One of the greats exits gracefully

Updated: July 2, 2004, 8:12 PM ET
By John Oreovicz | Special to

The brief from IndyCar Series magazine was simple: Talk to Al Unser Jr. and assess how long he planned to keep driving before passing the torch to his son Al.

How tough could that be?

So we sat down in the back of the Patrick Racing hauler last Friday afternoon between sessions at Richmond International Raceway for a 25-minute one-on-one interview.

I tried to dance around the subject of Unser's retirement and so did he. But it must have been in his thoughts, because 48 hours later, Al had made up his mind to call it a career after 34 major open-wheel victories and two CART championships. Looking at the transcript of what was Unser's last in-depth interview as an active racing driver, the clues were there.

"I really don't have a set time or anything like that," he had said of retirement. "I love what I'm doing, and as long as we're competitive, we're enjoying it and we're going to keep doing it until something changes."

But Unser wasn't competitive at Richmond, just like he wasn't at Texas and Indianapolis. The Patrick Racing IRL effort came together late, and Unser and the team were never able to regain lost ground. That may have contributed to his change of heart.

Unser clearly understood and accepted that in the IRL's changed landscape, an underfunded single-car team has little chance of competing against the manufacturer-supported superteams.

"I really feel that the playing field has changed," he said. "You have to be 150 percent committed to this series and all the aspects of the series. Back in the '80s and the '90s the playing field was different. The cars were different. Here we are at Richmond and the fast guys are running around here wide open. So it's a different playing field than it was 10 years ago. But like I said as long as I'm enjoying it and having fun, I'll do it."

Even the prospect of racing in the future against his son Al wasn't enough to motivate Unser to continue. And thank goodness for that, because far too many racing drivers don't know when it's time to quit. It's refreshing when a driver is wise enough to get out of the car before he harms his reputation or himself.

Rick Mears is the classic example of a guy who knew when to say when, and interestingly enough, Unser said that Mears' retirement had a profound effect on him.

"That bothered me," Unser admitted. "That was the one that I couldn't figure out, because Rick was very competitive, he seemed to enjoy what he was doing, and he was still young. So when he retired, I had a lot of questions for Rick. He just point-blank said, 'I was ready to get out.'

"I said, 'Don't you have anything inside you that wants to get back in that car?' And he said, 'Al, that's it. There is no more to it. I was ready and I have no desire to drive another car, any kind of car on any day. I have no desire to do it.' When you're ready, you're ready, I guess."

Throughout his 20-year open-wheel career, Junior was always linked with Michael Andretti. Both from famous racing families, they achieved similar success, with Andretti winning more races (42 to Unser's 34) but only one championship. Unser also kept up his family's tradition by winning the Indianapolis 500 twice -- in 1992 and '94.

Al said he wasn't affected when his biggest rival stepped out of the cockpit in 2003 to become a team owner in the IndyCar Series. "I knew Michael's deal was coming for a few months before it actually came about. So I kind of thought about it and I knew he was ready so I wasn't surprised or anything."

Thirty-one of Unser's 34 open-wheel victories were achieved in the CART series, where he won championships in 1990 and '94. Only five current Champ Car drivers raced against Unser before he left CART for the IRL in 2000; but everybody holds him in high regard as one of the sport's greats.

"I have a lot of respect for his career," said Paul Tracy, who teamed with Unser at Penske Racing in 1994, '96 and '97. "As a race driver, he was one of the best I ever ran against, bottom line. On any type of track -- it didn't matter if it was a speedway, Indianapolis, road course, street course, short oval -- he was a factor everywhere. He wasn't one-dimensional or even two-dimensional -- and there are not a lot of people who can do that."

My own memories of Unser are of a skilled and combative racer. He was roundly booed by a raucous Long Beach crowd after he punted Mario Andretti out of the lead in 1989, but he became a fan favorite there after his six wins on the classic California street circuit. I recall showing up at Indianapolis for the final hour of practice before pole day in 1990 and being stunned by Unser's 228-mph lap when everyone else was running 225. And who can forget the year he qualified 19th at Milwaukee but took only 30 laps to thread his way into the lead.

It's always bittersweet when a true racing great like Al Unser Jr. retires because we are denied the continued opportunity to see a master in action. But it's a win/win situation for everyone when they're able to leave a dangerous sport with their health as well as their trophies and memories.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and