From Indy 500 wins to personal turmoil: Unser Jr's story told - The Race
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From Indy 500 wins to personal turmoil: Unser Jr’s story told

Sep 6 2021
By Jack Benyon

From Indianapolis 500 wins as America’s motorsport sweetheart to multiple arrests, mental health issues and substance abuse, the life of Al Unser Jr has to be one of the most fascinating in motorsport.

Luckily for fans of racing and for people who could benefit from stories of Unser’s personal life, the driver has written a book in partnership with Beast author Jade Gurss, to remove the smoke and mirrors on the key moments of Unser’s life, good and bad.

May 27 : Beast: The Indy 500 engine that shocked the world, with Al Unser Jr

“During the COVID time I connected with a school to become an author,” said Unser Jr following the announcement of the book last week.

“I was going to write my own book, and I discovered and found out that this book was too important.

“And what makes it so important, is this is my story of my personal life, it would help other people outside of the racing circle. With the substance abuse disorder that I had, I needed to tell the story.”

Little Al, as he’s known, was always in the spotlight as the nephew of Bobby Unser and the son of Al Sr, but he backed up the attention he received by scoring the 1992 and 1994 (below) Indy 500 wins, and the 1990 and 1994 CART Indy Car World Series titles.

Al Unser Jr IndyCar Indy 500

However, behind the scenes, great personal turmoil was brewing and the infamous failure to qualify for the Indy 500 in 1995 – the year after winning with the Beast engine – was the beginning of a downfall through DUI and domestic violence arrests which brought Unser Jr great notoriety, especially in the tabloids.

Despite his success and driving for Penske, he became bankrupt but has worked hard recently to turn his life around. He’s found faith in religion and now spends time helping young drivers who lack the finances to make the next step up.

“I’m excited, I’m scared, all of the above,” says Unser. “I’ve shared this [book] with my mom and my dad, and they’re scared too, because the Unser family, the Unser name is just so successful with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indy 500, and for me to come out and be a human being, honestly they’re not used to it.

“They’ve been on a pedestal for so long.

“Uncle Bobby shared the same thing with me before he passed away this May and, I’ve never seen my Uncle Bobby actually be scared of anything until my book.

“And so, I don’t want to say scared – anxious, just not knowing.

“Al and Uncle Bobby, both of them, they’ve been in control of their lives, they’ve been in control of the race car their entire lives and to put it in God’s hands [with the book] was something that they’re not used to.

“So I think that’s more of it than anything else.

Bobbyunser With Alunserjr

“There’s a lot of stories, there’s a lot of racing stories in the book, there’s a lot of personal stories in the book, and so it covers a spectrum of my life and it’s all true, it’s the truth.

“It was hard for me. There were several times during my talks with Jade, that we actually had to stop because I was in tears.”

Without wishing to sound like an advertorial of some sort, it’s clear this should be one of the most anticipated new motorsport books for a while. Rarely does someone who has gone through such a rollercoaster in motorsport commit to telling the stories behind the events we all live through in the media.

Stories like Al Jr’s previously unknown anger in the background of his crash with Emerson Fittipaldi in the 1989 Indy 500, where he was seen clapping Fttipaldi who went on to win and was given great credit for his sportsmanship, is one Gurss picks out as a favourite.

1989unsercrash 3283

Alongside those personal life stories, Gurss also thinks the behind the scenes look at the 1995 failure to qualify at the Indy 500 is unprecedented in its detail and is multiple chapters long.

“I don’t think that [1995] behind the scenes story has ever been told, at least in the depth that Al shares, and I’m speaking as a race fan who was equally, curious: ‘Tell me about it, what what happened, what did we not know’,” says Gurss.

“And again that’s multiple chapters just about that ’95 failure to qualify. So those examples [the stories in the book] from the racing world that are very infamous or famous moments that suddenly have this very deep backstory, or explanation, why and how things happen.

“I think in Al’s personal life, people knew about the arrests, and some of the things that were going on but again, did not know the stories behind what was happening.

“The stories behind a particular DUI or, things that made for tabloid fodder, sensational moments that now will have a backstory, a human side to the toll or to the damage that those sorts of things have done, and how he was able to go from those depths to, to where he is now.

“He’s engaged, he’s working with young drivers and it seems that things have a very hopeful future with someone who went through financial ruin and all of that.

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“So anyway, that doesn’t give away too much but those are the examples that come to my mind from the book that I think will be surprising and illuminating both to race fans and the people that again, like Al said, that may struggle with drug or alcohol issues and Al dealt with that.”

Aside from the personal stories, this is just an opportunity to hear some of the racing stories of one of the best and most exciting drivers behind the wheel of his generation.

But as Gurss and Unser Jr point out, this book has the potential to help people who have struggled with their personal lives.

For someone who has struggled with depression and even reportedly considered suicide, we can take solace in the fact that Al Jr is here today, and willing to commit some extremely uncomfortable moments in his life to paper with the aim of helping others.

Al Unser Jr: A Checkered Past is published by Octane Press and is available from October 1. It is available now for pre-order.

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