-fourth as a rookie in 1958. Unfortunately, Jerry Unser never completed a single lap in competition at Indy. He was part of the first lap melee in turn-three that took the life of Pat O’ Connor. The next May, he suffered burns in a practice crash at the Speedway. While hospitalized, his kidneys failed as a result of his burns and he passed away on May 17, 1959.
This caused a void in the Unser clan of Albuquerque, NM. Jerry’s twin brother Louie Unser was no longer racing but was active as a mechanic and engine builder. Louie was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 1964 and passed away in 2004. The torch was passed to younger brother Bobby to try his luck at the famed Brickyard. As one of five rookies in 1963, that also featured Jim Clark and Johnny Rutherford in the rookie class; Bobby qualified an impressive sixteenth but was an early out, spinning after two laps. The following year, Bobby was caught up in the Sachs-MacDonald fatal accident before he had completed his second lap. By the end of the 1964 race, two Unser’s had raced at Indy completing a total of three laps in three races with one fatally injured at the track.
Undaunted, Bobby returned the following year along with little brother Al. Al Unser was a member of the famous rookie class of 1965 that also featured Mario Andretti, Gordon Johncock and Joe Leonard. Three years later began an unprecedented run at Indianapolis for the Unser family. Bobby won his first Indianapolis 500 in 1968. Al followed suit in 1970 and 1971. Bobby won in 1975, with Al passing him again; winning his third in 1978. Bobby won for the third time in the controversial 1981 race, which saw him retire at the end of the season. Not to be outdone, Al was the unlikeliest of winners in 1987 when he was subbing for an injured Danny Ongais in a one year-old show car for Roger Penske to become only the second four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500.
By this time, Al’s son – Al Unser, Jr, was beginning to make a name for himself. The 1985 CART season came down to a last race battle between Al, Sr. and Al, Jr. with the father taking the honors. Little Al, as he was called won the 1990 CART title and won the first of his two Indy 500’s in 1992. In 1994, Little Al won both the CART championship and the Indy 500 while driving for Roger Penske, just as his father and uncle had done. Three of Roger Penske’s fifteen Indy 500 victories came at the hands of an Unser.
Bobby Unser became a fixture in the ABC broadcasting booth, paired with Paul Page and Sam Posey who was always the comic recipient of Bobby’s jabs. Big Al last drove at Indy in 1993 at the age of 54. Although he led briefly that year, he was not really competitive in his final drive. However, he finished a strong third place behind his son and Scott Goodyear just the year before.
Little Al did not have as graceful end to his driving career. His bouts with alcohol led to his unceremonious ouster from Penske after the 1999 season. In 2000, Little Al returned to Indy for the first time since he won the race in 1994, as a shadow of his former self. He eventually won three races in the IRL, but an ugly incident that landed him in jail and sidelined for several races in the 2002 season was the beginning of the end. In 2004, he drove for Pat Patrick’s last hurrah in open-wheel racing – a woefully underfunded and inept effort that saw dismal results against the more powerful teams that had moved over from CART. At midseason, Little Al called it quits. He made a couple of embarrassing return appearances at Indianapolis; the most recent in a second car for AJ Foyt in 2007, that just took up space at the back of the field – clearly a sad case of another athlete hanging on for too long.
All the while, his son Al Unser III had been holding his own in the development series. Living up to the Unser legacy is a tough task, although his father was able to deal with it – on the track, anyway. While some in the media wanted to dub him the name “Mini Al”, others called him Al Unser III. Al made it clear he wanted to be called just Al, although from the time he made that declaration, he was hung with the moniker “Just Al”.
Al III won six races in the Skip Barber Western Racing Series and was named the 2002 Rookie of the year. He made his Toyota Atlantics debut in 2004 running in four events with a best finish of eighth. That same season, Unser III also ran eight races in the Infiniti Pro Series where he finished third five times. In 2005, he ran the first four races in the Pro Series where he posted three top-ten finishes before switching over to the Atlantics where he ran in ten of twelve races and finished seventh in the Atlantics championship.
2006 saw the funding bug catch up to “Just Al” as he ran the first two races of the Atlantics series before lack of funding caused him to lose his ride. He signed to drive the Playa Del Racing Pro Series car for the 2007 Freedom 100 at Indianapolis and was in the car for several other appearances that season. He was awarded the drive full-time for 2008 but the team was sold that May and Unser III was released shortly after finishing eleventh in the Indy Lights race at Indianapolis.
At age 27 with nothing concrete on the horizon, you have to wonder if another generation of Unser’s will ever race again in the Indianapolis 500. The Unser family has accounted for nine victories in the ninety-three runnings of the Indianapolis 500 – which is a pretty astonishing record. Jerry’s son Johnny Unser along with Bobby’s son Robby, both ran at Indianapolis in the late 90’s – during the dark days of the IRL but never won.
Although the Unser family is not short on cash, they have been steadfast in their resolve that Al III must make it on his own just as his father, grandfather, great-uncles and cousins did. On one hand you have to admire that stance, but then again – it’s tougher these days to land a ride on talent. You have to have money, and a lot of it — in order to even step into a cockpit of one of these cars today.
Al Unser III seems to have more than enough talent to drive in the IndyCar series and at the Indianapolis 500 – especially considering some of the questionable names that show up and make it each year. Had Al Unser, Jr. spent the last decade trying to steer his son through the minefields of open-wheel racing, rather than trying to reclaim his own lost glory – we might have been treated to watching another third generation driver try to make his mark at the Indianapolis 500. Instead, we watch Al Unser III as he watches the clock tick away while his window of opportunity closes.
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