“I felt more isolated and alone than at any other time in my life,” Al Unser Jr wrote in his autobiography, A checkered past†
“The choice was stark: the bottle or the gun? I chose the gun. My fiftieth birthday seemed like a good time to end it.
“After putting the gun to my head, I couldn’t pull the trigger. I slowly put it back down.”
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At first glance, Unser Jr had it all. But as the passage above confirms, the two-time winner of the Indy 500twice Champion IndyCar Seriesand member of one of America’s most famous racing dynasties fought more than its opponents during his storied career.
What only came to light in the latter stages of his racing time was the drug addiction and alcoholism. His life, so perfect for his legion of fans, unraveled to such an extent that suicide seemed the only way out.
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Speaking to Wide World of Sports about the downward spiral that unfolded during his 30s and 40s, Unser Jr laughed when it was suggested that the past 10 years were like a second chance to him.
‘Are you kidding me? I got the third and fourth chance,” he said.
As he related in the book, Unser Jr had reached a point where he felt he just couldn’t go on.
“I was shrouded in a darkness that doesn’t happen overnight,” he wrote.
“It was a long journey from the top of the highest mountain to the lowest trench in the ocean. The weight of each failure was crushing.
“When did I become a drug addict and an alcoholic? I don’t know. There’s no easy test to confirm you’re an addict. I’ve fallen out of favor long and slowly.”
The IndyCar Star
Unser Jr was a full-fledged star in the American racing world in the mid-1980s. He came from racing royalty – his father, Al Unser, became the second man ever to win the Indy 500 four times, while his uncle, Bobby, won the race three times.
Little Al, as he was known, was second in the 1985 IndyCar championship, beaten by none other than his father by one point.
He finished second again in 1988, before breaking through to claim the title in 1990. He added another championship in 1994, the same year he won the Indy 500 for the second time, having taken his first win two years earlier. achieved.
“I feel really blessed to have been able to achieve what I have achieved,” he said.
“There are so many people who don’t even qualify for the Indy 500, let alone win twice.
“My career as a successful IndyCar driver, I have enjoyed it a lot. My life has been a real blessing.”
But as he admits in the book, there were two Al Unser Juniors during these good times. The world saw the successful racing driver at the top of his game and won one of the world’s most prestigious races.
However, his private life was already unraveling.
“My personal life was a struggle. Too many parties, too often. Too many women. I was weak as a father,” he wrote.
“The driver was great. Strong. Confident. So satisfied. But the personal Al Jr was not strong at all.”
All-night drug addictions at home with his then-wife Shelley were not uncommon, fueled by cocaine and marijuana. Unser Jr complained that, unlike today where drug testing is common, there was little or no impact on his driving career.
But he wouldn’t be drawn if asked how many titles he could have won had he stayed clean.
“If I had my life in order, who knows? There were races I won that I shouldn’t have, and there were races I lost that I should have won,” he acknowledged.
“So, I don’t know. Honestly, it’s been a blessing to have the career I’ve had.”
Falling from grace
It was a huge shock, described by Unser Jr as “the biggest shame I’ve felt in my life.”
When Unser Jr and Shelley returned to Albuquerque, “they got right into our drugs.”
“I had to numb myself into oblivion.”
Being home when he should have been at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway “put me in a mental spin. I got dizzy and almost collapsed. This was the first time I felt a real, deep depression.”
Looking back with the benefit of nearly three decades of hindsight, Little Al points to that race as the catalyst for the disasters that would follow.
“That was a huge pain. No matter what we did, we couldn’t go fast enough,” he explained.
“It was a huge, huge setback and a huge amount of adversity.
“But looking back now, that was the way God intended.”
Hit the bottom
By the end of 1996, Unser Jr had finished in the top five of the IndyCar championship 11 times in the past 12 seasons.
But as his life spiraled out of control, so did his racing career. He broke up with Shelley, and despite being a full-time IndyCar driver until 2003, the best he could do was finish sixth in his senior year.
He was fired by Penske in late 1999, a season that ended in tragedy. Unser Jr’s teammate, Gonzalo Rodriguez, was killed in an accident at Laguna Seca in September, while the following month Greg Moore, who was due to join Penske in 2000, died after a horrific crash at the final race of the year in California.
Unser Jr’s career was watered down in a way not befitting his status in the sport. In 2002, he was arrested and charged with domestic violence after an altercation with his then-girlfriend Gina after a night out in Indianapolis.
It prompted ESPN.com to publish a story that finally made his drug and alcohol use public.
“Nothing would ever be the same,” Unser Jr. wrote.
“It was a complete downfall of my career. It was devastating. I was so angry, I wanted to sue (journalist) Robin Miller into oblivion.
“But I couldn’t charge him because everything in the story was true.”
He continued to race and even won Texas in 2003, but in 2007 it was all over. His final race was a disappointing 26th place in the Indy 500, five laps behind the winner.
During a stint in rehab in early 2012, Unser Jr told a psychiatrist that he was going to commit suicide, which led to him putting a gun to his head on his 50th birthday.
“The reality of pulling the trigger overwhelmed me,” wrote Unser Jr, pledging to commit suicide the next morning. The next day the urge to fire the gun had abated. It was a cycle that repeated itself for several weeks, on what he called an “endless loop.”
“2012 was without a doubt the worst year of my life,” he told Wide World of Sports.
“But it was something I had to go through, and I did. Slowly things improved, step by step.”
“Now I’m with a fantastic race team, they’ve given me a huge responsibility to help the young kids take their first step out of the go-karts.
“It is an opportunity for me to pass on what has been given to me by my father and my uncle.
“It’s really something when you suggest a young driver to try something and they come back with a big smile on their face because it helped them.”
That opportunity to work with young drivers came through Future Star Racing, which supports young drivers who don’t have the resources to make it on their own.
Unser Jr says he can pass any drug test these days, while working to rebuild his self-esteem and self-esteem.
The book, he says, is one way to do that.
“We did it during COVID-19 and I had never written anything about my career before so I thought it was time to write the story down,” he explained.
“I wanted to tell the truth about my personal life. I prayed a lot about it and I feel good about it.
“By telling my story about my private life, it will hopefully help someone with an addiction disorder get help.
“The truth about my personal life puts my racing career into context.
“There was a lot of pain and finding Jesus was a big step. Meeting Norma, who is now my wife, was important. There were many small steps instead of one big leap.”
Unser Jr just turned 60 and can finally look forward to the future.
“Mentally I’m so much better than when I was younger. I was so selfish then,” he admits.
“Today I really appreciate the friends and family I have around me.
“I’m absolutely proud to have come out of it. Without the trials and tribulations of my life, I wouldn’t be who I am today.”
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