In racing parlance, Al Unser Jr. has lost and regained control several times in the past two decades, crashed and burned publicly three times and been run hard and put away wet more times than he cares to count.
But in the face of his latest DUI last May, the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner is confronting the reality of what’s wrecked his life and career.
“No matter how long I’m sober or how great things are going, I have the disease of alcoholism. I’m an alcoholic,” Unser tells RACER.com from his home in Avon, Indiana. “A lot of little things added up and got me. Now today the whole thought process is not that I’m not an alkie, because I am.
“I have a disease so now it has to be – whatever happens – I am allergic to alcohol and it’s never going to go away.”
Unser’s third DUI in the past 12 years could have resulted in jail time, but on Monday, accompanied by attorney Jim Voyles, he was given probation and ordered to serve 480 hours of community service while being monitored for a year by Sober Link.
The fact he was caught driving while intoxicated again maybe didn’t surprise the general public who hadn’t been privy to his recovery efforts, but it was definitely a shock to his friends and family, because he’d been doing and looking so good since moving to Indianapolis in 2016. He built a house in Avon, helped launch Harding Racing, had breakfast every morning with his mother, Wanda, and appeared clean and sober.
Or so we thought.
“The most dangerous times for me are when things are going really, really good in my life,” he reasons. “Colton (Herta) had won at COTA in the team I’d helped start with Mike (Harding) and my friend Brian Barnhart. Roger Penske sent me an email of congratulations and said it was good to see me smile again. That meant a lot to me.
“Moving back here was the best thing because I was surrounded by some really good people. I’m having coffee with my Mom every morning and going to church with her on Sundays. I’d never done that before.
“This past winter I started working out like a fiend because I got tired of my big belly. Tony George said Brian and I looked like a couple of bowling balls walking down pit lane. So I get on my crosstrainer at 6 a.m. and start working out, then Mom gets here at 7.
“I had enough sobriety under me and enough years, you know. I thought, ‘I’m not same person I was back then, and not the person that had a problem.’ There was a belief I did not have a disease. And not just one thing that made me start drinking again; just a lot of little things.”
The 57-year-old second generation star was asked when he began drinking again. “The last year or so my drinking was intermittent,” he says. “Then it got away from me.
“I didn’t think I was an alcoholic. You know the desire and will to win when I was driving; I had that same kind of desire put towards, ‘I am not an alcoholic, I don’t have that disease.’ I’ve done it a number of times.
“Once I think I don’t have a problem, I get away from my program.”
Unser was asked why his friends didn’t intervene and take away his keys on the night of May 19, when he was caught?
“They tried,” he replied. “And I said, ‘No I’m, OK.’ People said: ‘Al you should have called me, I would have come and got you.’ But when I’m hiding my drinking, there’s no calling anybody.”
Now he’s got try and conquer the addiction that’s ruled his life for the past 20 years.
“I’ve wrestled with this a lot,” he said. “Today, 17 years down the road now, I know what I’m doing. Substances and alcohol are not taking over my life. I’ve put my mind to other things. Before, whenever things got tough mentally, the thing to do was to get messed up. That’s not an option anymore. I can’t drink.”
What about the daily temptation?
“Any length of sobriety, after a while… it (drinking) is not part of your routine,” he says. “But there are those days that come it crosses your mind that you’d love to have a drink right now. That’s the critical time. From here forward it’s going to be hard when those times come, and I’m going to have to face it. And beat it.
“I don’t wish this disease on anyone. It screwed up my life, my family’s life, my friends’ and my employers’.”
Unser remains one of the most popular IndyCar drivers of all time and, by all accounts, a good person who is easy to pull for. People want him to be happy and to beat his demons. He hasn’t been at a race since the Indy GP, and people keep asking about him.
“I’ve been a bit depressed since May 20,” he says. “I hope I get to go to those last four [races], but I was suspended and my salary was cut in half, and it just depends on whether Mike can afford it. He’s been great to me, and I can’t thank him enough for his support, along with Brian’s.”
But the outpouring of encouragement from the IndyCar fraternity and fans has helped Unser weather these part couple months.
“The support has been overwhelming,” he says. “In the past, when I got my DUIs in New Mexico and Las Vegas, no one called, no texts, nobody wishing me well. This time it’s a lot different: prayers, texts, emails, people on the street… just amazing, and I can’t thank everyone enough.
“Roger (Penske) called me and said: ‘You know Al, we have an ill-handling car, so let’s fix it. It’s a good car, but it’s not working right now, so let’s make it right. Let’s really do it this time.”