He was part of one of auto racing’s most celebrated families, whose members won the Indianapolis 500 a combined nine times.
Al Unser Sr., one of only four drivers to win the Indianapolis 500 four times and a stalwart of one of auto racing’s most accomplished families, died on Thursday. He was 82. He died at his home in Chama, N.M., the Indianapolis Motor Speedway said. He had cancer for the past 17 years. Unser’s four Indianapolis 500 wins came in 1970, 1971, 1978 and 1987. The final victory made him the oldest driver, at 47, to win the United States’ premier auto race. In all, more than a dozen members of the Unser family would work in auto racing, including all three of Unser’s brothers. His older brother Bobby, who himself won the Indianapolis 500 three times, called the 1987 race on TV for a national audience.
Unser won that race competing against his son, Al Unser Jr., who finished fourth that year and would go on to become one of the world’s premier drivers, twice winning the Indianapolis 500. They shared the track several times, and the father assumed the nickname Big Al after his son, nicknamed Little Al, established himself in racing. At the Beatrice Indy Challenge in 1985, Unser pulled up next to his son toward the end of the race. They briefly looked directly at each other, gave each other a wave, and Unser pulled ahead and won the race, The A.P. reported. “I’ve really got mixed emotions,” the elder Unser said after the race. “I’d like to have seen Al win. Championships are hard to come by.” He added: “Still, I’m a racer and I have to race. I said yesterday, if he wins it, he’s going to have to earn it.”
He beat his son for the season title by one point.
Alfred Unser Sr. was born in Albuquerque in 1939. His father, Jerry Unser, who owned a gas station and was an occasional racer and car builder, set him and his brothers on the path to racing royalty. His brother Bobby said in 2009 that he and Al did not fight and were “the closest of friends.” Al Unser passed on his love of racing to his son, helping the younger Al with a kart he began racing when he was 9. Unser became at least the third member of the family to die this year. Bobby died in May at 87, and his son Bobby Unser Jr. died in June at 65. Al Unser first competed in the Indianapolis 500 in 1965, running the race 27 times, the third-most in history. He led for 644 laps over his career, which remains a record. “His quiet and humble approach outside of the car, combined with his fierce competitive spirit and fearless talent behind the wheel, made Al a fan favorite,” J. Douglas Boles, president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, said in a statement. Unser’s four wins at the Indianapolis 500 is a record shared by A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Helio Castroneves, who won this year’s race. Unser retired in 1994 and lived in Albuquerque. He is survived by his wife, Susan, and son, Al Unser Jr. Two daughters, Mary and Deborah, died before him.
R.I.P. Mr. Unser...
By Daniel Victor