Unser, Al (1939—)

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Unser, Al (1939—)

Al Unser, Sr., one of the foremost names in the sport of auto racing, is known primarily for his remarkable success at the Indianapolis 500. He is the second of three generations of racecar drivers, and it is arguable that no other family has left such an indelible mark on a sport as the Unser family has done on auto racing. Al's uncle, Louie Unser, attempted qualification at the Indianapolis 500 in 1940; his brother Jerry was national stock car champion in 1956 but was killed in 1959 while on a practice lap at Indianapolis. The two surviving brothers, Al and Bobby Unser, went on to win a total of seven Indianapolis 500 races, while Al's son, Al Unser, Jr., is successful in his own right, having twice won at Indianapolis by the late 1990s. Johnny Unser (Jerry's son) and Robby Unser (Bobby's son) are also third generation drivers at Indianapolis.

Al Unser, Sr. was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on May 29, 1939. At age 18 he began competitive auto racing with modified roadsters before progressing to Midgets, Sprints, Stock Cars, Sports Cars, Formula 5000, Championship Dirt Cars, and Indy Cars. His dominance in the sport is seen in the fact that he placed third in the national standings in 1968, second in 1969, 1977, and 1978, first in 1970, and fourth in 1976. He is one of the few drivers who can boast of a career that spans five decades.

Most drivers of Unser's generation are, however, judged by their success at Indianapolis, where Unser ranks first in points earned and second in miles driven and total money won. He is tied for second in a total number of 500 starts and is ranked fourth in money earned leading the race. Although A. J. Foyt was the first driver to win four times at Indianapolis, Unser matched that feat in 1987, with Rick Mears the only other driver to do so subsequently. In 1988, Unser surpassed the long-standing record for the most laps led during a career at the 500, having achieved a staggering laps total of 644.

In addition to winning Indianapolis four times (1970, 1971, 1978, and 1987), Unser won the Pocono 500 and the Ontario 500 twice each. When he won at Indianapolis, Pocono, and Ontario all in the same year (1978) he achieved the unique distinction of sweeping this "Triple Crown" of Indy car racing. The 1970 season was perhaps his most remarkable of all, with 10 wins on ovals, road courses, and dirt tracts to capture the national championship. Al Unser also won the prestigious "Hoosier Hundred" four years in a row, making him a dirt-car champion, and had his share in the Unser family dominance of the Pikes Peak Hill Climb, taking back-to-back victories in 1964 and 1965.

Even as Unser approached the end of his career, he was still able to win two more national championships, in 1983 and in 1985. His main competitor in 1985 was his own son, who lost to his father by only one point. Thus, at the age of 46, Al Unser enjoyed the distinction of becoming the oldest Indy Car champion.

Al Unser, Sr., an avid snowmobile enthusiast, retired to his home in New Mexico. Thanks to the particular popularity of Unser and his family within a sport of generally popular practitioners, everything from diecast racecars to CD-ROM computer games have been marketed with the Unser name.

—James H. Lloyd

Further Reading:

"Al Unser." In "Motor Sports Hall of Fame." http://www.mshf.com/hof/unsera.htm. April 1999.

Bentley, Karen. The Unsers. Broomall, Pennsylvania, Chelsea House, 1996.

Dregni, Michael. The Indianapolis 500. Minneapolis, Capstone Press, 1994.

Walker, Mark H. Official ABC Sports Indy Racing: Road to the Indianapolis 500 Official Strategies and Secrets. San Francisco, Sybex, 1998.