Emerging from the Shadows of Giants
By Bobby Markos
Although Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Al Unser Jr. grew up on opposite ends of the country and are separated by over 12 years in age, their upbringings had a lot of similarities. They both grew up in the shadows of superstar father-figures, both at the top of their respective fields. Dale Earnhardt Sr. of course was a seven-time NASCAR Cup Champion and arguably the most recognizable race driver on the planet for many years. Al Unser Sr. was a four-time Indianapolis 500 winner and three-time Championship Car National Champion. Both Dale Jr. and Al Jr. grew up knowing they wanted to continue on their families' racing legacy, but also knew the pressure of having to live up to their fathers’ achievements. But both would overcome the burden by forging their own paths through the racing world. They would both tally-up accomplishments that would result in their own respective Hall of Fame careers, cementing the legacy of their family names and making Earnhardt and Unser synonymous with motorsports today.
On this week’s episode of the Dale Jr. Download, Dale Jr and co-host Mike Davis invite Al Unser Jr. into the Bojangles Studio to chat about his new, Jade Gurss-authored biography “A Checkered Past” as well as unpack the undertaking of coming up in racing with a famous father. Unser explained that when the pandemic began, he initially set out to write the book himself, enrolling in writing courses and assembling an outline. Eventually, he made the decision to work with Gurss, who formerly served as Dale Jr’s publicist and wrote the books “Driver #8” and “In the Red” about his career.
The conversation journeys back to Albuquerque, where young Al Jr. is getting his start in racing, in a go-kart his father built out of the family’s shop. Al Jr. describes the scene in Albuquerque at that time, where his Uncle Bobby Unser, a three-time Indianapolis 500 winner himself, and cousin Robby, who was a few years older also venturing into racing, lived right
across the street. The family raced together, with Uncle Bobby teaching Al Jr. about racing lines and apexes, helping him learn the fundamentals. Al Sr. was often away on the championship trail, but would come to Al Jr.’s kart events when he could, and would give him insightful advice on how to be faster and more efficient behind the wheel.
Al Jr. opened up about living in a divorced household, as Al Sr. and wife Wanda would divorce when he was nine years old. He described the emotional pain it caused, and made the decision to go and live with his mother for a time, as he couldn’t deal with his father’s strict expectations. But this decision put his racing career on hold, as his father stopped offering to buy parts and work on the car for him. Al Jr. would go to work for Don Morgan, who was a business partner in Al Sr.’s auto parts company, as a machinist learning to mill heads and
grind crankshafts. Morgan would eventually tell Al Jr., “if you want to race you need to live with your dad”, opening his eyes to the rich life to be had in the world of auto racing. Al Jr. would make the switch, straightening up and adhering to his father’s rigid lifestyle, all for the love of the sport.
From karts, Al Jr. graduated to the wild world of sprint cars, as the Unser family lived in the midst of the Southwest dirt track scene. He would experience some success at local bullrings like Speedway Park in Albuquerque, Colorado National Speedway in Erie and Manzanita Speedway in Phoenix, but would find his sprint car path stalling out as he didn’t know enough about setting up the cars to be competitive against professional circuits like the World of Outlaws. In 1980, he left the dirt to join the SCCA Formula Super Vee ranks, as it was a more direct path to champion car racing. The next season he’d run full time on the circuit, winning four out of nine events and claiming the season championship. While the CART rule book stated that you only needed to be 18 years of age to compete, a driver needed to be 21 to race at Indianapolis. Al Sr. also thought that transitioning from a Super Vee car to a champ car was too big a jump, so in 1982 Al Jr. entered the Can-Am series, trying out fendered-sports car racing for the first time in his career. He would once again take the winning spot on the podium four out of nine times, and bring home another season points trophy. He seemed destined to conquer any racing challenge before him, and in 1983, at the age of 21, he found himself on the Indianapolis 500 grid.
Dale Jr. asked Unser about his impressions of racing in his first Indianapolis 500, likening it to competing in the Daytona 500. Unser talked about initially failing his rookie orientation at the famed oval because his older model Eagle chassis wasn’t up to speed. But in 1983, with a
brand new Eagle under him, he had one of the fastest cars in the field, qualifying fifth in his first attempt to make the race. He recalled cutting a right rear tire at one point and it shook his confidence, causing him to fall several laps behind the leaders. At the end, he found himself in position to run interference between his father, who was leading at the time, and Tom Sneva, who was in hot pursuit. The efforts proved futile, as Sneva would overtake both Unsers, but Al Jr. finished 10th in his Indy debut.
In “A Checkered Past”, Unser talks about witnessing Gordon Smiley’s horrific crash at Indianapolis in 1982, and the impact that had on his racing mentality. Dale and Unser go on to compare the safety of stock cars and championship cars at the time, with Unser admitting he felt safer in an open wheel machine than he ever did behind the wheel of a IROC or Cup car, mainly because of the break-away lines designed to take the impact off the driver in a crash. Unser would begin running the IROC circuit in 1986, and immediately forged a friendship with
Dale Sr., which he described as a pupil/teacher-type relationship. Dale also asked Unser about his 1993 attempt at the Daytona 500, and why he never pursued a full-time ride in NASCAR.
The episode dives into Unser’s first Indianapolis 500 victory in 1992, where he held off a ferocious late-race charge by Scott Goodyear to win. He explained that the racing was so close that he didn’t have much time to reflect, but upon winning he felt a wave of lifelong emotions. Dale and Unser liken the importance of winning Indianapolis and Daytona because of the households they grew up in, where their “Zeus-like” father figures strived to win the races their whole careers, creating an aura of significance around the events. Unser would repeat the feat in 1994, but in 1995 would fail to qualify for the Great Race, starting a dark period of his life.
Unser described missing the 1995 Indianapolis 500 as the first real depression he had felt, and he turned to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate. This played a role in the dissolving of his marriage with longtime wife Shelley, and triggered him experiencing substance use disorder, which he still deals with today. Through several rehab stints and becoming a Christian, Unser has learned to grapple with his demons, and found that speaking honestly and openly with Gurss was a very therapeutic endeavor. Listener’s can hear all of these stories and more in great detail in “Al Unser Jr: A Checkered Past”, available through all major book outlets.
During the opening segment of the show, the Download gang welcomed Hannah Newhouse to the studio to help out in the booth with the Ask Jr. segment. Dale and Mike reflected on the NASCAR weekend in Fontana, California, and the potential reconfiguration plans for the speedway. They also touched on the dramatic situation that unfolded between Hendrick Motorsports teammates Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott. They brought JR Motorsports racer Josh Berry in to discuss an on-track incident between himself and teammate Justin Allgaier to gain some insight into how a team-disagreement may be settled. When Newhouse opened the floor to Ask Jr., listeners asked Dale about the flat tire situation with the Next Gen car, Matt Kenseth’s commentary booth debut and the potential of a Chicago street course race. You can hear all of this and more on this week’s episode of the Dale Jr. Download - available on this website and all major podcast platforms.