IRL: Al Unser Jr press conference

Tom Kelly Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for joining us. Today we welcome back Al Unser, Jr. And, I'm sure I can speak for everyone in this room that we are all glad to see him in good health. Our thoughts and prayers have been with Al...

Tom Kelly Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for joining us.

Today we welcome back Al Unser, Jr. And, I'm sure I can speak for everyone in this room that we are all glad to see him in good health. Our thoughts and prayers have been with Al since he entered a substance-abuse center last month. We admired his honesty in recognizing his problem with alcohol, and his determination to do something about it.

The physicians treating Al were very pleased with his progress at the treatment center and felt he was ready to resume his regular routine. I know he can't wait to get back into the Corteco/Bryant car.

The news conference last month to announce that Al would enter the substance-abuse center was an extremely difficult time and I sincerely appreciate how respectful all of you were to al and our team. One of the cornerstones of strength within the motorsports family is the mutual trust and concern we have for one another. Your actions demonstrated the depth of the racing fraternity bond. at that time, al promised to meet with you and discuss the events of the past few weeks. We are here today to fulfill that pledge.

Now I know you want to hear from Al, and to have an opportunity to ask him some questions. So, please welcome back to racing ... Al Unser, Jr.

Al Unser Jr

It's great being back and I'm not sure I've ever Thank you, Tom. Good afternoon, everyone. I have never been more excited to climb in a racecar. The last three weeks have been interesting. Last month at our news conference at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, I announced that I had a problem with alcohol abuse. I said I knew what the problem was, but I wasn't sure how to deal with it and had decided to enter a nationally known substance-abuse center. I stated I was looking forward to seeking the help I had discovered I definitely needed.

I am here today to tell you that I have spent the last few weeks at one of the best facilities in the world. The doctors and staff members were really outstanding. prior to their releasing me from the facility on Monday of this week, I received tremendous encouragement as well as the tools to begin the process of getting on with my life. The most important lesson I've learned is to take one day at a time and make good decisions with my life.

My recovery program didn't end earlier this week. No, that's just the beginning. I have a program that I'm following today ... tomorrow ... next week ... next month ... next year ... and, the rest of my life. I was told by the doctors that once you're considered medically healthy and are taught how to better manage your lifestyle, the next phase of the recovery is getting back on track with your life.

I am really thrilled about returning to racing this weekend, and I'm prepared for the challenge of managing my life without alcohol. I know I need to take every day as it comes, and I know I can do that with the support and help of others.

Before I answer your questions, I would like to thank a few people who really helped me.

I'd like to thank my parents for their love and support. I am very proud of my family.

I'd like to thank Tom Kelley and Greg Gyllstrom from Corteco, who decided to help rather than give up on me. Greg, thank you very much for making the arrangements for my treatment. I'll always be grateful to you and everyone at Corteco and Kelley Racing.

I'd like to thank Tony Renna for filling in for me so well while I was away. He's a terrific young talent and has a tremendous future ahead of him.

And, lastly, I'd like to thank everyone who had me in their thoughts and prayers. They really helped and I really appreciate it.

Now, I'm ready to answer some questions ... but, I'm also ready to get on with my life. After I answer your questions this afternoon, I'd like to stop talking about the past and focus just on the present day and the future. Your assistance with the ability to move forward and not revisit the past, will play a big part in my potential success. I'm hoping that you and others will support me in this effort as you all have supported me throughout my career.

Tom, I'll turn it back over to you. Thank you again, everyone.

Q: Al, can you please describe what the first few weeks were like at the treatment center?

Al: I guess the best way to put it is very educational. You know I didn't understand why I kept going full circle. Why I would get into shape and not drink at all and all of the sudden feeling real good about myself and then I would be back at full circle again. What the recovery center gave me was the knowledge and tools to not pick up a drink and so on. I learned there that it is hereditary. I also learned that something I didn't know, my grandpa, Kerry, on my mom's side died of alcohol abuse and my grandpa Unser was also an alcoholic and these things I didn't know and so you know had if I had known these things and also known that it was a disease we could have probably stopped this, but not knowing you know the biggest misunderstanding with alcohol is that it is a disease and it kills and so it was a disease that I got and the bad thing is, is that I am my own doctor now. Now that I have this disease it is my responsibility to put an end and that is the positive side of things. You know with other diseases, for example cancer, a doctor performs surgery and you go through chemotherapy and you hope and pray that it doesn't come back, you know the person doesn't have control of it. With this disease I got control of it and were going to apply it just like that.

Q: How much did you drink?

Al: Umm, it all depended when it was. We were drinking enough to catch the disease. You know, with everybody it's different, they don't know the cause of alcoholism like they don't know the cause of cancer and so with everybody it's different.

Q: How strongly do you think alcohol abuse was to the struggle of your on track career?

Al: I don't think they were linked. Like in the Penske years, we didn't have the tires and we didn't have the engine and so you know you can be the best racecar driver in the world and if you don't have the car then you are not going to do well. Part of my drinking, was my problem of drinking off the racetrack. It was making me do the insane things that got me in trouble in Indianapolis with my girlfriend so that is where the big problems existed.

Q: Did the pressures of racing add to your drinking?

Al: I don't know what it was. You Know it was a disease and I thought I could do it on my own, which means stop drinking, and I found out that I couldn't stop on my own and that I needed help and a power that was greater than myself which is my higher power which I call God and with his assistance I am going to have the strength to conquer.

Q: Does it bother you that your fans will look at you as a recovering alcoholic rather than just a racecar driver?

Al: No, I think quite honestly with what we have been through in my life it makes me another human being and that's all we are as racecar drivers and basically we are the last nut that the crew chief puts in the car to go and so I am just another human being who has problems in life just like everybody else and this effected my life outside the racetrack so for me to live a better life I needed to do this and I just thank Tom Kelley and Greg Gyllstrom and everybody at Corteco and Kelley Racing. I went to them and asked them to support me on this and to give me the time off I needed to go fix my problem and Tom stepped right up to the plate and other people could have just canned me and these guys didn't, they supported me cold-heartedly.

Q: Are you bitter about the rumors of your lifestyle being put out in public and broadcasted to the public?

Al: I am disappointed that my private life is not so private anymore. I think anyone would be a little disappointed in that, but I put myself out there. I walk out here and dare myself to fail and so I am in an industry that is public and so I dare myself to fail and some people tend to jump on the failures more so than the successes.

Q: Al, are you a member of alcoholics anonymous?

Al: I am a member of alcoholics anonymous. I am an alcoholic and I am a grateful alcoholic. I am grateful for the support I have received, for my health, for my children's health. I am grateful to have such wonderful people supporting me like Tom Kelley and Greg Gyllstrom, my team, I am grateful for my mom and dad supporting me, I am grateful for the recovery center that taught me the tools that I am going to go forward with in my life and the counselors and the therapists that have helped me the past three weeks. I am grateful that I have a promising life in front of me that is one that God intended for it to live and so I am Al, the grateful alcoholic.

Q: Al, you mentioned that the bulk of this occurred off the track, were you ever under the influence on the track or in your racecar?

Al: No, never, never did it come close to even coming close to that racecar. I know a lot of people have asked that. Once the people found out in rehab, that was the most popular question. Did I drink and drive? No I did not. I put it simple to Jack Arute, it's like putting a gun to your head and pulling the trigger - No way!

Q: Are you comfortable serving as a role model with your fans if they have an alcohol problem?

Al: I am comfortable with that. I am comfortable with the fact that I am just a human being and I make the same mistakes that everyone else does and if they look at my coming out and acknowledging the fact that I am powerless against this disease and that my life was unmanageable gives them incentives to go and receive help. If you just think you have a drinking problem you need to get help and so if it helps other people than that's great.

Q: When did you know it was a problem? Was there one concrete time?

Al: Yes, when I was sitting in jail on July ninth in Indianapolis. You know I had hit bottoms before, I had hit bottoms in 1999 when I was going through my divorce for the final time, months later my little girl gets put in a wheel chair and months later I brake my leg, nothing was going right. That I guess was my first thought and that I pulled out of on my own. I can do it on my own and I did. There's something that I learned in rehab called "cockiness" and you get to feeling so good about yourself and you get cocky and you go have a drink and then two drinks and then you go full circle again. But on July 9th, I found out when I was doing an insane thing to my girlfriend, the one that I truly love, and so I seemed to be hurting the ones closest to me and so it was happening over and over again.

Q: Al, is everything behind you now, or is there still a possibility of charges?

Al: Charges in Indianapolis have been dropped, but I want to say that I am in my early stages of recovery and so I still have big challenges in front of me and I look forward to those challenges in front of me. I am a racecar driver who has been very successful. I am a winner and I am going to take this race and I am going to run it one lap at a time and I am going to win this race, like I did all of my other race wins and so we're going to do good on this one.

Q: Are you worried it's too soon?

Al: Worried about what's to soon, getting back in the car? That racecar is the best therapy that I could go into. It's truly where I get the closest to my higher power which is God and the best thing that I could have to get in the racecar and so it's not too soon and I'm very excited about getting into car.

Q: Tom Kelley, do you think it's too soon for Al to get back into the car?

TK: I feel very comfortable as a team owner putting Al back into the car with his experience. Al and I have spent a lot of time together this week, he stayed up at my house in Fort Wayne and Al and I had a chance to do a lot of soul searching and talking and I feel very, very comfortable putting Al back into the car. With Al getting back into the car sure things could happen, beyond his control and the outcome may not be what we want, but with his experience he will do a wonderful time. I want to back the same point that Al made earlier. I as a team owner, never felt at all that Al had not given us a hundred percent on the racetrack this year with Kelley Racing. If you look at his performance, besides the time where things happen beyond his control, Al did an outstanding job and perhaps on track had one of the best seasons he's had in awhile and it's one of those things I feel very comfortable with Al. Our team as friends are going to need to be supportive of Al, but Al is a friend and an employee and I am going to do whatever I can as a friend and employer to help him.

Q: Al you spoke of the support you received, were there any phone calls or cards that just touched home?

Al: They all touched home. There was not really one that stood out, all of my fans were wishing me all of the best in my recovering, their prayers were there for my recovering, for my return and my help and so they were just super to me and we received a lot of them and they all were very special to me and they all meant a lot.

Q: Do you feel different physically already for being sober for a couple of weeks?

Al: My mind is, I am enjoying life. Outside the racetrack, I've noticed the birds in the morning and stuff. I've been running everyday and so I feel very good, like I have in the past. I have quite drinking in the past and to go a month or two and I did it this year. In January, I went to months without touching a drink and I was feeling great and I'm feeling great again, but now I have the tools, I know about this cockiness, that was the one thing that got me here. I mean doing well, I almost won Texas by that much, I was right there. We didn't spray champagne in victory circle, but we sprayed champagne afterwards. It was the cockiness that really that got me, I know I have a disease and I know it is dramatically not good for me.

Q: Do you look at something that started this and wonder how?

Al: The cockiness at doing so well in Texas, I mean we had a good year at Indy, not one of the best I've had there, but I was feeling good. I could handle this and sure enough it came around and bit me again.

Q: What will you do in one of those champagne situations now?

Al: I don't know, I am going to ask the IRL to make sure there is a bottle of milk when I win again and the champagne is going to go all over my racecar, not me, my racecar.

Q: Specifically regarding this weekends race, how therapeutic will this be when you compare it to any other landmark races in your career, such as Indy, how does this compare?

Al: I think I can after this fully after the race, I can tell you that there have two times in my career that I have watched my racecar go around the track. It happened in 1999 when I broke my leg and Roger put someone else in the car and that was my racecar racing at Longbeach and the other races. I missed three or four races with my broken leg and it killed me to watch that car go around the track. Again, it happened this year and it was disappointing to see that car go around the racetrack, but now I'm back and I'm excited and I'm ready to go and I have the best team behind me. My guys, they're on it, I can't wait to get behind the wheel and get on it.

-kr-

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Tony Renna , Al Unser