INDIANAPOLIS -- Al Unser Jr. woke up to a harsh reality this
week. His passion for racing was gone.
On Wednesday, Unser announced his retirement because he was no
longer having fun on the track, stepping away from a successful
career on his own terms.
"Racing has to come before everything else in your life," he
said. "I'd reached a point where helping my sons and daughters
means more to me today than driving into turn one."
Unser, 42, leaves open-wheel racing as one of its most
successful drivers. In more than 21 seasons, Unser won two
Indianapolis 500s, two CART championships and a combined 34 races
on the CART and Indy Racing League circuits.
His new career -- as an adviser for Patrick Racing, his team, and
a driving mentor for his son, Al -- begins this weekend at the
Argent Mortgage Indy 300 in Kansas City, Kan. Team owner U.E.
"Pat" Patrick has not yet named a replacement driver for Unser.
During a news conference at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the
red-headed, freckle-faced Unser, who burst onto the Indy scene in
1983 known as "Little Al," sat stoically as a highlight film
replayed some of his most cherished moments.
"You just know when it's time," he said afterward. "I never
had set a date, but you have to have a passion for it. I'm no
longer willing to maintain that level of sacrifice or desire."
The IRL has now lost two of its most prominent drivers in the
last 13 months. Michael Andretti retired in May 2003 at age 40.
This season was especially frustrating for Unser.
He worked for several months to find a ride after breaking his
pelvis last October when he was thrown from an all-terrain vehicle
in New Mexico. After months of rehabilitation, Unser finally signed
with Patrick Racing in March but missed the first three races of
the IRL season.
In three starts, Unser's best finish was 11th and, last weekend
at Richmond, he was the slowest qualifier in the field. Unser
finished 22nd in what turned out to be his final race. The next
day, he decided to leave.
"I give him all the credit in the world because too many guys
in the world are not ready to admit they're tired or whatever,"
said his father, Al Unser Sr. "He's proven he's the very best."
Unser, from Albuquerque, N.M., always felt the pressure of his
family's legacy. His father is one of three drivers to win four
Indy 500s and his uncle, Bobby, won the race three times.
The younger Unser won the closest-ever Indy 500, defeating Scott
Goodyear by 0.043 seconds in 1992. His other Indy victory came in
1994 when he started from the pole and beat Jacques Villeneuve by
"I've had a great career," Unser said. "It's been a
challenge, been hard to follow in the footsteps I've followed. But
I feel I upheld the Unser name quite well."
Junior's 21-year-old son, Al, won't get the same opportunity to
race against his father. He will make his Infiniti debut with Keith
Duesenberg's team this weekend in a 100-mile race in Kansas City with his father
The youngest Al Unser passed a rookie test earlier this year in
Kentucky and tested twice for Duesenberg before landing the ride,
which was also announced Wednesday.
Al Unser Jr.'s life away from the track has had its share of
He divorced his wife after 17 years and his daughter, Cody,
contracted a rare disease in 1999 that left her paralyzed from the
In 2002, Unser missed two races while staying at a treatment
center for alcohol abuse following his arrest in Indianapolis after
his girlfriend said he hit her in the face while drunk. Prosecutors
didn't file charges.
Goodyear said he noticed a difference in Unser last weekend.
"I was watching him in the driver's meeting and he seemed
preoccupied," Goodyear said. "That's when you know it's time to
step away from it. It's good he can get away from it without
On Sunday, Unser came to the same realization.
"It was time," he said. "Now I've closed one chapter in my
life and I'm opening a new one with my son, Al. Little Al now."