IRL, Indy 500: Unser Brothers Find Success on Different Life Paths
20 May 1999INDIANAPOLIS -- The Unser name is synonymous with the Indianapolis 500.
Bobby, Al Sr. and Al Jr. have won the race a combined nine times. Six Unsers have driven in the race a combined 63 times. Cousins Johnny and Robby will try to add to those totals this month.
Jerry Unser launched the Unser Indy assault in 1958 when he was a rookie along with now legendary A.J. Foyt. However, he never completed a lap in the race as his car became involved in a massive north chute accident and catapulted over the wall. He returned in 1959 and during practice on May 2 he crashed and suffered injuries that proved fatal on May 17.
Jerry left a young wife, Jeanie, and two sons, Jerry, who was named after his grandfather and father, and Johnny, under the age of 2. This month Johnny, carrying the same No. 92 that was on his father's car, will try to qualify for his fourth straight Indy 500. Jerry is the one Unser offspring who has never raced. Instead, he turned to the ministry and has lived in Australia for the past 15 years.
Following are the stories of Johnny, who chose the racing path, and Jerry, who picked another direction in life, as they faced living up to the Unser legacy despite the loss of their father when they still were infants.
Johnny Unser always has felt that racing is the right thing for him to do. He has those genes, and it is difficult for him to consider doing anything else in life.
"It's something I've always loved to do, to race and compete," he said, "because there's no bigger challenge that I've found anywhere than to put a team together and be successful in motorsports. It's extremely difficult."
Johnny was born on Oct. 22, 1958. He has driven in many types of races, such as the Pikes Peak Hill Climb and the 24 Hours of Daytona, but it wasn't until he was 37 that he finally got to become a part of the Unser Indy 500 history. This year he will drive a third time for car owner Ron Hemelgarn as a teammate to 1996 Indy champion Buddy Lazier.
Using his Uncle Al's favorite expression, Johnny said it will be "neat" to carry No. 92 in honor of his father on his car.
"The Unser family has been very successful at it," he said about racing. "At the same time it's been very hard on our family. It took the life of my dad. So it's got its good points, and it's got its bad points. But I love it, and I'm committed to it."
Johnny wishes he had known his father. However, he has seen so many home movies, photographs and scrapbooks, and talked to so many people around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway who knew him that he feels like he knows his dad.
Johnny admits that his mother did try to shield her sons from racing for a time after her husband's death. He said she didn't know what to do, so she traveled around with her two boys seeking a permanent place to stay. "We were kind of here and there," he said. "We were partly growing up in Albuquerque, but at times we were away from it."
One thing Jeanie Unser did was providing Jerry and Johnny the opportunity to go racing. She'd allow them to attend races, come back to the Speedway, be involved, but then take them back away from it.
The only stipulation she had about their career choices was that they attend college. She didn't want racing to be their only avenue to success. "She always told me, if you want to go racing, I want you to do it 100 percent professionally, or I don't want you to get involved," Johnny said.
Johnny listened and earned a degree from California State University. But the urge to follow the Unser calling was too great for him to consider any other career choice. He moved up through the ranks and displayed the Unser ability to win. For instance, he shared the winner's trophy in the 12 Hours of Sebring and scored well in the American IndyCar Series.
He doesn't remember the first time he came to the Speedway because he was a babe in arms. He didn't return until the 1970s.
"It meant so much to me to come back here," he said. "After that I worked for my Uncle Al. I changed tires for him at Ontario and at the Speedway." Johnny worked for cousin Al Jr. at various times. One summer he, Al Jr. and mechanic Lyle Dill traveled the World of Outlaws circuit. As he grew up, no matter where he lived he listened to the Indy 500 on the radio and dreamed about becoming a part of it. The sport took away part of his life at an extremely early age, but he has never detoured from his goal to become a racing driver just like the rest of the Unser clan.
"It would have been just as easy to walk away from it and not do it," he said. "In fact, it probably was much harder for me to go and do it. It was something I wanted to do, and I did it."
Driving fast was a passion for young Jerry Unser. The family lived in Albuquerque, N.M., and Jerry was determined to show his cousins and friends that he could be the fastest Unser of all.
"Of course, I thought I was pretty good," he said. "My friends just thought I was pretty crazy and reasonably stupid."
Jerry was born June 10, 1957, in Los Angeles after his father had displayed his racing skills during a short period in Hawaii. The next May the senior Jerry was in the starting field of the Indianapolis 500. And the May after that, he was gone.
His mother, Jeanie, took him and younger brother Johnny to Albuquerque because that was where all the racing Unsers lived. Young Jerry says he remembers the house they lived in, his first school - "even my first girlfriend." But then his mother, seeking an identity outside the Unser clan, moved to Canada and eventually California.
They settled in Sutter Creek in the Sierra Mountains of northern California. There she met a forester named Dick Hess and remarried. Jerry says Hess has been a great stepfather to the two boys.
Hess also did something else that would play an important role in young Jerry's life. He introduced the family to church membership. "John and I both were baptized as young teen-agers," Jerry said, "and went to a Christian high school.
"We were both interested in sports and were both graduating class presidents as we went through school, and both got bachelor's degrees in physical education to start our professional careers."
Jerry admits the Unser racing legacy wasn't just wiped away. He said both brothers expected to become race drivers.
"To us, that's what an Unser was," he said.
Uncles Louie (a racing mechanic at Indy), Bobby and Al became father figures during their summer-long visits to Albuquerque, and Jerry said he and his brother loved and revered them. They raced dune buggies and motorcycles, and Jerry idolized his cousin Bobby Jr.
"Little Al was the littlest of us all at the time and the biggest pain," Jerry said.
But Jerry Unser began to hear another calling as a teen-ager. He said he developed a conviction that his life had to be different, and that was to follow God.
"So I never raced," he said.
Today, he terms it the greatest regret of his life. But he added that he wouldn't change where he's at now. He is a counselor for children in Mudgeraba, Australia.
Stubborn, he said that when he made the decision to seek another direction in life, there was no way for him to turn back. He feels that maybe God had another plan for him.
"Or maybe he just knew that I would probably screw up my life if I went racing," he said.
Jerry believes he is more like his Uncle Louie, who is his father's twin. Louie Unser, Jerry said, has been a rebel who has fought a crippling disease most of his life. Jerry calls him a hero, and admires his courage and integrity.
Young Jerry was slow in finding the ministry and went to Australia on a whim - "and to escape the police for a large number of speeding and driving tickets." He met his future wife, Karen, there. After marriage, they settled on Australia's Gold Coast.
And then he pursued his goal to become a minister, acquiring a master's degree. He now is working in Christian youth ministry and as a behavioral management specialist for the state education system in Queensland.
His focus today - instead of going fast - is to inspire young people to make a choice to challenge themselves and make a difference wherever they are. He is good at what he does and speaks at schools and conferences in Australia, New Zealand and the U.S.
That has become his Indy 500.
"Family has remained important to me," he said.
"My passion, my greatest achievement has been in raising two beautiful girls with my wife of 20 years. If I leave this world with nothing else, I will leave with a legacy of being a father of children raised in love and integrity.
"That's enough for me."