Unser Jr. Retires
June 30, 2004 | 2:07 P.M. EST
Unser, 42, made the announcement during a press conference at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the site of the two greatest triumphs of his 22-year driving career, victories in the 1992 and 1994 Indianapolis 500.
The final race of his illustrious career came in a Patrick Racing entry June 26 in the SunTrust Indy Challenge, an Indy Racing League® IndyCar® Series event at Richmond International Raceway.
“I have always said that I would get out of the race car if driving stopped being fun for me and if I felt that I was no longer competitive on the track,” Unser said. “After careful thought, I came to this conclusion just after the Richmond race and knew that it was time for me to retire. So, true to my word, I am stepping out of the car.
“My decision is purely based on my feelings as a race car driver. It is no reflection whatsoever on the Patrick Racing team. Patrick Racing is a great team with a great owner in Pat Patrick and, without a doubt, the team will continue its winning tradition in the IRL. Certainly, I want to thank Pat Patrick, the entire Patrick Racing organization, Chevrolet, Firestone, Stacker 2 and everybody in the IRL for giving me the opportunity to compete this year. While I will not be behind the wheel, my intentions are to remain very active in racing in some capacity with Patrick Racing in the IRL and, of course, in support of my son Al’s racing activities.
“As I make this transition in my career, I wish to thank my family and all the fans that have supported me and my racing career since my childhood. The accomplishments, rewards, friendships and memories that I take with me today are so meaningful because of you.”
Unser, a native of Albuquerque, N.M., earned 34 career victories in 327 combined starts in the Indy Racing League and CART from 1982-2004. He won the CART championship in 1990 with Galles Racing and in 1994 with Penske Racing.
“Very few race drivers will ever accomplish as much on the race track as Al has during his career,” said Tony George, president and CEO of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Indy Racing League. “As a competitor he has upheld the Unser tradition and added balance to their legacy during the last 20-plus years. But more importantly, I have considered him one of my very best friends.
“Only he would know when the time was right to call it a career, and he has my support and best wishes, and I am sure he has the same from his fans.”
Unser will remain with Patrick Racing as an advisor. The team will name a new driver shortly. Unser joined Patrick Racing this year at the Indianapolis 500 as the team made its IndyCar Series debut. He also raced at Texas and Richmond with the team.
“It has been an honor to have Al Unser Jr. drive the No. 20 Patrick Racing car,” team owner U.E. “Pat” Patrick said. “Al Jr. is one of the greatest drivers and competitors in racing history.
“Over the years, I have developed a tremendous respect for Al Jr.; so much so that when he informed me that he wanted to retire, I requested, and he agreed, to remain with the team as an advisor. He and I will be defining this role further in the weeks to come.
“So the good news is that Al will continue to be a very important part of our race team.”
The Indianapolis 500 was the centerpiece and showcase of Unser’s driving career, as he continued a family legacy at the Speedway that started with his late uncle Jerry Unser in 1958 and continued with his father, four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser, and his uncle Bobby Unser, a three-time winner of the Indianapolis 500. Al Unser Jr.’s cousins, Robby and Johnny, also are Indy 500 veterans.
Unser made 17 Indianapolis 500 starts, with nine top-10 and seven top-five finishes. He won his only Indy 500 pole in 1994 for Penske Racing, also winning the race that year.
Known by his legions of fans as “Little Al,” Unser was a sensation at Indianapolis from the moment he first arrived at the historic 2.5-mile oval. He qualified fifth – becoming the youngest driver to break the 200-mph barrier at Indianapolis – and finished 10th in his Indianapolis 500 debut in 1983 with Galles Racing. Unser and his father became the first father-son tandem to race in the Indianapolis 500 in the same year.
Unser recorded top-five finishes at Indianapolis five out of six years between 1986-91 with Shierson Racing and Galles Racing.
The most famous of those finishes came in 1989, when Unser and two-time Formula One World Champion Emerson Fittipaldi were locked in a wheel-to-wheel duel for the lead with less than two laps remaining. The pair touched wheels in Turn 3 on Lap 199, with Unser crashing out of the race and being credited with second place as Fittipaldi went on to win.
Unser earned even more respect from his fans and driving peers for applauding Fittipaldi and giving the “thumbs up” signal from the track as Fittipaldi cruised behind the Pace Car past the wreckage of Unser’s car en route to his first Indy 500 victory.
The long-awaited breakthrough victory at Indianapolis finally came for Unser in 1992 in a Galles Racing entry, as he prevailed in arguably the most stirring finish in Indianapolis 500 history.
Unser took the lead from archrival and friend Michael Andretti on Lap 190 of the 200-lap race. Unser then held off the hard-charging Scott Goodyear by .043 of a second in the closest finish in Indianapolis 500 history, joining his father and uncle Bobby on the Borg-Warner Trophy.
Two years later, Unser won the pole and race for Penske Racing, which he joined that season and raced for through 1999.
Unser and the entire Penske Racing team failed to qualify for the 1995 Indianapolis 500, and he didn’t compete in the race from 1996-99. But Unser signed with Galles ECR Racing to compete in the IRL IndyCar Series starting in 2000 and returned to Indy, where he raced every year since then.
His best finish since 2000 in the race was ninth in 2003 with Kelley Racing.
Sustained excellence at all tracks, not just Indianapolis, was a hallmark of Unser’s career.
He finished fifth in his CART debut in 1982 at Riverside, Calif., and earned his first career victory in 1984 at Portland, Ore., while driving for Galles Racing. He then earned at least one victory in 10 of the next 11 seasons, including a career-high eight victories for Penske Racing, including the Indianapolis 500, en route to the CART title in 1994.
Unser’s final victory came in the Bombardier 500 in June 2003 at Texas Motor Speedway, where he edged Tony Kanaan by .081 of a second in a thrilling finish. He also won IndyCar Series races in 2000 at Las Vegas and 2001 at Gateway near St. Louis.
“Al and I enjoyed a lot of success together in early 1990s, including winning the Indy 500 twice, and that working relationship blossomed into a close personal friendship,” said Brian Barnhart, senior vice president of racing operations for the Indy Racing League, who was a top mechanic for Galles and Penske during Unser’s Indy victories with those teams. “It has been great to have him in the IRL, and I always greatly appreciated Al’s love for the Speedway and our shared interest and love of both the Speedway and the Indianapolis 500.
“He carried on a great tradition with the Unser family name with his success at the Speedway. I have never heard any other competitor say a cross word about Al’s on-track performance. He was always trusted by his fellow drivers.
“Congratulations to Al. I wish him the best and look forward to a continued relationship as he takes up his next challenge.”
Unser also produced strong season-long performances during his career. He finished in the top 10 of the CART standings every year from 1983-96, including titles in 1990 and 1994. He lost the 1985 title by one point, 151-150, to his father.
In 1994, Unser was named “ABC Wide World of Sports” Athlete of the Year, Driver of the Year by a national media panel and earned the ESPY Award for Auto Racing Performer of the Year after his dominant season.
Strong championship finishes also continued during Unser’s IndyCar Series career. He finished ninth in 2000, seventh in 2001 and 2002 and sixth in 2003.
Success also wasn’t limited to open-wheel cars for Unser. He was a “throwback” racer, excelling in a variety of different machines.
Unser won the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona in 1986 with legendary sports car drivers Al Holbert and Derek Bell as teammates. He repeated that victory in 1987. Unser also won the International Race of Champions all-star series in a stock car in 1986 and 1988. He recorded 11 career IROC victories, tied for first on the all-time series list with the late Dale Earnhardt and Mark Martin.
Unser, who lives in Henderson, Nev., started his career in sprint cars, competing in the World of Outlaws series in 1979-80 before moving to Super Vee competition in 1981 and Can-Am racing in 1982.