Al Unser Jr. continues road to recovery at Indy 500

May 20, 2007 - 1:10 AM By Bruce Martin PA SportsTicker Contributing Editor

INDIANAPOLIS (Ticker) - When Al Unser Jr. qualified for his first Indianapolis 500 in 1983, the "Old Guard" included drivers in their mid-40s such as his father, Al, A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti.

"Now, me and Michael Andretti are the 'Old Guard,'" the 45-year-old Unser said. "I keep telling everybody we're really not."

Unser made the field for his 19th Indy 500 on Saturday, putting team owner A.J. Foyt's car into the inside of the ninth row with a four-lap average of 220.876 miles per hour.

"It was a good run and I'm glad it's in," Unser said. "I was a little bit careful with it because I could have run a 225, and we'd still be starting 23rd. We're in the back but I wanted to be a little safe with it. I thought getting into the race safely was more important and then we could go from there."

Unser's comeback to the Indy 500 field is more a story of his personal recovery than getting back into racing.

He has been clean and sober for 114 days after he was arrested in Henderson, Nevada and charged with driving under the influence, misdemeanor hit and run, failure to render aid in an accident and failure to report an accident in January. He goes to trial July 11 after entering a not guilty plea.

It was Unser's second alcohol-related arrest. In 2002, he was treated for alcohol abuse after allegedly striking his girlfriend while driving on an Indianapolis Interstate highway. By attending a treatment program, prosecutors did not file charges against him.

Unser stayed sober for 56 days after that but eventually went back to drinking, saying he refused to believe everything he learned in rehab.

But the January incident served as Unser's "bottom," and he knew he had to clean up his act.

When Foyt called and asked Unser if he wanted to drive one of his race cars at the Indianapolis 500, Unser had been sober for just a month.

For legal reasons, Unser can't go into the details of his crash because he has a trial pending, but the clarity has returned to his eyes and the smile now appears to be from a man happy to have another chance at life.

"I think that last incident really got Al's attention," said his uncle Bobby, a three-time Indy 500 winner. "Alcoholism is a disease. It's not a habit like a lot of people think.

"Little Al has that disease but he really is addressing it, so I can only hope that it's going to work over the long haul. That's what's important. It's important to his life, more so than getting back into this race car."

Perhaps getting back to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has provided Unser with another version of therapy. He's doing something he loves and is able to do it with a sense of purpose.

"I think it's really good that he's back," Bobby Unser said. "He wants to do it. Little Al likes Indy so much, it's like the same old fire horse you have seen here many times. When they ring the bell, the horse runs.

"Well, that's the way Little Al is when he comes to Indy. I'd be a liar to say I don't dream about it, too."

Bobby Unser was the one member of the Unser racing family that was able to retire on top. He won his third Indianapolis 500 in 1981 and retired at the end of that season.

"The hardest time was the year after I retired from IndyCars, I walked out of this race track and there were 200,000 people here for qualifying and they all stood up and clapped," Bobby Unser recalled. "And I cried. A lot of the race drivers, like Foyt and Johnny Rutherford and my brother, the guys who were the greats of auto racing, stayed on too long.

"The thing about it is they loved it so much, they just couldn't stay away. Unless we could open up their head, we can't tell what they were thinking."

Al Unser Jr. knew exactly what he was thinking when he decided to return for one more run at the Indy 500.

"We just enjoy racing," he said. "I love the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I love the Indy 500, and this year has been really special because of who I'm driving for.

"'The King' (Foyt) is working on my car, and I'm getting to talk to him and we're having a lot of fun. That's what racing is about is having a good time, having fun and enjoying yourself."

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