Unser. A Grateful Alcoholic
August 9, 2002 | 12:00 A.M. EST
It’s those little things that will be painfully different for the rest of Unser’s life, following his admission of alcoholism and a three-week stint in an alcohol abuse treatment center.
Unser, who will compete in this weekend’s Belterra Casino Indy 300 at Kentucky Speedway, said he has been thankful everyday since his release.
“Outside the racetrack, I've noticed the birds in the morning and stuff,” said Unser, 40. “I've been running everyday, and so I feel very good, like I have in the past. I have quit drinking in the past and gone a month or two and I did it this year. In January, I went two months without touching a drink, and I was feeling great, and I'm feeling great again, but now I have the tools. I know about this cockiness, that was the one thing that got me here. I mean doing well, I almost won Texas by that much, I was right there. We didn't spray champagne in victory circle, but we sprayed champagne afterwards.
“It was the cockiness that really got me, I know I have a disease, and I know it is dramatically not good for me. The cockiness at doing so well in Texas, I mean we had a good year at Indy, not one of the best I've had there, but I was feeling good. I could handle this and sure enough it came around and bit me again. I am going to ask the IRL to make sure there is a bottle of milk when I win again and the champagne is going to go all over my race car, not me, my race car.”
A fact lost in the shuffle of headlines regarding Unser’s off-track problems this season is the open wheel veteran was sixth in points following the July 7 Indy Racing League race at Kansas Speedway.
However, was is the operative word as the two-time Indianapolis 500 champ missed two races and slipped to ninth in points while he completed an inpatient treatment program at a substance-abuse center.
Unser and his Kelley Racing teammates are prepared to not let the two-race hiatus spoil an otherwise terrific season that has included fifth place finishes in Phoenix and Richmond and that stunning runner-up finish at Texas in June. Unser finished races lower than 12th just twice this year – 19th at Miami and 17th at Kansas.
Unser was released from treatment center earlier this week and he was cleared to drive by Dr. Henry Bock, Medical Director for the Indy Racing League
”Today we welcome back Al Unser, Jr.,” said Kelley Racing owner Tom Kelley at a news conference held Kentucky Speedway. “I'm sure I can speak for everyone by saying that we are all glad to see him in good health. Our thoughts and prayers have been with Al since he entered a substance-abuse center last month. We admired his honesty in recognizing his problem with alcohol, and his determination to do something about it.
”The physicians treating Al were very pleased with his progress at the treatment center and felt he was ready to resume his regular routine. I know he can't wait to get back into the Corteco/Bryant car.”
Unser said he understands that one can never be “cured” of alcoholism, but rather treat it their whole life.
“I have never been more excited to climb in a race car,” Unser said. “My recovery program didn't end earlier this week. No, that's just the beginning. I have a program that I'm following today, tomorrow, next week, next month, next year, and the rest of my life. I was told by the doctors that once you're considered medically healthy and are taught how to better manage your lifestyle, the next phase of the recovery is getting back on track with your life.
”I am really thrilled about returning to racing this weekend, and I'm prepared for the challenge of managing my life without alcohol. I know I need to take every day one day at a time, and I can do that with the support and help of others.”
Though professional race-car drivers tend to avoid the critical eye of the spotlight that beams on athletes in other sports, Unser said his public battle will not affect his standing as one of the more popular drivers in the IRL.
“I think quite honestly with what we have been through in my life it makes me another human being, and that's all we are as race-car drivers,” Unser said. “Basically we are the last nut that the crew chief puts in the car to go, and so I am just another human being who has problems in life just like everybody else. This affected my life outside the racetrack, so for me to live a better life I needed to do this, and I just thank Tom Kelley and Greg Gyllstrom and everybody at Corteco and Kelley Racing.
“I went to them and asked them to support me on this and to give me the time off I needed to go fix my problem, and Tom stepped right up to the plate and other people could have just canned me and these guys didn't, they supported me whole-heartedly.”
Despite reports from former friends and crew members that Unser drank alcohol and used other drugs “everyday,” he insists he never competed in a race while under the influence.
“No, never, never did it come close to even coming close to that racecar,” Unser said. “I know a lot of people have asked that. Once the people found out in rehab, that was the most popular question. Did I drink and drive? No I did not. I put it simple to Jack Arute, it's like putting a gun to your head and pulling the trigger. No way.”
Unser moved to the IRL from the CART Fed/Ex Series with Galles Racing in 2000 with the intent of winning at Indy one more time. In two years with Galles, however, Unser finished 29th and 30th. He finished the 200 season ninth in points with a win at Las Vegas, a pair of third place runs at Texas and Atlanta, and two other Top 10 finishes. Unser then finished the season seventh in the points in 2001, with six Top 10 runs and a win at Gateway, but Galles Racing folded, leaving him without a ride.
He was snatched up by Kelley Racing for the 2002 season to team with Scott Sharp, and finished 12th at Indy this year. Unser has two CART Series championships (1990 and 1994), 31 career CART and two IRL victories.
Unser is unsure whether the fuiture holds more wins or even if he will conitnue racing after this season is over, but he knows what he needs to do with his personal life and is not afraid to express it.
"I am a member of alcoholics anonymous. I am an alcoholic and I am a grateful alcoholic," Unser said. "I am grateful for the support I have received, for my health, for my children's health. I am grateful to have such wonderful people supporting me like Tom Kelley and Greg Gyllstrom, my team, I am grateful for my mom and dad supporting me.
"I am grateful for the recovery center that taught me the tools that I am going to go forward with in my life and the counselors and the therapists that have helped me the past three weeks. I am grateful that I have a promising life in front of me that is one that God intended for it to live and so I am Al, the grateful alcoholic."