CHICAGO SUN TIMES
Roadblocks frustrate Little Al
July 23, 1999
BY HERB GOULD STAFF REPORTER
BROOKLYN, Mich.--To say racing has been unkind to Al Unser Jr. the last
few years is putting it mildly. The second-winningest driver in
Championship Auto Racing Teams history, Unser hasn't won a race since
1995. And with his Marlboro Penske team committed to questionable tires
and a dubious chassis, his prospects of adding to his 31 CART victories
soon are not bright.
As rugged as life has been on the track, though, getting behind the
wheel of his race car provides relief from the twin agonies of a divorce
from Shelly, his wife of nearly 20 years, and the paralysis of Cody, his
12-year-old daughter. "Getting in the car is definitely a way to get
away from everybody," Unser, 37, said Thursday. "I'm getting stabbed in
the back from a lot of people. I'm getting hit from all sides--and most
of it is coming from Shelly's attorneys."
Shelly initially filed for divorce in 1996. After a legal separation,
they reconciled and their fourth child was born. But the marriage
deteriorated again. Late last year, the lawyers went to work in
earnest. In February, Cody, the second of the Unsers' four children,
was diagnosed with transverse myelitis, an illness apparently caused by
an allergic reaction to a vaccine for hepatitis. She is paralyzed from
the chest down.
"[Doctors] feel with some intense therapy, they can [restore] her back
muscles and stomach muscles," Unser said. "But as far as her legs,
they're not happy with the results of the testing." His family often
used to travel with Unser, who drives a motor home from race to race.
Now, they're back home in Albuquerque. "With the divorce going on,
Shelly doesn't let me see my children at this point, even Cody," Unser
said. "I have to go home to see my children. And when I go home, I run
into Shelly. That makes it very difficult right now."
While outsiders wonder if Unser's days of championship driving are in
the rear-view mirror, Unser draws strength from his daughter, who
refuses to give in to her heartbreaking illness. "Her attitude, and the
courage she has, has definitely inspired me to keep going," Unser said.
"Unsers are not people to give up. She's helped me maintain the fight
to try and go out there and do good." The troubles on the homefront
certainly are more important. But Unser's frustrations on the racetrack
also have been wrenching. On the first lap of this season's opening
race at Miami, he fractured his right ankle in a crash with rookie Naoki
Hattori and missed the next two races.
After switching to a Lola chassis in early June because the team's
Penske creation wasn't working, Unser thought he had a chance for
victory at Cleveland on June 27.
"I'm running fifth and Bell Helmets decides to try a trick shield on my
helmet. It didn't work. I couldn't see," he said. "For the first time in
my career, driving any race car, I had to make a pit stop to change my
shield. I felt Bell Helmet cost me the victory in Cleveland. I'm getting
hit from all sides. It never ends."
Still, Unser goes into Sunday's U.S. 500 (12:30 p.m., Ch. 7) thinking he
can win for the first time in 53 races. "You betcha. We had some real
good tests here," Unser said.
The two-time Indianapolis 500 winner insists that he remains excited
about this season, and scoffs at those who say he's over the hill. "It's
been a very tough year. But racing is my life. If racing was to be taken
away from me, that would hurt a lot," Unser said, dismissing speculation
that he's getting too old to win open-wheel races. "I'm as strong as
I've ever been," Unser said, an opinion that was seconded by all-time
CART champion Michael Andretti.
"I've heard a lot of talk that Al's washed up, but he's just in a
difficult situation," Andretti said. "You put him in my car and give him
a few laps to get his confidence back up and he'll be winning races
again. People want to jump on the age right away, but its not Al's age
at all." Bolstered by his daughter's strength, Unser remains positive.
"I am frustrated, but I never go into a race thinking I don't have a
shot at winning," he said. "You never know what's going to happen in a
race. If you can make the race, you can win it."