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The Callahan Report: Al Unser, Jr. - Portrait of a Dimming Star

6 September 1997

[ Al Unser, Jr. ]
Al Unser, Jr. at Indy, 1994

MONTEREY, CA: If a flock of a thousand seagulls flew by, Al Unser Jr. would be standing under it . . . without an umbrella. Such is the luck of the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner these days. Unser, who has more than $17 million in career earnings, has not won a CART race since 1995.

The Albuquerque, New Mexico native was once the hottest driver in America's premier open wheel series. Unser Jr. joined Penske racing in 1994. He was advised by all who were close to him that joining the Penske Team would be the pinnacle of his career. Unser took the advice of his family and friends. He jumped in the Penske car. The team flourished and Unser had the best season of his career. Unser won an unheard of eight races in 1994. He won the Indianapolis 500 for the second time. He also sat on the pole at Indy. He was so dominant he had the series point championship wrapped up with two races remaining in the season. His first season with Penske had all his competitors worried that they may never win a PPG Cup. Unser led nearly a third of all the race laps ran in his inaugural year with Team Penske.

To use the cliche . . . "Make hay while the sun is shining" . . . is exactly what Unser did in 1994. The dark clouds have rolled in since then. In fact, it is raining so hard, Team Penske engineers are reviewing manufacturing plans for a schooner. After a robust opening year with Penske, the victories came much tougher in 1995. Unser had half as many victories in 1995 as he did in 1994. This would be an impressive stat for any driver other than Unser. There were signs the team was struggling. There was more than a sign of demise at Indy . . . there were sky-writers in airplanes. Unser, the defending Indianapolis 500 champion, failed to make the Indy field. Unser may have started having doubts about the advice of his family and friends. He was supposed to dominate places like Indianapolis. Instead, he was home for the holiday weekend. Unser and Team Penske soldiered on the remainder of the season. One of the best drivers in the series . . . on the best team in the series . . . had to dig deep in order to salvage a runner-up finish in the season championship.

Turmoil hit open wheel racing and CART in 1996. A new racing series was being born. Tony George, President of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, decided he didn't approve of where Indy style racing was headed. George, along with other powerful people in open wheel racing, formed the Indy Racing League. Naturally, the Indianapolis 500 would be under the new series' rule. In an effort to ensure participation in the new series, the IRL ruled that twenty-five out of thirty-three starting positions at Indy would be reserved for IRL regulars. In a stand of solidarity, CART teams boycotted the 1996 Indianapolis 500. The CART series hurriedly threw together the U.S. 500 at Michigan International Speedway to go head to head with the worlds richest and most prestigious auto race, The Indianapolis 500.

Al Unser Jr. once said, "Every race I run is in preparation for the Indianapolis 500. Indy is the most important thing in my life. It is what I live for." These statements were evident in 1992 when Unser won the famed race for the first time. When asked about the tears in his eyes, Unser replied, "You just don't know what Indy means." He openly continued his teary celebration. He cried again in his 1994 victory celebration. With the formation of the IRL, however, Unser has lashed out at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He felt like a piece of him was snatched away. A part of his very soul had vanished. The racing superstar headed into the 1996 season knowing that he may never earn another Indianapolis 500 victory.

The emotional stress of missing Indy may have been the biggest turning point in Unser's life. In 1996, the once aggressive master of speed went winless for the first time in nine years. The CART series' most popular star was beginning to dim. He was able to salvage eight top five finishes and a fourth place finish in the PPG championship. For most drivers and teams, a fourth place championship finish would be a gargantuan year. But, this was Al Unser Jr . . . this was Team Penske . . . the two names synonymous with winning in Indy style races. Worse times were still ahead for Unser.

If '96 was a downhill year for Unser, then '97 is comparable to jumping out of an airplane without a parachute. During the 1997 season, Unser is giving most of his interviews while the races are still in progress. Those interviews show a relaxed Unser . . . no visible signs of upset or disgust.

For street circuits and road courses, the CART series has two groups of qualifying sessions. The two groups are the "slow group" and the "fast group." CART sends the "slower" group of cars out first for their qualification runs. Unser has now been demoted to the first group. Unser practiced today at Laguna Seca and was the 22nd fastest cart (out of 28). This is not the Unser of old. Where is the fury? Where is the ambition? At age 35, could one of the world's best drivers be finished? Is Al Unser Jr. a dimming star ... or is he ready to burst out of this slump like a supernova?

Terry Callahan -- The Auto Channel