Driven by a Dad-Lad Bond
Race drivers combine the sleek daring of matadors with the bullheaded resolve of interior linemen. The average leadfoot would run his grandmother's old Studebaker into a ditch if it meant getting to a checkered flag first. Race drivers don't put much stock in sentiment; they're going too fast to think about it.
So imagine the quandary that grizzled, graying Al Unser faced on Memorial Day, 1992. By mid-afternoon, Unser's son, Al Jr., had surged to the front of the field at the Indianapolis 500 and on the final lap beat Scott Goodyear to the line by four one-hundredths of a second -- about three coats of paint. At age thirty, "Little Al" had won the Indy for the first time, in the closest finish ever.
To this day, his father wishes he hadn't done it. "I would like to have won the race myself," "Big Al" says, ever true to his competitive breeding. "But it didn't happen." Unser the elder, one of just three drivers to win four Indy 500s in his career, finished a close third that day -- ten seconds or so behind the two leaders. He would retire two years later, at the age of 54, without drinking milk in Indy's Victory Lane again.
The fact is, though, Big Al loved that losing afternoon at the Brickyard in 1992. "Actually, I felt like I had won the race," he says. "That was the only time I ever got out of my car there without winning and was happy. I was so proud of him. Still am." He is talking by cell phone from the Texas Motor Speedway, site of last weekend's 500-mile race.
To date, Al Unser, his brother Bobby (also retired) and Al Jr. have a combined total of 106 Indy-car victories -- sixteen more than Mario and Michael Andretti. The Unsers have won nine Indy 500s (eight more than the Andrettis), and for more than three decades their name has been a constant -- a very swift constant -- in American open-wheel racing. Al Jr. has raked in more than $20 million in prize money -- making him the top Indy-car earner of all time. Even his two cousins, Johnny and Robby, have gotten into the act with on-again, off-again racing careers.
At this Sunday's Radisson Indy 200, to be run at Pikes Peak International Raceway in Fountain, Little Al and Big Al will both be on hand -- the former belted into the cockpit of his Galles ECR Racing Indy car, the latter overlooking the one-mile oval from high above in his new job as a coach of the Indianapolis Racing League's new and rookie drivers. His cohort? Three-time Indy winner Johnny Rutherford.
Sunday's race will be special for the Unsers because it will be contested on Father's Day. The bond that joins them is almost mystical, the father says, and it's rooted deep in the thrill and danger of speed. In1983, they became the first father and son ever to compete in the same Indy 500; in 1984, Little Al scored the first of his 32 Indy-car victories in Portland, Oregon, on Father's Day. "That was something," Big Al remembers. "Let's see if he can do it again in Colorado."
Truth be told, the younger Unser hasn't had much racing luck lately. Since leaving his Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) ride after the 1999 season to race in the upstart Indy Racing League (IRL) -- largely because he was so hungry for a return to the IRL-sanctioned Indy 500 -- Little Al has scored just one win, at Las Vegas in April, 2000. Meanwhile, his only Indy starts since winning the race for the second time in 1994 have been as snakebit as the Andrettis' worst nightmare. In 2000, Al Jr. finished 29th out of 33 cars when his engine overheated less than halfway along; this year he ran thirtieth after crashing sixteen laps into the race.
"Sometimes that just happens," his disappointed father says. "There isn't anything you can do about it. You can't back up thirty days and replay the month of May at Indy. That's what you'd like to do many times. Instead, you say: 'Well, I'm going to do it next year. You don't give up, or give up hope, or give up desire.'"
But the fire eventually goes out.
"You don't ever talk to anybody about when you're going to retire or when you should retire," Big Al says. "Only the driver himself knows that. I did. When I finally came to that point, I quit. There was no askin' or tellin'. I knew within myself, and I quit."
Why, after three racing decades on the big ovals and 39 victories, did Al Unser quit? He pauses, and the scream of race engines, muffled but still lovely, invades the phone call from suburban Dallas. "You can't imagine it," he says slowly, "but you have to face it on your own. I finally found that I was paying more attention to my son than to my own racing."
So it will be Sunday when Little Al, now a middle-aged veteran at 39, takes the green flag at Pikes Peak. So it will be two weeks later at Richmond and the week after that at Kansas Speedway. And next Memorial Day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where Al Unser Jr. will try for his third -- and his family's tenth -- win at the most famous car race in the world. Big Al's brother Bobby rarely comes to the track anymore, and none of the Unser grandchildren, now coming of age, have shown any interest in carrying on the family tradition.
"If they don't want to be race-car drivers, that's fine," the 62-year-old former champion says. "Just as with my son. If he didn't want to be a race-car driver, he was still my son, and he didn't have to race. And my nephews didn't have to be race-car drivers. As long as they do in life what they want to do and they're successful, that's all that counts."
But every time Big Al watches his son slip into the seat, he still gets a chill. "Oh, yes," he says. "It pleases me very, very much, and I think it pleases him to know I'm there." Gentlemen, start your emotions.
Hey, there, hockey fan. Crack a cold one and enjoy the euphoria while you can. Because it may soon be time to wipe the tear gas from your eye, pull that flapping Avs pennant back into the car and get ready for a bitter dose of reality. The Colorado Avalanche team that fought so gallantly to win Lord Stanley's Cup this spring, the team that overcame the loss of Peter Forsberg, Joe Sakic's sore shoulder and the New Jersey Devils' vaunted neutral-zone trap could vanish like the ice cubes in last night's champagne bucket.
Delighted rookie owner Stan Kroenke and deft general manager Pierre Lacroix aren't talking just yet because they still have parade-sore feet and their snoots full of Dom Perignon. Almost by necessity, though, the Avs will become the Av-Nots next season. Defenseman Ray Bourque (Have you heard? Guy's been in the league 22 years!) finally got to kiss the Cup Saturday night and thus can go the way of Elway in peace. Meanwhile, three key Avs -- all free agents now -- account for more than one third of the team's $58 million player payroll, which is the third highest in the NHL. Unless Kroenke is really Croesus, or the Avs jack the nosebleed tickets up to $150 per, somebody will have to go. Sakic earned $7.9 million this season, goalie Patrick Roy $7.5 million and former L.A. Kings defenseman Rob Blake got $5.2 million. If two of them aren't wearing new jerseys next season, most puckheads will be surprised.
Also consider the Forsberg Factor. Some other well-conditioned pro athletes have recovered from spleen-removal surgery to resume their careers, but there's no guarantee in this life. The team's fine younger players -- Milan Hejduk, Chris Drury, Alex Tanguay, Martin Skoula -- promise a great future for hockey at the Pepsi Center, but the Avs minus Roy, or the Avs minus Sakic and Blake, could well mean the Avs minus a spiritual heartbeat. The Avs minus Forsberg? Don't even think about it.
The best team in the game has won the game's ultimate treasure for the second time, but we might do well to remember that no party lasts forever -- regardless of how much Mace the cops are carrying. It's only natural, after all, for an avalanche to go downhill.
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