INDIANAPOLIS, July 6, 2004 - By its very nature racing needs to be about change.
From the mechanical end, making engines and chassis better than the competition is the mantra for each competing team; slotting the best drivers and complementary engineers and mechanics into a team can make for a winning combination.
Al Unser Jr. has recognized these facets intimately over the years. Known as "Little Al" out of deference to his own successful father when he broke into Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) in 1982 after winning the Can-Am championship, Unser Jr. has gone on to set many records.
Al Unser Jr. made 327 career Indy-style starts and accumulated 34 wins in both CART and the Indy Racing League (IRL). He won the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race twice (1992 and 1994), became CART champ twice (1990 and 1994), won the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach six times (including four in a row!) and took three IRL IndyCar Series visits to Victory Lane.
Last week, though, at the age of 42 and after nearly 22 seasons at the highest level of open wheel competition, Al Unser Jr. hung up his helmet. He said he made the decision after a moribund Saturday night SunTrust Indy Challenge IRL race at Richmond International Raceway, where Unser Jr. qualified last in a 22-car field and finished 21st, citing "handling" as the reason he exited the #20 Patrick Racing Dallara/Chevrolet.
In truth, the end came well before that.
Everyone in this world has personal demons; Al Unser Jr.'s were visible to many more people than he realized. Recognizing in 2002 that he had a problem with alcohol abuse, Unser Jr. checked into a Connecticut facility to overcome that crisis, coming back to IndyCar competition more fit and determined than when he left two races earlier.
Unser Jr. raced for some of the best teams in open wheel competition, from his New Mexico-based friend Rick Galles, Doug Shierson, Marlboro Team Penske and Kelley Racing.
The three IRL races he ran for Patrick Racing in 2004 were more for show than go; the team came together late and continuing to work in part of Derrick Walker's Indianapolis shops after team owner Mr. U.E. "Pat" Patrick sold his rolling CART stock.
Unser Jr. finished where he started at Indy, 17th, was 11th at the Texas night race he won last year and then suffered the ignominy of Richmond. It was all this proud driver, born to his job could take.
Last Wednesday, the final day of June Al Unser Jr. said "no mas". At the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he relinquished his ride and, at the same time revealed his elder son [Just] Al Unser would drive in his first Menards Infiniti Pro Series race at Kansas Speedway that weekend.
"I always said," Unser Jr. revealed, "that the day I wasn't enjoying myself, having fun, I would retire. That day has come and I am retiring from driving racecars today." (He had more than an audience of media: driver Ed Carpenter, team owner Kim Green, Menards Infiniti Pro Series majordomo Roger Bailey, together with Unser's former mechanic Owen Snyder III were on hand to witness history.)
While Unser Jr. insisted his decision had nothing to do with a lack of performance in his first three races of 2004, "You know when it's time. I love racing, but you have to have passion for it before all else. It's got to be everything in your life and helping my sons and daughters means more to me today than driving the race car."
According to Unser Jr. there was "no set reason and no set time" for his decision to step out of a racing cockpit, but after watching him since the glory days of 1994, apparently some erosion occurred. He finally realized, "this is a young man's game. There is a fine line between being aggressive and being too aggressive. You have to be right there."
Al Unser Jr. has not missed a summer of racing since he was nine years old. He started in the traditional sprint cars, went Super Vee and Can-Am racing to hone his road-circuit skills and never looked back. He won the International Race of Champions (IROC) in 1986, the youngest driver to do so at age 24, and did it again two years later.
Unser Jr. raced the way his father's generation did, competing in any event for the joy of racing. He raced sports cars, open wheelers and, in fact anything that burned fossil fuels. Unlike his competitor Michael Andretti, who retired last year Unser Jr. never went to Formula One, but that's no blemish on his stellar career.
As first Michael Andretti and now Al Unser Jr. recognize their best years are behind them, the landscape of IndyCar Series and Champ Car racing is changing. Most of today's successful drivers are in the 20s and early, very early 30s.
While there was a time when the changeover from one group of drivers to another occurred due to death, today it is age and skill deterioration that are the challenging factors for drivers.
Al Unser Jr. went to Kansas Speedway over the July 4th weekend and coached his son Alfred to a third-place slot on the Menards Infiniti Pro Series podium, driving for the well-oiled Keith Duesenberg Western Union team.
Unser also accepted Pat Patrick's offer to stay with the team and assist rookie Jeff Simmons in his second IRL IndyCar Series start from the spotter's lair.
It wasn't a momentous first stab at that difficult chore for Unser Jr., when Simmons and fellow rookies Kosuke Matsuura and Darren Manning had a moment that caused the longest continuous green flag run in Indy Racing League history (169 laps) to end. Unser failed to advise Simmons he was the meat in the other two drivers' sandwich.
Ah, but Al Unser Jr. will get used to life outside the cockpit, eventually. Just as it took minimal time for him to rise through the ranks, as he now "closes that chapter of my life and starts a new one," Unser Jr. will probably be a quick study in the race spotting game. He's got plenty of friends up on the roof to help him out.
Such great success in the racing game taught Al Unser Jr. many lessons that hold true: "You've got to have the persistence to achieve whatever you dream of in life and make it come true."
(c) 2004 Anne Proffit