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Little Al's father knows best

2/29/2004

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Al Unser can't remember the last time a member of his family didn't have a full-time IndyCar ride entering a new season. The open-wheel legend drove the final decade of his career without a full-time ride, but the Unser name still had a full-time presence in the sport thanks to his son Al Jr., who by then was well on the way to being a star in his own right.

"Had to have been sometime in the early '60s," mused 'Albuquerque Al,' who won four Indianapolis 500s and three open-wheel National Championships between 1965 and 1994.

That streak will end Sunday when the IRL IndyCar Series field takes the green flag for the Toyota Indy 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Unser Jr., an IRL mainstay since 2001, finds himself on the sideline at Miami and scrambling to find a ride at Indianapolis in May, four races into the season.

It's a scenario Al Sr. can relate to. In 1987, he parlayed an opportunity to substitute at Penske Racing into his historic fourth Indy win. He continued to compete at Indy on an annual basis through 1994, finishing third in 1992.

It's no surprise that the father who drove until age 54 believes that his 41-year-old namesake still has some methanol left in the tank. And he thinks Al Jr. is going about things the right way by being patient and waiting for the right deal to materialize rather than jumping at the first opportunity to get on track.

"It's one of those deals where Al thought he had things put together and it didn't happen," Unser said. "That can happen anytime to anybody. But once you've been with a team that produces 100 percent, you don't want to compromise. Once you learn how to win and know what it takes to win, then it's hard to back up.

"I had offers," he said of his own plight years ago. "I could have run with quite a few different people but I elected not to. It was my choice."

With dwindling fields in every form of motorsport, Unser knows that it's simple economics keeping his son out of a seat. Al Jr. suffered a similar financial predicament prior to the 2002 season before gasket maker Corteco stepped in to back his Kelley Racing entry for the past two years. This time around, the magic sponsor hasn't materialized.

"The car owners today require $3 million dollars to open the door," Unser Sr. said. "It's always been expensive, but $500,000 in my day has turned into $3 million.

"The difference is that some of the car owners have learned well that if they hold out, somebody will come along with $3 million. But does Roger Penske or Chip Ganassi hold out? No. They hire a driver and pay him to do his job. That's what the front-running teams do, but the rest seem to hold out for the money rather than the talent. It's always been like that, but more so now than it was."

"Big Al" believes his son has responded well to the personal challenges in his life over the past few years, including a divorce from his wife, Shelley, and a stint in alcohol rehabilitation in mid-2002. In addition, Al Jr.'s daughter Cody was stricken in 1999 with transverse myelitis, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down.

Junior's on-track performance was on the upswing in 2003, with a win at Texas Motor Speedway and a sixth-place finish in the IRL standings. His dad says that's a sign he's still hungry.

"His skills haven't diminished," Al Sr. said. "I think he still wants to race and still wants to win. If you watched him last year, when the flag dropped, he went forward. When you're doing that you still have the desire."

Bobby Rahal was Unser Jr.'s teammate at Galles-Kraco Racing in 1990 and '91, and the two often fought hard on the racetrack in the heyday of CART. Now a team owner in Champ Cars and IndyCars, Rahal doesn't have a ride to offer his former rival, but he doesn't think Junior's driving days are done.

"I think Al has a lot left to offer," said Rahal, who retired in 1998 at age 45. "Just because a guy turns 40 doesn't mean he's old. The guy won a race last year and he finished right up there in the championship. He's still very competitive."

For his part, Unser Sr. said that he definitely knew when it was time to quit.

"In 1994 when I retired, it was time," he said. "I didn't have that total desire of 100 percent to go after it. You know that within yourself because once you've had it, you know what it takes. I know that all of a sudden I really didn't care. I knew it was time to quit. And once I realized that, I didn't back down."

John Oreovicz is a freelance motorsports writer living in Indianapolis.