Pedley: Thanks And Best Of Luck, Little Al
By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
The story of the guy who may very well have been the best-ever American race car driver took another disappointing turn last week.
Al Unser Jr., it was reported, was in trouble again with the law and with alcohol. Seems he was caught while allegedly drag racing in his SUV near his home in New Mexico and then may have blown a big number on the alky-meter.
I guess standard operating procedure at this point would be to roll out an scolding opinion column. One that takes Unser to task for putting his life, and other lives, in danger. One that serves as sermon for the evils of booze. One, the theme of which is pity with a big socko ending of “what a waste of talent”.
Nope. Can’t do it.
Despite all the problems Unser has had, and, yes, made for himself, over the last couple of decades, I still respect him as a driver, a person and a warm part of my own personal history.
First meeting: It was the early ’80s in, ironically, the parking lot of the Coors brewery in Golden, Colo. Little Al was little for a fact. One of those kids whom racing wags had been watching for years because his obvious talents had gone on full display in karts and sprint cars and feeder formulas – and yes, because his father and uncle were Indy 500 winners – Unser had signed with Rick Galles’ CART team and would drive that beautiful Silver Bullet machine even though he looked and acted way to young to be taking on Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt.
Working at a Colorado daily newspaper at the time, I was invited down to interview Unser and also race a kart against him on a hay bale-line track which was laid out in the brewery lot. What a smile and what an attitude: Sparks jumped from the kid as he talked and made the rounds.
I deferred on the kart race, but my racing-obsessed friend Frank, who had come along, could not resist. Hell of a driver that Frank. As he he came through the hay baless, his head was cocked to the side, jaw set and he was muscling away at the wheel of that putt-putting kart like it was trying to take away his milk money. Right behind him was Little Al, waving to brewery workers, smiling and laughing, shouting to fans, mugging for flashing instamatic cameras and hanging out the tail of that kart for purposes of show only.
Frank insists to this day he won the at race and while he may have crossed the finish line first, it was not a fully focused Al Unser Jr. he beat.
But don’t feel bad, Frank. Few people in the ’80s and ’90s could beat a fully focused Al Unser Jr. He would win over 30 major open-wheel races. He twice won the Indianapolis 500. He was nothing less than an incredible open-wheel driver. I believe, still, that he could have been an F1 star had he really wanted to.
But he was not just an open-wheel driver.
Unser showed his versatility as a driver when he competed in the International Race of Champions series back when that series was exactly what the name boasted. He won the series twice in the 1980s – beating Formula 1, drivers, Le Mans winners and such stock car big boys like Dale Earnhardt Sr., Terry Labonte and Bill Elliott in Camaros more akin to their driving style’s than Little Al’s.
In 1993, he was put in a Sprint Cup car by Rick Hendrick for the Daytona 500 and, bang, he was good. Right away. He ran near the front until he was involved in a late-race wreck with Kyle Petty. Unser never got back into a Cup car.
Another meeting: Pikes Peak International Raceway was/is a track which I always thought was loaded
with character. It was just over a mile and reminded me a bit of Phoenix International Raceway. The IRL was there in 2002 and so was Little Al. He was driving for Tom Kelley’s old team.
Practice was done for the day, writing was done for the day. The sun was diving below the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, which began just a couple hundred yards to the west of PPIR. Leaving the media center at the eerily empty track, I saw Little Al in street clothes leaning against a mini van and having a cigarette.
I went over to BS. “Let’s go for a ride,” he said. Um, OK.
Out onto the track we went in the mini van. The engine in that brick-shaped delivery vehicle was soon screaming. I wanted to join it. Left arm out the open window, right hand clutching another Marlboro and a concrete wall threatening to tear the passenger-side mirror off, Unser drove. As he drove, he talked. As he drove, he honked the horn and yelled against the whistling wind out the wind at people whom he knew in the infield. As he drove he waved off corner workers who were waving him off the track.
It was all a bit unnerving even though I was very used to high speed driving both on and off of race tracks. For Little Al, it was proof he was still little.
Another memorable meeting: This will be a short anecdote as it was not pleasant. It was Unser’s first 500 after he had been arrested in Indy for a very embarrassing incident involving a girl friend, a night spot and, yes, alcohol.
Colleague Ed Hinton and I knew the story had to be done. We stuck our heads in his garage stall near gasoline ally and he waved us in. He held nothing back as he talked about handcuffs and finger printings and snide comments from jailers. He used the term “rock bottom” repeatedly. Despite what many people think, no journalist enjoys those kinds of interviews or stories and no, that was not a pleasant meeting. Little Al was looking a lot older that day.
Last meeting: It was a windy day at Kansas Speedway, as many days are at that place. Kind of cold, too. It was two years ago and a young IRL driver was there being put through rookie paces on the empty track so he could compete at the 500 in May of that year.
I do not remember who the driver was but I do remember who was there for the league to put the driver through those paces. Al Unser Jr. was sitting next to pit road – this time in an SUV but again with a cigarette in his hands.
And again, during a break, he invited me in to talk – though this time with engine off and the van stationary. He looked and sounded great. He looked and sounded like Little Al.
The talk was all about racing and I left feeling darn good about the driver whom I will tell anybody who will listen, that I think may have potentially been the most talented American race car driver I had ever seen.
I refuse to let last week’s news about another incident, and the subsequent decision by INDY car to suspend him from duties in the competition department, lift me onto a soap box.
It just causes me to remember better days and wish the best for Little Al Unser.
– Jim Pedley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments