A Checkered Past: Immortals Become Mortal

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Al Unser Jr.
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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 into the early days of his Indy career.

While we were battling for a Can-Am championship, it was well-known Galles Racing was going to be an Indy car team soon. To prepare for the next season, my team owner Rick Galles worked out a deal for me to make my Indy car debut in late August at Riverside International Raceway. Getting seat time in an Indy car would be a great test for me.

Building up to the event, I felt every emotion possible. I was excited but fearful. I had anxiety like crazy. I was twenty years old, and my dream was coming true. I was going to drive an Indy car, and it would be my first race with my dad. There were going to be so many drivers in the race who I believed were super-human. I had grown up in awe of A. J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Gordon Johncock, and my dad.

Dad recognized my anxiety. He came to me before the first practice session as I was sitting on the wall, staring at the car. “You OK?” he asked as he sat next to me.

“Yeah. I’m OK,” I said, not telling the full truth.

“Remember, it’s just a race car,” he said. “That’s it. It’s nothing more, nothing less. It’s just another race car. Just drive it. It’s no big deal, Al.” The brief talk helped me a ton.

The Indy car had more than 750 horsepower with a turbocharged engine, but Dad was right—it’s just another race car.

In the race, I had a chance to race against Dad. Early on, I caught him and passed him. What a moment for me. But he was having none of it! Suddenly, he got serious and, in less than a lap, he was back in front of me. And he didn’t stick around. He wasn’t going to let an upstart get the upper hand, even early in the race.

Near the end of the race, there was a lot of attrition. I hadn’t seen that Dad was out of the race with engine trouble. I hadn’t passed a lot of cars, but with others dropping out, I finished fifth. Fifth!

It was one of the strangest feelings I’ve ever had. I had huge extremes of emotions. It was uplifting because I knew I could race these guys and hold my own. I expected it to be harder than it was. I don’t mean it was easy by any means but . . . “Wow, I can really do this.” It was a great feeling.
At the same time, I was truly depressed.

The immortals had become mortal. Foyt. Johnny Rutherford. Johncock. Andretti. They were just like me now. I idolized these men. I had them on a pedestal. They were racing legends carved in stone. But now?

Only men. Flesh and blood.

To me, it was profoundly sad.