Four-time Indy 500 winner Unser dies at age 82


Al Unser Sr., a four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 and three-time champion in what is now the IndyCar Series, died Thursday. Unser, who had been diagnosed with cancer 17 years ago, was 82.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway said early Friday that Unser died at his home in Chama, New Mexico, with his wife, Susan, by his side.

In addition to his four Indianapolis 500 wins, his son, Al Unser Jr., won the race twice, making them the only father and son to win the race. Al Sr.’s brother, Bobby, won the 500 three times, making them the only brothers to do so.

“My heart is so saddened. My father passed away last night,” Al Unser Jr. tweeted. “He was a Great man and even a Greater Father. Rest In Peace Dad!”

Al Unser Sr. retired with 39 wins and season championships in 1970, 1983 and 1985.

“Al Unser Sr. was one of the smartest drivers I’ve ever raced against,” Mario Andretti said on ESPN’s SportsCentury series. “And I often said I wish I could’ve had some of his patience. I know it would have worked for me many time.”

Unser began racing in 1957 and competed in his first Indy 500 in 1965. He dominated in his first Indy win in 1970 by starting from the pole and leading all but 10 of the 200 laps, beating runner-up Mark Donohue by 32 seconds. He won again the next year in the distinctive “Johnny Lightning Special” fielded by Parnelli Jones and finished second to Donohue in 1972.

He earned his third Indy win in 1978. The fourth, in 1987, was, by far, the most surprising as he entered the month of May without a ride for the race.

Unser had been dropped by team owner Roger Penske after four seasons in favor of Danny Ongais, but Ongais suffered a concussion in a practice crash and wasn’t able to compete. Penske turned back to Unser, giving him a backup car that began the month as a show car on display in a hotel in Reading, Pennsylvania, where the team was based.

With his victory in 1987, Unser, then 47, became the oldest winner in Indy 500 history. He also joined A.J. Foyt as the only four-time winners of the race, a group that now includes Rick Mears and 2021 race winner Helio Castroneves.

“I will always remember Big Al welcoming me to the speedway,” Castroneves told The Associated Press on Friday. “He and Johnny Rutherford were the two helping me with my rookie orientation. He will be missed.”

Penske said in a statement that Unser was “a true racing legend and a champion on and off the track.”

“Al was the quiet leader of the Unser family, a tremendous competitor and one of the greatest drivers to ever race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway,” Penske said. “We were honored to help Al earn a place in history with his fourth Indy victory … and he will always be a big part of our team. Our thoughts are with the Unser family as they mourn the loss of a man that was beloved across the racing world and beyond.”

Unser made 27 starts in the Indy 500, third most in history, and qualified once on the pole and five times on the front row. The Unser family combined for 73 career starts in the Indy 500 — a number bettered only by the 76 starts by the Andretti family. The Unser participation spans Al (27 races), Bobby (19) and Al Jr. (19), as well as Johnny (5), Robby (2) and Jerry (1).

Al Unser Sr. retired in 1994 and remains the career lap leader for the Indianapolis 500 with 644, leading over half the laps in three of his Indy 500 victories. The closest active driver is Scott Dixon with 570 laps led.

“In the 112 years of racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Al Unser’s career stands out among the others,” IMS president J. Douglas Boles said in a statement. “His four Indianapolis 500 wins and most laps led in the ‘500’ (644) solidify him as one of the greatest of all time. Al achieved his successes competing against many of the best our sport has ever seen, which makes his accomplishments even more impressive. In addition, his quiet and humble approach outside of the car, combined with his fierce competitive spirit and fearless talent behind the wheel, made Al a fan favorite. He will be remembered as one of the best to ever race at Indianapolis, and we will all miss his smile, sense of humor and his warm, approachable personality. Our thoughts and prayers are with Susan Unser, the entire Unser family and all Al’s friends and fans.”

Unser also ran five NASCAR races in his career, finishing fourth in the 1968 Daytona 500 and earning three top-10 finishes in NASCAR. He also won three times in the International Race of Champions, an all-star series that pitted the top drivers from various disciplines against one another.

Al Unser Sr. is part of a prestigious club of four-time Indianapolis 500 winners along with A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Helio Castroneves. James Drake/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images
The youngest of four racing brothers, Unser was born in in Albuquerque in 1939 to a family of hard-core racers. His father, Jerry, and two uncles, Louis and Joe, were also drivers. Beginning in 1926, the family began competing in the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, an annual road race held in Colorado.

In 1958, Al’s oldest brother, Jerry, became the first Unser to qualify for the Indianapolis 500; he was killed in a crash during practice the next year.

Al Unser Sr. was inducted into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame in 1986 and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1998. His collection of trophies and cars is housed at the Unser Racing Museum in Albuquerque.

Unser is survived by wife Susan and son Al Jr. He was preceded in death by daughters Mary and Deborah. His brother Bobby died in May at age 87, and nephew Bobby Unser Jr. died in June at 65.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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