New Mexico’s Al Unser, one of only four drivers to win the Indianapolis 500 a record four times, died Thursday following a long illness. He was 82.
Unser died at his home in Chama, with his wife, Susan, by his side, Indianapolis Motor Speedway said early Friday. He had been battling cancer for 17 years.
“My heart is so saddened. My father passed away last night,” son Al Unser Jr., himself a two-time Indy 500 winner, posted on social media. “He was a Great man and even a Greater Father. Rest In Peace Dad!”
Unser is the third member of one of America’s most famed racing families to die in 2021. His oldest brother, three-time Indy 500 winner Bobby Unser, died in May, and Bobby Unser Jr. passed six weeks after his father.
Known as “Big Al” once his own son made a name for himself in racing, Unser is part of an elite club of four-time winners of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” Unser won the Indy 500 in 1970, 1971, 1978 and 1987, and is the only driver in history to have both a sibling and a child also win one of the biggest races in the world.
His final victory at age 47 made him the oldest winner in Indy 500 history. He dominated in his first Indy win in 1970 by starting from the pole and leading all but 10 of the 200 laps. Unser beat runner-up Mark Donohue by 32 seconds that year.
Albuquerque’s Bob Brown became well acquainted with Unser during Brown’s tenure as a TV sports anchor, then formed a closer relationship while working as a docent at the Unser Racing Museum in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque.
Unser was somewhat misunderstood, Brown said, in the natural comparisons made with his older brother Bobby.
Bobby Unser never met a reporter’s notepad he couldn’t fill or a microphone he couldn’t speak into. Al was far less talkative — almost a polar opposite, it seemed.
Yet, Brown said, the Al Unser he came to know was warm and engaging.
“He was so down to earth,” Brown said. “… If you didn’t know who he was, you would think he was just this unassuming gentleman who was very nice and polite and always seemed upbeat.
“He was just really kind, soft-spoken, but had a great sense of humor, and he wasn’t afraid to show people that.”
The more apt contrast between the Unser brothers, Brown said, was not their personalities but their racing styles.
“You look at Bobby’s career, and he was one of those guys that wanted to win every race on the first lap,” Brown said. “You look at Big Al, and he wanted to get to the finish of the race, protect his equipment and be there at the end, because he knew the only way to win was to finish the race.”
Al Unser led over half the laps in three of his Indy 500 victories, and his 644 total laps led at Indianapolis is most in race history. He made 27 starts in the Indy 500, third most in history, and qualified once on the pole and five times on the front row.
Unser won three Indy car national championships over his career, and his total of 39 victories is sixth on the all-time list.
He and son Al Jr. were the first father-son pairing at Indianapolis, and in 1985 they battled one another for the CART championship. A pass in the closing laps of the race gave Unser a fourth-place finish in the season finale at Miami’s Tamiami Park road course, and it was enough for him to beat Al Jr. for the championship by a single point. He fought back tears while describing the “empty feeling” of defeating his son.
Unser also ran five NASCAR races in his career, finishing fourth in the 1968 Daytona 500. He earned three top-10 finishes in NASCAR. He also won three times in the International Race of Champions, an all-star series that pitted the top drivers from various disciplines against each other.
Unser won the Indy car “Triple Crown” by winning all three of the 500-mile races on the 1978 schedule, which included stops at Pocono Raceway and in Ontario, California. He’s the only driver in history to win all three of those races in the same season.
The Unser family combined for a record nine wins in the Indy 500; Al Jr. won the Indy 500 twice — in 1992 and 1994. Coincidentally, Al Unser, Al Unser Jr. and Bobby Unser all won their final Indy 500s driving for Roger Penske. Helio Castroneves won his first three Indy 500s driving for Penske.
“Al was the quiet leader of the Unser family, a tremendous competitor and one of the greatest drivers to ever race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway,” Penske said. “We were honored to help Al earn a place in history with his fourth Indy victory … and he will always be a big part of our team. Our thoughts are with the Unser family as they mourn the loss of a man that was beloved across the racing world and beyond.”
Unser earlier this year was at Indianapolis Motor Speedway to welcome Castroneves as the newest member of the four-time winners club. Unser achieved the feat after A.J. Foyt, and Rick Mears won his fourth in 1991. Castroneves won in May to become the first new member in 30 years.
“Some days the race track smiles on you and some days, you got it the other way,” Unser said during the July celebration. “It’s not always that you’re going to think you’re going to win because your chances are very slim. There’s 32 other guys who want it as bad as you do.”
Unser received his Baby Borg — the 18-inch replica of the Indy 500 winner’s Borg-Warner Trophy that lives onsite in the speedway’s museum — during a celebration in May with family and friends. He was set to be honored in 2020 on the 50th anniversary of his 1970 victory at Indianapolis, but the celebration was postponed because of the pandemic.
Both Castroneves and two-time Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato lauded Unser, with Sato calling Unser’s speech at the May winner’s ceremony “very funny and so charming.”
“I will always remember Big Al welcoming me to the speedway,” Castroneves told The Associated Press on Friday. “He and Johnny Rutherford were the two helping me with my rookie orientation. He will be missed.”
The youngest of four racing brothers, Unser was born in Albuquerque in 1939 to a family of hardcore racers. His father Jerry Unser and two uncles, Louis and Joe, were also drivers. Beginning in 1926 the family began competing in the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, an annual road race held in Colorado.
Al’s oldest brother, Jerry, became the first Unser to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 in 1958; he was killed in a crash during practice the following year.
Unser began racing himself in 1957 when he was 18, but competed mostly in sprint cars. He made it to Indy in 1965 driving in a car owned by Foyt and was part of a rookie class with future Indy 500 winners Mario Andretti (1969) and Gordon Johncock (1973, 1982).
“Al was one of the smartest drivers I ever raced against,” Andretti said. “I often said that I wished I could have had some of his patience.”
The Unser family combined for 73 career starts in the Indy 500 — a number bettered only by the 76 starts by the Andretti family. The Unser participation spans Al (27 races), Bobby (19), and Al Jr. (19), as well as Johnny (five), Robby (two) and Jerry (one).
Unser was inducted into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame in 1986 and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1998. His collection of trophies and cars is housed at the Unser Racing Museum.
Unser is survived by wife, Susan, and son, Al Jr. He was preceded in death by daughters Mary and Deborah.
Journal staff writer Rick Wright contributed to this report.
AL UNSER SENIOR: A RACING TIMELINE
May 29, 1939: Born in Albuquerque, the youngest of four brothers. Went to Albuquerque High, played football and began dirt-track racing with older siblings Bobby and twins Jerry and Louie.
1957: Ran at Albuquerque’s Speedway Park as a 17-year-old rookie. Won two season titles that year.
1960: At Pikes Peak, he finished second in his debut in the event behind brother Bobby. He had tried to race in a previous year in a car he had built but was disqualified, Pikes Peak officials said Friday, for being only 17 when he needed to be 18.
1964: Made his debut in Indy cars, finishing 23rd on the I-mile oval at Milwaukee.
1965: First race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In one of A.J. Foyt’s spare cars, he qualified 32nd for the Indy 500 and finished ninth. Also won his first Indy-car event at Pikes Peak.
1967: Finished second at Indy, the first of his three runner-up finishes, which earned him $69,977. Won his first pole in Indy-car racing at Longhorne, Pa.
1968: Won five races in a row and finished third in season points for Indy cars. Finished fourth in Daytona 500.
1969: A motorcycle accident on the infield — “the kickstand went through my left leg,” he would say — during a birthday celebration kept him out of the Indy 500. He still won three other races that season.
1970: Won his first Indy 500, “the easiest” of his four victories, he said. He led 190 of 200 laps. Beat brother Bobby for Indy-car points championship and won 10 races. Was named Driver of the Year and found time to win the USAC dirt-track title the same year.
1971: Became the fourth driver to win back-to-back Indy 500s.
1977: Finished third at Indy and won his first IROC title.
1978: Won his third Indy 500 and became first driver ever to sweep the three 500-mile races on the Indy-car circuit. He also won at Ontario and Pocono. Finished second to Tom Sneva in points but was named Driver of Year for second time.
1983: With Team Penske, finished second at Indy and won the points championship despite just one race victory.
1985: Edged son Al Jr. by one point to capture the series championship and became the oldest Indy-car champ at age 46.
1987: Won his fourth and final Indy 500 at age 47, notable because he arrived without a ride, but got one when Penske drvier Danny Ongais was hurt in practice and his car became available.
1991: Inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame.
1992: Drove a Buick-powered car from 22nd to third at Indy while son Al Jr. won. They became the first father-son to ever win the Indianapolis 500.
1994: Announced his racing retirement after not being able to reach speeds necessary at Indy qualifying.
1998: Inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.
Thursday: Died in Chama at age 82.
Quote: “I got along with Indy’s racetrack. I lived it. Some days it brings a smile and others it will frown on you. You just hoped the day is going to be yours.” — Al Unser Sr.
The Unser racing family
Bobby Unser: Won three Indy 500s (1968, 1975, 1981). Colorful and outspoken, he became a celebrated TV and radio commentator for open-wheel and NASCAR racing. Died on May 2 at age 87.
Jerry Unser: Born in 1932, he was the oldest of the racing brothers. He raced once at Indy, finishing 31st in 1958. In 1959, he crashed on a practice lap and his car burst into flames. He died 15 days later.
Al Unser Jr.: The West Mesa High alumnus won twice at Indy (1992 and 1994), the latter giving his family nine victories in the event. He also won the International Race of Champions in 1986 and 1988.
Robby Unser: One of Bobby’s two sons and a two-time starter at Indy. He won the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb nine times.
Johnny Unser: Son of Jerry, he had five starts at Indy from 1996-2000 with a top finish of 18th.
Bobby Unser Jr.: Never drove at Indy, but he twice finished second at Pike Peaks. Later he became a stunt-car driver and coordinator for movies and TV. Died at age 65 on June 13, six weeks after his father.