Winning came naturally for Al Unser, Jr. He had a gift for finding the fast line on the track and he possessed a boisterous and lovable personality. Fans and the press adored him, but behind this affable persona, his appetite for drugs and alcohol was destroying his private life. Unser's battle to climb out of that cave is one of the great stories in motorsports. A Checkered Past is an unblinking story of triumph, tragedy, and the road to recovery. In this excerpt from the book, catch a glimpse of what it means to win the Indy 500.
It was the final corner of the final lap of the 1992 Indy 500. I was leading, but I saw the big run that Scott Goodyear, who was in second place, had on me. It was a drag race to the finish line and one of us was going to win our first 500.
The only thing I could do was make my car as wide as possible. I moved to the middle of the track, then swerved back and forth quickly to try to confuse him about whether I was going to go low or high. I saw him disappear from behind me. He had gone to the inside, and I had to give him the spot. I couldn’t block him because he was so much faster at that moment. If I tried to go one more step to my left, it was going to be a huge wreck and disastrous for both of us. I eased it to the right as he came alongside . . . then we hit the yard of bricks.
I had won the Indianapolis 500!
The margin of victory was .043 of a second, still the closest ever in the 500. Had the race been one more lap, or even one more corner, he would have passed me.
It was overwhelming. Every part of me had been pumping at the maximum for six laps. I was breathing really hard. “We did it!” I raised my fist in the air.
As I made it through Turn One, it all came flooding in. All the years of dreaming about the 500. So many different emotions. Tears. All the pain and the joy of my life came crashing in. The sacrifice. The gratification. Everything rushed into my consciousness.
It was pure joy. Pure complete joy. I pulled down the pit road toward Victory Lane and I could see the team. They were jubilant—jumping into each other’s arms and waving at me. The emotions inside of me were boiling. A life-long dream had come true. I had put everything into winning the 500, and to finally win it on my tenth try . . . Wow!
You never know what God has in store. We didn’t give up. We fought hard.
I was inundated with crew guys shaking my hand and slapping me on the helmet and my chest. I was trying to undo the seat belts and my helmet when I saw my wife, Shelley. Here we were being lifted into the winner’s circle. They put the Borg-Warner trophy on the engine cover behind me. It was overwhelming. To talk about it now is still very emotional.
It was difficult to speak. As soon as the helmet was off, ABC-TV’s Jack Arute was trying to ask me how the race was, and I didn’t have anything coherent to say. I think I said, “Thank you,” and then my team owner, Rick Galles, got me in a big bear hug. I said, “I took it too easy in Turn Four and Scott got a run on me,” as they were handing me the traditional bottle of milk. It was chaos in my brain and all around me. Arute asked me another question, as I finally realized there was a huge crowd of fans, more than 250,000 people, and I began to wave to them. My kids Al, Cody, and Shannon were there!
“You just don’t know what Indy means,” I said tearfully to a worldwide TV audience.