There, but for the grace of God, go I


Al Unser, Jr., a member of one of the most famous families in auto racing, got into trouble in Indianapolis last Tuesday night.

Little Al (as he is known in the racing world) and his girlfriend were partying at a strip club and got into an argument over who would drive back to his motorhome at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. His girlfriend, 38-year-old Jena L. Sato of Albuquerque, NM, thought he was too drunk to drive.

Little Al, who has won two Indianapolis 500 races, disagreed, so he slapped her around and put her out of the car on Interstate 465 at 3:30 in the morning. The cops found her wandering the interstate, listened to her story, and then went to Unser’s motorhome and busted him for two counts of domestic abuse. He posted a 30 grand bail and walked, for the time being.

Normally, I don’t give a damn about the personal problems of famous people, but as a racing fan, I have long watched the exploits of the Unsers, who rank with the Andrettis, the Allisons and the Pettys as racing legends.

Little Al was still an up-and-comer when I first saw him race at Indianapolis 20 years ago. His father won that day, but Little Al would go on to win two Indy 500s and a championship in the CART open wheel division.

But after several seasons on top, Little Al’s career suddenly nose-dived, amid stories of alcohol and drug abuse, wife battering and violent clashes with friends and police. The Unsers, a powerful force in both their hometown of Albuquerque and in Indianapolis, managed to keep things out of the papers whenever the kid got into trouble.

His wife divorced him, his daughter came down with a mysterious ailment that left her paralyzed from the shoulders down and Little Al lost his job with the top-level Penske racing team. He put on weight and the lean kid with the happy-go-lucky grin looked bloated and troubled whenever you saw him on TV.

Last year, he moved from CART to the rival Indianapolis Racing League as both fans and his troubled family hoped the change would put his life back on track.

For a while, this year, it seemed to be working. Unser lost weight and became a contender for the IRL championship.

Then came Tuesday night in Indianapolis.

“We’re all guilty of being in denial,” says Bobby Unser, Little Al’s uncle and the patriarch of the Unser family. “Al’s had problems for some time now and none of us have done anything about it. He needs help, but he won’t get any.”

Al Unser Sr. shares his son’s denial.

“I’ve had no indication that Al has problems like that,” the senior Unser said after his son’s arrest.

But the once tight Unser clan in Albuquerque has been torn apart by Junior’s problem. Brothers Al Sr. and Bobby haven’t spoken for years, even though they live across the street from each other. Bobby’s son, a childhood friend of Little Al, has avoided his cousin ever since a drunk Al Jr. called his wife one night and threatened to kill her.

Unser’s former motorcoach driver, Steve Schweissgut, says Unser was a regular user of pot and cocaine when he drove for him and regularly washed it all down with Jack Daniels. Close friends say he still uses drugs regularly and has switched to vodka as his drink of choice.

It hurts to see so much talent drown in a bottle. I battled booze for 30 years and I know how it can destroy the lives of everyone around you. I know the demons Unser faces every day of his life.

But you can’t battle the beast unless you first admit it exists and then confront it.

Little Al hasn’t done either.

Until he does, his long, painful slide down the slope of self-destruction will continue.

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