Racing is a young man's game. At one time turnover of drivers came by death; in these modern days of HANS devices, SAFER barriers and a plethora of safety items that keep drivers working into their 40s and beyond, retirement must be a deliberate choice.
"I had always said that when racing stopped beyond enjoyable, stopped being fun, I would stop," he said this morning in Indianapolis Motor Speedway's media center, flanked by the Borg Warner trophy that shows his name twice as winner of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race.
Unser Jr., now 42 started his career in karts at the age of nine and has been racing "every summer since then," he recalled. In Indy car racing, Unser amassed 327 starts, 34 victories (sixth all-time), two Indy 500 championships and two CART titles. Since joining the Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series in 2000, Unser has earned three victories.
"Tony George asked me to make the announcement here at the Speedway, saying it was 'only appropriate' I'd announce it here," Unser said. He ran only three IRL contests in the 2004 season, at Indy, Texas and last weekend at Richmond, driving the #20 Patrick Racing Dallara/Chevrolet/Firestone challenger for U.E. "Pat" Patrick.
"Pat was adamant I remain with the team when I told him. I don't know what I'll be doing but I'm honored to stay with this team. I'll do anything I can to help this team win races," Unser declared.
In making his announcement today, Unser Jr. had plenty of people to thank: his parents were first and in particular his father Al Unser saying, "He still hasn't taught me everything he knows." Unser Jr. went on to credit "Rick Galles and the whole Galles family for bringing me to Indy. We came through Super Vees, CanAm cars to make it here in 1983," he recalled.
In 1985, driving for the late Doug Shierson, Unser lost the CART championship by one point to his father and he credited the entire Shierson family. "I have to thank Roger [Penske] for that wonderful, powerful 209 engine at Indy in 1994. He helped me get my second Indy championship and my time with Team Penske was very special.
"I want to thank my fans for their support and I hope it continues," he continued. "I have to say the IRL has the best series in the world and I'm lucky to be part of it. Finally," Unser declared, "I have to thank Pat Patrick for believing in me and hiring me this year."
Then he had another announcement: "My son Al will be driving this weekend in the Menards Infiniti Pro Series for Keith Duesenberg at Kansas so I get to worry about him, not me!"
Al Unser Jr. did insist, through a nearly hour-long press conference, that he made his decision to give up driving an IRL racer on Sunday. "It didn't have anything to do with performance," he insisted, "but every driver would want to go out the way Gil [de Ferran] did it last year, with a win." Unfortunately that isn't going to happen.
"You know when it's time. You never had a set day but when you love racing you have to have passion for it before all else. It has to be everything in your life. Helping my sons and daughters means more to me today than driving."
"There is a fine line between being aggressive and being too aggressive. You have to be right there," Unser acknowledged. He'd like to be remembered, in particular for those two Indy wins, the first with a distinctive Galmer chassis in 1992 on one of the coldest race days ever seen at Indianapolis Motor Speedway; the second with the unique 209-cubic- inch engine that no one else had.
"There are a lot of special times to remember outside of Indy. I have fond memories of the [Toyota] Grand Prix of Long Beach (where he had six victories and was known as "King of the Beach"), Toronto, Milwaukee, just about everywhere we've gone we've had some success," Unser recalled.
"Last Sunday at Richmond, I started thinking about my whole career and I'd come to the realization it was time to go. When Rick [Mears] retired, I didn't understand when he talked about the amount of commitment required at this level of racing and what it took to maintain the level of commitment and desire. I didn't realize you had to put racing before everything in life."
With the "pressure lifted off as I talked with Pat and my father," Unser realized his decision was the right one. Now there will be a new pressure for him as Al Unser Jr. goes to the 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway to watch his own 21-year-old son Alfred, whom he calls "little Al" but who prefers to be called "just Al" race in the Pro series.
"What scares me is going to Kansas and watching little Al race in the Pro series this weekend," he laughed. "I will devote my entire knowledge to help him follow in my footsteps and in his grandfather's footsteps. No doubt little Al is feeling pressure like Michael's son, Marco."
As the news of his departure from the IndyCar Series ranks spread kudos came in from contemporaries such as Mears, Mario Andretti and Bobby Rahal, all of whom praised Unser's ability to race clean and hard. "To hear those guys say I'm the cleanest guy to race with makes me very proud they could trust me," Unser Jr. acknowledged.
Al Unser Jr. intends to lend his experience to aid son Alfred as he comes up through the ranks and, hopefully, qualify some day for the Indianapolis 500. After his first win in 1992, Unser Jr. cried, "You just don't know what Indy means" in Victory Lane.
There were no tears today for Al Unser Jr. as he faced the future. "We just closed that chapter and we're starting a new one."