Al Unser Jnr: A Checkered Past

“Al Unser Jnr: A Checkered Past” reviewed

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“A Checkered Past” is the no-holds barred autobiography from two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and Indycar champion Al Unser Jnr. Whilst Unser’s battles with addiction have been well-documented, his autobiography consistently highlights the extent of his challenges.

As son of four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser, and part of the storied Unser family, Al Jnr came from a motor racing tradition. Best known for his successes in the finest liveried Indycar of all time (the Valvoline-backed Galles machine – this is not up for debate) and for Penske, Unser was one of the stars of Indycar during its halcyon era from the late eighties through the nineties.

There are two distinct sides to the book – the motor sport passages, and in particular some of the behind-the-scenes insights are fascinating. The stories behind some of the contractual dealings are notably more candid than in many driver autobiographies, whilst the chapter on Penske’s disastrous 1995 Indianapolis 500 is alone worth the price of admission. Equally revealing is the story of Unser’s Formula 1 test with Williams team in late 1991, the upshot of which being that it is no shock Patrick Head doesn’t provide dust-jacket quote.

It is clear that the driving side of things came relatively easy to Unser, as did the sponsorship. Unlike many drivers he didn’t really have to struggle for a seat until far later in his career. At his peak, Unser was a sponsors dream, but this isn’t covered too much, partly because positive sponsor engagement is so ingrained as part of the job in US sports.

Al Unser Jnr
Unser in 2018
Then there is the dark side. Indycar drivers of Unser’s time weren’t known for their fitness – many smoked, drank and were away of the gym as an existential concept. What sets Unser apart, by his own admission, was the extent to which used alcohol and drugs (marijuana and cocaine) throughout his career. From his earliest days, Unser would routinely smoke cannabis between races, before cleaning up for the race weekends. As his relationship with ex-wife Shelley got ever more turbulent, this expanded to include alcohol abuse and cocaine.

Much of this happened at the height of his career, when he was one of the best-known sports people in America – although most of it took place at home, this is near-unthinkable in today’s social media environment. The starkness with which Unser lays this out is shocking.

It all started to unravel in 1999, when Unser was released by Penske after a season-long drug testing saga that nearly saw him stood down. Around this time the late Robin Miller also started to work on an article that extensively chronicled the depth of Unser’s problems. That 2002 piece clearly still rankles and is referenced repeatedly.

Unser doesn’t hold back in sharing the stark detail of his downward spiral, which at times is extremely bleak. In the early stages of his latest attempt at sobriety, there isn’t quite yet the redemptive arc for Unser, as he openly acknowledges he needs to progress day-by-day and avoid making the wrong choices. Likewise, he is very open that his motivation for the book is to share his story, and help others.

Written in partnership with Jade Gurss, A Checkered Past is well put together and eminently readable. It is also extraordinarily brave, Unser leaves little unsaid and unshared, and for that he should be applauded.

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Rating four out of five

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“Al Unser Jnr: A Checkered Past”

Author: Al Unser Jnr and Jade Gurss
Publisher: Octane Press
Published: 2021
Pages: 320
Price: $35.00 (approx. £25.58)
ISBN: 9781642340457

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Ben Evans
Motorsport commentator Ben is RaceFans' resident bookworm. Look out for his verdict on the latest motor racing publications on Sundays....

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  • 7 comments on ““Al Unser Jnr: A Checkered Past” reviewed”

    1. This must explain his decline after 1996, time when Penske was still producing very competetive chassis.

    2. Met him at Surfers, in 98. Top bloke, very gracious. Wish him the best of luck. Also the Target Ganassi cars of Vasser/Zanardi/Montoya were the best liveries to be put on a Indy/Champ Car

      1. @mick80
        I wholeheartedly agree with the livery comment! For me that livery is among the most epic liveries, together with McLaren’s/Penske’s Marlboro liveries and the John Player’s Lotus livery.

    3. Nicely written review. Thanks.

    4. I remember go to the Indy Car race in Toronto. Mario’s retirement year. 94?

      I was up in the start finish grandstand and you could look down into the cockpit of the cars as they came around the bend and onto the straight. Unser came around that turn, making busy steering corrections all through the corner. I’m sure they all were but he was the one I noticed. Spectacular to watch.

    5. Richard K Endsley
      1st November 2021, 15:42

      My comment is actually more about the article by Ben Evans. Someone who is a professional writer, and self described bookworm should be able to produce correct English sentences or that is at least my expectation. Also, why does Mr. Evans insist on using the Jnr. for Junior when the book title and common English abbreviation uses Jr. However, I am glad the article highlighted this book, which I will most likely purchase and read since I was a huge Indy racing fan during that time period and I was a fan of “Little Al”. I remember seeing him in his early days racing Can-Am @ Riverside International Raceway and thinking this young man is a future star.

      1. Regarding ‘Jnr’, that’s our house style.

    Comments are closed.