Unser, Al(fred), Jr.

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UNSER, Al(fred), Jr.

(b. 16 April 1962 in Albuquerque, New Mexico), race car driver who won the Indianapolis 500 for the second time in three years in 1994 and had thirty-one Championship Auto Racing Teams wins in eighteen years.

Unser was one of three children born to the racing legend Al Unser, Sr., and Wanda Unser, and became the third race car driver from the Unser family. His uncle Bobby won the Indianapolis 500 three times and his father won the Indianapolis 500 four times. Continuing the family tradition of winning automobile races and racing at the Indianapolis 500 was important to Unser, known as "Little Al," who began racing minibikes at the age of six and climbed into a go-cart at age nine. Even after his parents divorced in 1971, Unser still had his father by his side patiently pointing out the boy's racing mistakes. After honing his skills in the go-cart series for seven years, Unser began to look toward bigger and better racing opportunities.

Unser's professional racing career began with his entrance into the World of Outlaws series at age sixteen. Moving from a limited-horsepower go-cart to the 700-horsepower sprint car represented a massive step forward in Unser's racing career. While he was racing go-carts, Unser's age had not been much of an issue since most of the other drivers were about the same age. But his sixteen years sometimes betrayed him while racing the larger, more powerful sprint cars against drivers who were two and three times his age. In fact, Unser's small size was a challenge. At five feet, six inches tall and eighty-five pounds, Unser had to sit on two telephone books to see over the steering wheel. He used this opportunity to learn the ins and outs of racing wheel-to-wheel at top speed against other drivers who had the same dream of making it to the big time of Indianapolis.

Unser's path to success was not an easy one. Because racing was not a financial necessity for Unser, as it had been for his uncle and father, maintaining focus was a challenge for him. He had to make a commitment to becoming the best race-car driver possible. Once he made this commitment, Unser was well on his way to legendary status. After graduating from West Mesa High School in Albuquerque in 1980, Unser made steady progress in his career, from his 1981 Sports Car Club of America Rookie of the Year title to his 1983 record-setting win at Pikes Peak in Colorado, ensuring that the Unser family tradition of winning would continue. Unser married his wife, Shelley, in April 1981; they eventually had four children, including "Mini Al," a go-cart racer. The couple divorced in November 1998.

As a rookie driver in the Indianapolis 500 in 1983, the twenty-one-year-old Unser became the youngest driver to pass the 200-mile-per-hour barrier en route to a tenth-place finish. The next year Unser won his first Indy-car race at Oregon's Portland International Raceway. In 1990 he tied the single-season record after winning six Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) races in a single season, and he set the record for consecutive wins at four by winning at Toronto, Michigan, Denver, and Vancouver. He finally tasted victory at Indianapolis with a .043-second victory (the closest finish in Indianapolis history) in 1992.

The 1994 racing season was a banner year for Unser. He had a score to settle with his teammate Emerson Fittipaldi, who had caused him to crash into the wall on lap 198 of 200 during the 1989 Indianapolis 500. On lap 185 of the 1994 Indianapolis 500 it appeared that Unser would once again lose the biggest race of the season to Fittipaldi, who had a 40-second lead—almost one full lap. Knowing that he had to make a fuel stop, Fittipaldi closed in on Unser to put him one lap down. Fittipaldi's car got caught in the turbulent air created by Unser's car and, as the two drivers entered turn four, Fittipaldi drove his car onto the apron of the track and lost control. His car disintegrated into a fiery mess as it crashed into the outside wall. Unser went on to win the race, his second at Indianapolis and the Unser family's eighth. Unser presented his winner's trophy to Unser, Sr., to commemorate his father's fiftieth birthday and retirement from driving.

Unser's win in the 1994 Indianapolis 500 was only one of his eight victories out of sixteen races that season. He also claimed four pole positions, the number-one starting position in the race. His success during the 1994 season made way for his second season championship. He was named the ABC Wide World of Sports Athlete of the Year, was given ESPN's ESPY Award for Auto Racing Performer of the Year, and was determined by the national media panel to be the driver of the year.

In June 1994 the governing body U.S. Auto Club (USAC) changed the racing rules, negatively affecting Unser's team along with many others. This caused a rift and the teams split into two factions, CART and the newly formed Indy Racing League (IRL). Because of this split, the teams that raced with CART would not race at the Indianapolis raceway starting in the 1996 season. It appeared that the Unser-Indianapolis tradition would come to an end. In 1999, after his contract with the Penske team expired, Unser signed a five-year contract with the Galles team of the IRL. He returned to Indianapolis during the 2000 season, starting in eighteenth position and finishing twenty-ninth due to an overheating engine.

Unser's popularity came only in part from his success on the racetrack. It also stemmed from the Unser family tradition, which provided fans with a connection to the past. Even with his many racing successes, Unser retained his image as a good, down-to-earth person.

For a history of the Unser family see Karen Bentley, The Unsers (1996). Brief biographies are in Patericia Pate Havlice, Biography Index (1990), and Coral Amende, Legends in Their Own Time (1994). Steve Herman "Al Unser Jr. Joins IRL and Will Drive for Galles Racing," Detroit News (1999), documents the split of CART from the IRL and Unser's return to the IRL.

Jeromy Runion