Hitting all the bumps

Unser: Life's road has been less than smooth for Al Unser Jr. recently, but he's hoping for better things today when he makes his season debut in Nazareth, Pa.

May 02, 1999|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

For 13 years, Al Unser Jr. had the good life.

He was married with four children. His racing career was off the charts, as he drove for Roger Penske, the most successful car owner in Indy Car history. He virtually wanted for nothing.

And then came 1995 and the Indianapolis 500. Unser became the first defending champion in 500 history not to make the starting field the year after winning the race. None of Penske's cars made the field.

Then came the nearly four years of racing without a victory.

And then the really bad stuff happened.

His marriage failed.

His 12-year-old daughter, Cody, was stricken with transverse myelitis, a virus that attacks the spinal cord, in February. It has left her temporarily unable to walk.

Then, to top it off, he broke his right ankle on the first turn of the first lap of the CART season opener in Homestead, Fla., on March 21.

"I, myself, didn't need the burst of reality, especially the one with Cody," said Unser, who will make his season debut today, starting from the 23rd spot in the Bosch Spark Plug Grand Prix at Nazareth (Pa.) Speedway.

He couldn't even look at his broken ankle as a blessing in disguise, because it didn't mean he could spend more time with his daughter.

Unser, 37, had spent every day with his daughter while she was hospitalized with her sudden illness. But when she was at last able to leave the hospital, that was the last time he saw her because of the breakup of his marriage. Cody went home with her mom, Shelly, at Easter.

"But I talk to her every day on the phone," he said late last week.

"Two days ago, she moved her toe, which was really, really super good news," said the father. "It was a big deal because we're in a three-month window.

"If they see any type of physical recovery within the first three months, then chances are very, very good that she's going to have a full recovery. If nothing happened in the first three months, then it wouldn't be looking so good. So she moved her toe and it was a big deal!"

It is such a little, delicate thing, especially when compared to manhandling a big, powerful race car. The contrast isn't lost on Unser or his peers.

Michael Andretti and Unser have been friends since they were children and their dads raced. Now, Michael is CART's all-time leader in career wins with 37 and Al Jr. is second with 31.

As they go into today's race, each is trying to dig out of a slump. Andretti hasn't won since the 1998 season opener in Homestead, 22 races ago. Unser hasn't won since Vancouver in 1995.

But when asked about Unser's return, like many other CART drivers, Andretti was thinking more about showing support for his friend than about racing.

"My heart goes out to Al, with all he's been through -- his marriage, his daughter, his car being uncompetitive the last few years," Andretti said. "I'm really just happy he's back. I think it will help him. This is where he wants to be. He's got a lot of racing left in him, I'm sure."

Paul Tracy, a former Penske teammate, also was sympathetic to Unser's situation.

"He has a lot more important things to worry about than what goes on at the track," Tracy said. "There's a lot more on his plate than just racing. It helps all of us to keep perspective. But I know he's eager to get back. And I know he'll be tough."

Just how tough, however, remains to be seen.

Unser and Penske have been working on developing their own race car since before the 1995 Indianapolis 500. It was a shock to the entire team when Unser could not make the 500 field.

"I had no idea what was ahead," he said. "Not qualifying at Indy, being the defending champion and making three attempts -- it was depressing to say the least. And it wasn't just me; it was the whole team. We never could have imagined anything like that happening. It was shocking."

He won two races later in 1995, although after he won at Portland, it took a lawsuit to restore the win that officials took away after the race when they declared his car illegal.

"That was actually my last victory, when I won that victory back in court at the end of the 1995 season," Unser said.

In 1996, he was leading into the last lap at Elkhart Lake when his engine blew in the last corner. It was the last time he has even been close to winning.

At the start of this season, the Penske team hoped for better. But then Unser broke his ankle and rookie Tarso Marques stepped in for two races. In Japan, Marques qualified 22nd and finished 14th, and at Long Beach he qualified 13th and finished 23rd.

Unser, sitting on the sideline, chafed at not being able to get in the car. So last Monday, still on crutches, he went to St. Louis to test his car -- and his ankle. The results were good. Doctors cleared him to race and he will wear a special brace and a special shoe.

"I think it is almost more stressful for me to be a spectator than it is to be a participant," said Unser, who has missed only one race -- that precursive 1995 Indy 500 -- in his entire 17-year career.

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