Racing Legend Al Unser Jr. Reflects on Career and Faith
Photographer / Amy Payne
Additional Photography Provided
As a professional race car driver, Al Unser Jr. has truly lived life in the fast lane, and he’s loved every minute of the competitive nature of the sport. But just as there is no such thing as the perfect race, there is also no such thing as the perfect life.
Through the years, Unser has experienced his share of speed bumps and disappointments along the way – most notably, his battle with alcohol. Though he’s experienced ups and downs, both personally and professionally, it was only when he slowed down, looked up, and connected with Jesus Christ that he found true and lasting peace.
For as far back as he can recall, Unser had a need for speed – something that ran in his family, as both his father, Al Unser Sr., and his uncle, Bobby Unser, were racing legends. In fact, he, his uncle Bobby, and his dad all won the Indy 500 on May 24. Between the three of them, the Unser family has won the Indy 500 a record of nine times.
Unser began racing go-karts when he was 9 years old. By 16, he was professionally racing sprint cars.
“At a young age, I thought, ‘I love racing and if I’m successful at it, I’ll keep going,’” says Unser, who hit the ground running early in life and never looked back. “Racing was both physically and mentally demanding, but it was so competitive that when you did win races, it was very gratifying.”
He competed in more than 300 races, winning 34 of them, including two-time victories at both the Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500. Unser credits his team for those triumphs.
“You truly had to work at it and even when we were all prepared, you had to have some luck where things just went your way,” Unser says.
As every driver knows, on some days luck is on your side, and on other days, not so much. For instance, a driver may have a victory in their line of sight, and then in an instant, their engine blows up or an accident occurs. There is also human error.
“In every race mistakes are made, whether it’s the pit crew or the driver,” Unser says. “The goal is to make fewer mistakes than anybody else.”
Unser retired from racing in 2007 after a career that includes Indy 500 wins in 1992 and 1994. In 2009, Unser was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America. Though his first Indy 500 win was nearly three decades ago, he still vividly recalls the feeling of elation that enveloped him.
“It was a dream come true,” he says. “It was life itself.”
More recently, however, Unser has found new life by forging a meaningful relationship with Christ.
Born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Unser moved back to the Indianapolis area in the fall of 2017, when he joined an Indy car team that was just starting up. His mom, also a Hendricks County resident, invited Unser to join her at her church one Sunday. Initially, he agreed to go because he knew it would make her happy, but he had no real interest in learning about God.
“During my life, my conversations with God had always gone something like, ‘Please, let me win today’s race,’” Unser says. “That was the extent.”
As he sat in the church pews week after week listening to the pastor’s messages, however, he had a change of heart. One day, he had a revelation.
“I decided to give my life to Jesus and instantaneously I felt such a good feeling deep down inside me,” Unser says.
As the weeks and months passed, he noticed something profound.
“I didn’t fear death anymore,” Unser says. “And what’s more, I didn’t fear life.”
Many people who struggle with substance use disorder know what he means. Though Unser had used alcohol as a teen and into his 20s and 30s, his substance use disorder grew over time.
“It’s a subtle disease that progressively got worse,” says Unser, who struggled to admit he had a problem.
Eventually, he did reach out for help and started improving, but time and again he suffered slip-ups and backslides, which served to both discourage and humiliate him. Once he found Jesus, however, a switch was flipped. He felt that God was always there for him – he had just never taken the time before to be still and listen.
“That quiet time is so important in connecting with God,” Unser says. “He speaks to us when we settle down and are quiet. That can be hard in today’s fast-paced world, when our phones are ringing and binging all the time, but quiet time with Jesus is huge.”
Growing a meaningful relationship with Christ has given him a hope he didn’t know before.
“Being a follower of Jesus and serving others lightens your whole attitude going into the day,” Unser says. “When I was racing and everything was so competitive, I didn’t really serve anybody but myself.”
Following Jesus and studying God’s word helped Unser stay sober, and on May 24, 2021, he will celebrate two years of sobriety. Unser, currently single, has four children, Al, Cody, Shannon and Joe, and one grandchild. In his free time, he likes to watch TV, play racquetball, and hang out with his two miniature schnauzers, Lola and Larry. He’s also currently working for a Sports Car Club of America Formula 4 race team that runs kids, mainly between the ages of 14 and 20.
Last year Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing Development started a new Formula 4 United States Championship program with Elliot Cox, 13, behind the wheel. Unser was hired as a driver coach to work directly with Cox as well as Chloe Chambers, 16, who is with Future Star Racing. This is a first step for go-kart racers to determine if they truly want to pursue a professional racing career.
“I’m looking forward to a wonderful summer helping out that team as much as I can,” says Unser, who coached last year with a different race team in the same Formula 4 series. “I truly enjoy helping the kids. When they do well out on the racetrack and they come in smiling, that’s a win for me.”