by John Zimmermann
Portland, Oregon, Father's Day 1984, and 22-year-old Al Unser Jr. has just scored the first Indycar victory of his budding career in the G.I. Joe's 200. The podium ceremonies and subsequent rush to meet the media meant, however, he'd not yet seen his father, but when Big Al finally found his son, the proceedings paused and the wave of emotion from their joyous embrace washed over anyone nearby.
Barely two years before, on a sweltering August afternoon in the California desert, Al Jr. had made his Indy car debut, showing he belonged by running as high as third in Riverside's AirCal 500 before finishing fifth and impressing everyone.
Born into a racing family and raised to be a racing driver, he'd begun physically learning his craft at age eight, first in karts and then sprint cars – where, legend has it, he had to sit on a phonebook to see out of the car. His sprint car experience made him unique among his contemporaries, none of whom ever raced on the dirt.
From sprints he moved into Super Vees with Rick Galles' team, learning about rear-engined cars and road racing while winning the 1981 championship. Next came the Can-Am, again with Galles, where he experienced big power and downforce, as well as the stiffly sprung chassis dynamics he'd encounter in Indycars. He was in the midst of that successful title run when he turned up at Riverside.
From there he would go on to enjoy one of the most successful careers in Indycar history, quickly becoming a fan favorite and ultimately racking up a total of 34 wins to match his Uncle Bobby for fifth on the all-time list. Along the way he won National Championships in 1990 and '94, Indy 500s in '92 and '94.
Despite the family fondness for Indy, Junior seemed at his best in Long Beach. He won America's foremost street race a record six times, the first four consecutively. Three turns from a fifth straight victory in '92, he was nudged into a spin by teammate Danny Sullivan who won instead. After joining Marlboro Team Penske in 1994, Unser returned to the Long Beach Winner's Circle, then repeated in '95.
His bloodlines also drew him to Pikes Peak, where he duly recorded victory and new outright hill record in 1983. Beyond those open-wheel exploits are Rolex 24 at Daytona sports car triumphs with Holbert Racing Porsches in 1986 and '87, and IROC crowns in 1986 and '88. In his only Daytona 500 (1993) he ran with the leaders until a late tangle with Dale Earnhardt took them both out.
Like his father, Al Jr. would drive anything, anywhere, on any surface, mustering the necessary combination of mental concentration and mechanical sympathy to craft his Hall of Fame career. This single-minded dedication did not come without its cost, however, and in later years the toll it had taken evidenced itself with a series of personal crises that he now seems to have worked through. Everyone stands and cheers again.