A Checkered Past: Childhood Dreams

post by
Al Unser Jr.
Media Name: image0_2.jpg

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 Al Unser Jr.'s first IndyCar championship.

What if you achieved something you wanted all your life, but you secure it while in a hospital bed? In 1990, I made a serious bid for my first IndyCar championship.

We reached the race at Nazareth, Pennsylvania, and I could clinch the title. Even if Michael Andretti, my closest rival for the championship, won again, we would clinch the title with a decent finish. I was being super careful during the race, but I got into an accident with Arie Luyendyk on lap 109. I was passing him and felt him come down on me. I backed into the wall in Turn Three. The g-forces were beyond description. I took my hands off of the steering wheel, crossed them against my chest, but the hit was hard, and my hands whipped out violently on impact. The medical crew taking me out of the car thought I had a concussion.

I want to put this out there right now: I don’t like going to the hospital, OK? Especially with head injuries. I had gotten pretty good at answering the usual questions after a crash. I was in the medical trailer, answering questions from the medical director, Dr. Steve Olvey, with my wife Shelley sitting next to me.

“Where are you?” Olvey asked me. I told him. “Who’s the president?” I told him. “Who is this?” he asked, pointing to Shelley. I told him. I remember all of this, so the concussion was mild.

“Doc, I’m OK,” I said. But I was still going in and out of the fog when I said, “Doc, you gotta lot of stars flying over your head.”

My team owner, Rick Galles, walked in. “Is he OK?” he asked.

Olvey looked at Rick and asked me, “Who’s that?”

“I don’t know!”

“You’re done,” Olvey snapped. “That’s it. You’re going to the hospital.” 

“Damn! No, I don’t want to go.”

“Al, you’re done.”

It was a quick ambulance ride, and I had to stay for observation. The hospital staff made sure I didn’t throw up. I knew if I got nauseous and threw up, I would be there overnight. I did feel nauseous, but it was going away. (The understanding of concussions has come a long way since then.)

I wasn’t in a gown, as I had changed to my regular clothes, and we were waiting for the doctors to release me. We got word Michael had finished fifth, so I won! I was the champion! I was in the hospital with a headache, but I was champion! Finally, they released me, and we headed back to the track. By the time we got there, my crew had already loaded everything. There was no celebration. No press conference. There was . . . nothing.

Shelley and I sat in the grass between the pits and the racetrack with my crew chief, Owen Snyder, and a couple of the crew guys. It was so anti-climactic. We had just won our first championship together. It was something I had strived for my whole career. The CART IndyCar Championship! This was my childhood dream, and . . . nothing. The sky was grey. This was it. Nothing.