Unser retires

Posted: Thursday, July 01, 2004

INDIANAPOLIS Al Unser Jr. woke up to a harsh reality this week. His passion for racing was gone.

On Wednesday, Unser announced his retirement because he was no longer having fun on the track, stepping away from a successful career on his own terms.

''Racing has to come before everything else in your life,'' he said. ''I'd reached a point where helping my sons and daughters means more to me today than driving into turn one.''

Unser, 42, leaves open-wheel racing as one of its most successful drivers. In more than 21 seasons, Unser won two Indianapolis 500s, two CART championships and a combined 34 races on the CART and Indy Racing League circuits.

His new career as an adviser for Patrick Racing, his team, and a driving mentor for his son, Al begins this weekend at the Argent Mortgage Indy 300 in Kansas City, Kan. Team owner U.E. ''Pat'' Patrick has not yet named a replacement driver for Unser.

During a news conference at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the red-headed, freckle-faced Unser, who burst onto the Indy scene in 1983 known as ''Little Al,'' sat stoically as a highlight film replayed some of his most cherished moments.

''You just know when it's time,'' he said afterward. ''I never had set a date, but you have to have a passion for it. I'm no longer willing to maintain that level of sacrifice or desire.''

The IRL has now lost two of its most prominent drivers in the last 13 months. Michael Andretti retired in May 2003 at age 40.

This season was especially frustrating for Unser.

He worked for several months to find a ride after breaking his pelvis last October when he was thrown from an all-terrain vehicle in New Mexico. After months of rehabilitation, Unser finally signed with Patrick Racing in March but missed the first three races of the IRL season.

In three starts, Unser's best finish was 11th and, last weekend at Richmond, he was the slowest qualifier in the field. Unser finished 22nd in what turned out to be his final race. The next day, he decided to leave.

''I give him all the credit in the world because too many guys in the world are not ready to admit they're tired or whatever,'' said his father, Al Unser Sr. ''He's proven he's the very best.''

Unser, from Albuquerque, N.M., always felt the pressure of his family's legacy. His father is one of three drivers to win four Indy 500s and his uncle, Bobby, won the race three times.

The younger Unser won the closest-ever Indy 500, defeating Scott Goodyear by 0.043 seconds in 1992. His other Indy victory came in 1994 when he started from the pole and beat Jacques Villeneuve by 8.6 seconds.

''I've had a great career,'' Unser said. ''It's been a challenge, been hard to follow in the footsteps I've followed. But I feel I upheld the Unser name quite well.''

Junior's 21-year-old son, Al, won't get the same opportunity to race against his father. He will make his Infiniti debut with Keith Duesenberg's team this weekend in Kansas City with his father watching.

The youngest Al Unser passed a rookie test earlier this year in Kentucky and tested twice for Duesenberg before landing the ride, which was also announced Wednesday.

Al Unser Jr.'s life away from the track has had its share of travails.

He divorced his wife after 17 years and his daughter, Cody, contracted a rare disease in 1999 that left her paralyzed from the chest down.

In 2002, Unser missed two races while staying at a treatment center for alcohol abuse following his arrest in Indianapolis after his girlfriend said he hit her in the face while drunk. Prosecutors didn't file charges.

Goodyear said he noticed a difference in Unser last weekend.

''I was watching him in the driver's meeting and he seemed preoccupied,'' Goodyear said. ''That's when you know it's time to step away from it. It's good he can get away from it without injury.''

On Sunday, Unser came to the same realization.

''It was time,'' he said. ''Now I've closed one chapter in my life and I'm opening a new one with my son, Al. Little Al now.''

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