Not that you’d ever need to feel sorry for the daring and dashing Al Unser, envy of so many while holding one of the world’s most glamorous gigs. But the guy almost always had to punch a clock on his birthday.
A racing legend and Albuquerque native, Unser was born on May 29, 1939. The Indianapolis 500, which he won four times, is a fixture on Memorial Day weekend, late in May.
For years, Race Week in Indy inevitably swallowed up birthday week for “Big Al,” who died last December 9 at age 82. And occasionally, like this coming Sunday, Race Day falls precisely on his birthday.
So there will be a party – a celebration of life for Unser Sr. – at the Unser Racing Museum on that day from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. The public is invited, admission is free, and both of the buildings comprising the museum will be accessible.
Susan Unser wants it to be “a day for fans and family to remember him – a good way to send him off.”
The year 2021 was so brutal to the Unser family. Al’s brother Bobby, himself a three-time winner at Indy, had died in May at age 87. Bobby Unser Jr. died six weeks after his father.
Al Unser Sr. did manage to get up to Indy in July for an event with the race’s other four-time winners – Rick Mears, A.J. Foyt and Helio Castroneves – but he didn’t feel well and it wasn’t a great day. The battle Big Al had fought with liver cancer for roughly 17 years was taking its toll.
After he passed, the family decided the right thing at the time was a quiet, private ceremony – not small, however. Susan Unser estimates some 250 guests came in from all over.
The mood promises to be decidedly different Sunday. The Indy 500 will air on four TV screens throughout the museum as Castroneves runs for a record-breaking fifth Borg-Warner Trophy.
Docents will be at the museum to welcome and engage fans. And there will be birthday cake – chocolate and vanilla and reportedly lots of it.
In case you wondered, of Unser Sr.’s four Indianapolis 500 victories – 1970, 1971, 1978 and 1987 – the one in 1971 was on May 29, and so a birthday gift he gave to himself.
On the day he turned a tender 32, Unser dominated the race, leading the last 83 laps in his famous Johnny Lightning Special. He’d led 190 in winning a year earlier.
There were two wins by Al Unser Jr. at Indy, in 1992 and 1994 – the latter on May 29, his father’s 55th birthday and just as Big Al was easing into retirement.
There promises also to be some poignant moments of course for Susan Unser, who was with him his last 25 years.
Susan once was living in Santa Fe and was just about ready and move to Montana. Then two friends who were judges conspired to set her up with Unser Sr. So they met in Albuquerque for lunch.
She wasn’t a race fan and thus had no idea about his legacy; when she asked him what he did, he replied, “I drive cars.”
“I thought maybe he was a long-haul trucker,” Susan said.
She soon learned dramatically different details, of course. Over time, and once she saw his impressive collection of memorabilia, brainstorming led to the idea of the museum.
The Unsers had an ally in then-Gov. Bill Richardson, state funds supplemented private funds, and the museum came to life in 2005.
This Indy 500 might also mark the last for Susan Unser as the facility’s managing director.
“Just to be in that place, which is so special to us” is difficult, she wistfully said.
That set aside a listener’s apparently misdirected concern that maybe the commute to the museum is just too far from the family’s home in Chama – on the New Mexico/Colorado border, nearly 170 miles away.
Susan laughed good-naturedly, scoffed and reminded: “We’re a driving family.”