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Wednesday, July 10
Updated: July 12, 1:39 PM ET
Arrest not first incident
By Robin Miller
The long, sad slide of Al Unser Jr. finally became public knowledge last Tuesday morning when he was arrested on preliminary misdemeanor charges of domestic battery and domestic violence resulting from an alleged altercation with his girlfriend after the two left a local strip club.
To his family, close friends and people on the inside of the open-wheel community, this wasn't surprising or shocking news.
Many of us have been aware of Unser's behavior the past several years. But we've either failed to pursue the stories, been discouraged for lack of cooperation, made excuses or looked the other way.
"We're all guilty of being in denial," said Bobby Unser, Junior's uncle and the patriarch of the Unser family, on Tuesday. "Al's had problems for some time now and none of us have done anything about it.
"He needs help, but he won't get any."
Steve Schweissgut said he saw those problems first hand in 1998 and 1999 when he spent a significant amount of time with Unser as his motorcoach driver.
"Al did a lot of pot, cocaine, Jack Daniels and, after he met his latest girlfriend (Jena Soto), he got on cranberry juice and vodka," said Schweissgut, a native of Toronto who befriended Unser in the early '90s. "It was always the same pattern. He would drink, do drugs and then be clean on race weekend.
"He hid it real well and he could lie through his teeth."
Schweissgut, who now works for General Motors in Toronto, said Unser would be his most violent when he was drinking.
"He'd get really mean and nasty on Jack and you just couldn't reason with him."
In the spring of 1999, following a track test session at Sebring, Fla., Schweissgut and Unser went to Orlando and checked into the Peabody Hotel.
"Al started smoking pot, he called it 'Johnny' and he was mixing it with liquor," recalled Schweissgut. "Then he emptied his mini-bar and my mini-bar and locked me out of his side of the suite and climbed out on the balcony and said he was going to jump.
"I called his sister (Mary) and Shelley (Unser), and he was calling Mary and he was out of control. This went on until the wee hours and he was out of control."
Bobby Unser said Wednesday night he was aware that his nephew's problems were drugs and alcohol. "Oh yeah, it was no secret," said the three-time Indy winner.
Rumors about Unser's drug and alcohol abuse have been swirling since 1995 and I asked him about them in 1997 at Toronto. His response was: "I've always smoked and had a few beers and my lifestyle hasn't changed since I was a rookie and it won't. I've never endangered myself or anybody else and I've never been put on probation for anything. Because I drive for the top owner in Indy-car racing (Roger Penske at the time) and one of the best sponsors (Marlboro), if there was a problem with me, I'd be gone. I'd be fired."
In 1998, CART chairman/CEO Andrew Craig and Penske confronted Unser about drug use and he denied it. After running away with the 1994 CART crown, Unser won four more races in '95 before going winless during his final four years (1996-99) with Team Penske. He was terminated by Penske at the end of the '99 season.
Unser's lawyer said Tuesday that the driver will not have any comment on this week's arrest.
Unser's violent streak has been felt most by his family. Ex-wife Shelley Unser filed a restraining order after alleged physical abuse toward her. It's also been said that his four children would become scared when Al Jr. had too much to drink.
Last July, there was a police report filed in Albuquerque, N.M., by Shannon Unser, wife of Bobby Unser Jr., alleging that Al, during a phone conversation, threatened to kill her. Tuesday evening, Bobby Unser Jr. confirmed the incident, stating it was "sad but true." Ironically, Shannon and Bobby have been helping Shelley Unser care for Al's four children.
Just this May, there was an incident involving drinking, driving and Unser near the gates of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. One of the IMS guards called me shortly after it happened and gave an eyewitness account -- explaining that Big Al and Tony George had intervened and escorted Junior to his motorhome in the IMS infield. But there was no police report.
In 1999, I met with Al Unser and Bobby Unser (separately) about the growing number of reports and rumors. Big Al said he thought his son probably drank a little too much but had no drug problems, while Bobby painted a much darker picture.
I suggested writing a story on my own, using their quotes, and presenting it to Junior after the last CART race of the year. I would tell him that if he didn't seek treatment within 30 days, I would publish the story. Al Unser asked me why I would be willing to do that, and I said because I respected his son's accomplishments and their family's history and it seemed obvious that help was needed.
Well, Greg Moore lost his life in the CART finale at Fontana, Calif., and I never delivered that story to Unser Jr.
So here it is today, in an updated version.
Hopefully, all the adverse publicity can force Junior to take some responsibility and his supposed friends like Tony George will do the right thing and get the two-time Indy winner into a clinic.
George, who had his own documented cocaine problems in the early '80s, would seem to be his best hope.
Junior can't depend on relatives because the entire Unser clan is in turmoil. Big Al and Bobby still live across the street from each other but no longer speak. Ditto for Bobby Jr. and Al Jr., who grew up together and were like brothers before things got ugly.
"Al (Jr.) and I haven't talked in years. And it's sad, because we used to be like brothers," said Bobby Unser Jr.
It's a sad story because Al Unser Jr. had it all 10 years ago.
That freckled-faced kid who drove with such maturity and charmed everyone with his aw-shucks personality has become a lost soul of 40 whose past glories can't mask his current condition. Or the lines on his weathered face.
Little Al has become a big disappointment.
He's been protected by his name and celebrity for way too long, so maybe this can jar him back to reality. Or at least get him on the road to recovery.
Al Unser Sr. said Tuesday he had "no indication" there was anything awry with his namesake. "When I started working for Al Jr., Al Sr. asked me to keep an eye on him so I know he was concerned," said Schweissgut.
But it's time father and son faced up to the truth.
Al Unser Jr. doesn't have a home anymore. He simply lives in Denial.Send this story to a friend | Most sent stories