Racing Legend Al Unser Let His Talent Do the Talking

·6 min read
Photo credit: Bettmann - Getty Images
Photo credit: Bettmann - Getty Images

He was known by many names, among them Al Sr., Big Al, or just simply, Al.

But he also was known by several other words and phrases including legendary, gentleman, iconic, prolific winner, and most importantly, champion.

Alfred “Al” Unser Sr., who became the second driver to win the Indianapolis 500 four times, passed away late Thursday night at his home in Chama, New Mexico at the age of 82, following a nearly two-decade battle with cancer.

Photo credit: Bettmann - Getty Images
Photo credit: Bettmann - Getty Images

His death came just over seven months after the passing at the age of 87 of older brother and three-time Indy 500 winner, Bobby, and just under seven months following Helio Castroneves’ fourth win in the 500 at Indianapolis, tying him with Unser, A.J. Foyt and Rick Mears.

While considered shy by some, the soft-spoken youngest of the four Unser racing brothers was also one of the greatest drivers in Indy car racing.

“We have lost a true racing legend and a champion on and off the track,” Team Penske owner and Indianapolis Motor Speedway chairman Roger Penske said in a statement. “Al was the quiet leader of the Unser family, a tremendous competitor and one of the greatest drivers to ever race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“From carrying on his family’s winning tradition at Pikes Peak to racing in NASCAR, sports cars, earning championships in IndyCar and IROC and, of course, becoming just the second driver to win the Indianapolis 500 four times, Al had an amazing career that spanned nearly 30 years. He produced two championships and three wins for our race team, including his memorable victory in the 1987 Indy 500 when he famously qualified and won with a car that was on display in a hotel lobby just a few days before.

“We were honored to help Al earn a place in history with his fourth Indy victory that day, and he will always be a big part of our Team. Our thoughts are with the Unser family as they mourn the loss of a man that was beloved across the racing world and beyond.”

Unser was a blue collar man’s hero, a dutiful worker bee who said little, letting his natural talent and voracious hunger to win and succeed do much of his talking for him. Brother Bobby once called his younger sibling, “the most vicious race driver for winning that I ever saw, if things were right.”

Like his other three brothers, Al Unser learned about racing from their father, Jerry, as well as Jerry’s brothers Louis and Joe. Winning was something that came naturally – and often – for Al from the time he entered his first kart race at the age of 9.

He would go on to earn 39 wins in USAC and CART open-wheel competition. He also won the 1970 (USAC), and 1983 and 1985 CART championships.

All told, the Unser family was Indianapolis royalty. Al and three-time 500 winner Bobby were the first brother combination to win the world’s biggest race, and along with Al’s son Al Jr., the family went on to win nine Indianapolis 500s.

“In the 112 years of racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Al Unser’s career stands out among the others,” IMS president J. Doug Boles said in a statement. “His four Indianapolis 500 wins and most laps led in the ‘500’ (644) solidify him as one of the greatest of all time. Al achieved his successes competing against many of the best our sport has ever seen, which makes his accomplishments even more impressive.

“In addition, his quiet and humble approach outside of the car, combined with his fierce competitive spirit and fearless talent behind the wheel, made Al a fan favorite. He will be remembered as one of the best to ever race at Indianapolis, and we will all miss his smile, sense of humor and his warm, approachable personality. Our thoughts and prayers are with Susan Unser, the entire Unser family and all Al’s friends and fans.”

Born on May 29, 1939, a day that numerous Indy 500s have been contested on, Al Unser fittingly came to Indianapolis in 1965 for the first time, finishing ninth in his rookie debut. He would go on to win the Greatest Spectacle In Racing four times, including back-to-back wins in 1970 and 1971, 1978 and finally for a fourth time in 1987 at the age of 47, the oldest driver to date to win the world’s most renowned oval race.

That final win was arguably the greatest of his four wins at the Brickyard. Just two years after winning his last CART championship, Unser came to Indianapolis without a ride.

But when Danny Ongais crashed during practice earlier in the month, Unser rejoined his former mates at Team Penske and took a car that had been on display at a shopping center just days earlier, and captured the checkered flag for the fourth time – and with older brother Bobby on the broadcast team that day.

“To win that race that day, under the conditions I came here in the month of May, it was a storybook race,” Unser once said. “It just shows when Lady Luck is on your side, or the Good Lord is with you upstairs, you’re going to put it together. And with the team I had and all the people around me, there I was.”

Unser would race until he was 55 before retiring to his native New Mexico, where he ran the Unser Racing Museum in Albuquerque.

But tragedy was also a significant part of Unser’s life. Brother Joe was killed in a testing accident in 1929, fellow brother Joe was killed in a crash at Indianapolis during a practice session in 1959. Al lost his two daughters, Mary and Deborah, to death. Deborah was killed at the age of 21 in 1982, while Mary passed away in 2009 at the age of 49.

Al Unser is survived by second wife of 44 years, Susan, and his only son, Al Jr.

Accolades from around the racing world mourned Unser’s passing, including two of his greatest rivals but also closest friends, Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt.

“Al Unser, very polished, one of smartest race drivers as far as race craft that I’ve ever known,” Andretti said.

Foyt added, “(Al was) a great race driver that was never recognized for his ability, as good as he was.”

But perhaps the most fitting and touching tribute to Unser came from his only son, Al Jr. – affectionately known as “Little Al” to his father’s “Big Al” nickname: “Al Unser is my biggest hero and I love my dad.”

Follow Autoweek contributor Al Unser Jr. on Twitter @JerryBonkowski