“I felt more isolated and alone than at any other time in my life,” Al Unser Jr wrote in his autobiography, A turbulent past.
“The choice was difficult: the bottle or the gun? I chose the gun. My fiftieth birthday seemed like the right time to end it.
“After putting the gun to my temple, I couldn’t pull the trigger. I slowly put it down.”
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On the surface, Unser Jr had it all. But as the passage above confirms, the two-time Indy 500 winner, two-time IndyCar Series champion and member of one of America’s most famous racing dynasties has fought more than his opponents at during his rich career.
What was not revealed until the latter stages of his racing journey was drug addiction and alcoholism. Her life, so perfect for her legion of fans, unfolded to the point where suicide seemed the only way out.
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Speaking to Wide World of Sports about the downward spiral that unfolded through his 30s and 40s, Unser Jr laughed when it was suggested the last 10 years had been like a second chance for him.
“Are you kidding me? I had a third and a fourth chance,” he said.
As he recounted in the book, Unser Jr had reached a point where he felt he just couldn’t go on.
“I was covered 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 pit in the ocean. The weight of each failure was crushing.
“When did I become a drug and alcohol addict? I don’t know. There is no simple test to confirm that you are a drug addict. I had a long, slow fall from grace.”
The IndyCar star
Unser Jr was a star in his own right on the American racing scene in the mid-1980s. He came from racing royalty – his father, Al Unser, became the second man to win the Indy 500 four times, while that his uncle, Bobby, won the race three times.
Little Al, as he was known, was a runner-up in the 1985 IndyCar Championship, beaten by none other than his father by a single point.
He finished second again in 1988, before breaking through to win the title in 1990. He added another championship in 1994, the same year he won the Indy 500 for the second time, after earning his first victory two years before.
“I feel truly 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 it twice.
“My career as a successful IndyCar driver, I had a lot of fun doing it. My life has been a real blessing.”
But as he confesses in the book, there were two Al Unser Juniors during those good times. The world has seen the successful racing driver at the top of his game, winning one of the most prestigious races in the world.
His private life, however, was already unraveling.
“My personal life has been a struggle. Too many parties, too often. Too many women. I was weak as a father,” he wrote.
“The race car driver was awesome. Strong. Confident. So fulfilled. But the Al Jr staff wasn’t strong at all.”
All-night drug binges at home with his then-wife, Shelley, were not uncommon, fueled by cocaine and marijuana. Unser Jr lamented that, unlike today where drug testing is common, there were little to no consequences for his driving career.
But he would not be drawn when asked how many titles he could have won if he had stayed clean.
“If I had my life in order, who knows? There are races I won that I shouldn’t have had, and there are races I lost that I should have won. “, he acknowledged.
“So, I don’t know. Honestly, just having had the career that I did was a blessing.”
fall out of favor
That career hit a snag in 1995. Driving for the all-conquering Penske team, Unser Jr and his teammate, Emerson Fittipaldi, failed to qualify for the Indy 500.
It was a huge shock, described by Unser Jr as “the greatest shame I have felt in my life”.
Upon returning home to Albuquerque, Unser Jr and Shelley “got into our dope right away.”
“I needed to numb myself into oblivion.”
Being home when it should have been at Indianapolis Motor Speedway” made my head spin. I felt dizzy and almost collapsed. It was the first time I felt a real and deep depression.”
Looking back with the benefit of nearly three decades of hindsight, Little Al identifies this race as the catalyst for the disasters that would follow.
“It 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 it to be.”
By the end of 1996, Unser Jr had finished in the top five of the IndyCar Championship 11 times over the past 12 seasons.
But as his life spiraled out of control, so did his racing career. He parted ways with Shelley, and although he continued as a full-time IndyCar driver until 2003, the best he could do was sixth in his senior year.
He was fired by Penske at the end of 1999, a season that ended in tragedy. Unser Jr’s teammate Gonzalo Rodriguez was killed in a crash at Laguna Seca in September, while the following month Greg Moore, who was to join Penske in 2000, died after a horrific crash in the final race of the year in California.
Unser Jr’s career ended in a way that doesn’t befit his status in the sport. In 2002, he was arrested and charged with domestic violence, after an altercation with his then-girlfriend, Gina, following a night out in Indianapolis.
This prompted ESPN.com to run a story that eventually went public with his drug and alcohol use.
“Nothing would ever be the same again,” Unser Jr wrote.
“It was a complete dismantling of my career. It was devastating. I was so angry that I wanted to sue (journalist) Robin Miller into oblivion.
“But I couldn’t pursue it because everything in the story was true.”
He kept racing, even winning in Texas in 2003, but by 2007 it was all over. His last race was a disappointing 26th place at the Indy 500, five laps behind the winner.
During a stint in rehab in early 2012, Unser Jr told a psychiatrist he was going to kill himself, which led to him putting a gun to his head on his 50th birthday. .
“The reality of pulling the trigger overwhelmed me,” Unser Jr wrote, vowing to take his own life the next morning. The next day, the urge to fire the gun had diminished. It was a cycle that repeated itself for several weeks, on what he called an “endless loop”.
“Without a doubt, 2012 was the worst year of my life,” he told Wide World of Sports.
“But it was something I had to go through, and I did. Things slowly got better, one step at a time.”
“Now I am part of a fantastic racing team, they have given me the huge responsibility of helping young children take their first steps in karting.
“It’s a chance for me to pass on what was given to me by my father and my uncle.
“It’s really something when you suggest a young driver try something and then they come back with a huge smile on their face because it helped them.”
This opportunity to work with young drivers came from Future Star Racing, which supports young drivers who don’t have the resources to succeed on their own.
Unser Jr says that these days he can pass any drug test he takes as he works to rebuild his self-esteem and self worth.
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, so I just thought it was time to tell the story,” 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 sharing my story about my private life, I hope it will help someone with a substance abuse 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 a lot of small steps along the way, rather than one big leap.”
Barely 60 years old, Unser Jr can finally look to the future.
“Mentally, I’m so much better than when I was younger. I was so selfish back then,” he concedes.
“Today I really appreciate the friends and family I have around me.
“I’m definitely proud to have come out of it. Without the trials and tribulations of my life, I wouldn’t be who I am today.”
If you or someone you know needs immediate assistance, contact safety rope 13 11 14, Suicide Reminder Service 1300 659 467 or beyond the blue 1300 22 4636. In case of emergency, call 000.
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