IndyCar legend Al Unser dies at 82

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Credit: Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment

Al Unser, one of the greatest names in IndyCar history, passed away on Thursday at his New Mexico home. One of four drivers to win the Indianapolis 500 four times, the news was broken on Thursday night by fellow four-time victor Hélio Castroneves before being confirmed by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Friday. He was 82.

For thirty years, Unser was an icon who made the family name synonymous with American open-wheel racing. He won the Indy 500 in 1970, 1971, 1978, and 1987 as well as the IndyCar World Championship thrice in 1970, 1983, and 1985. Much of his success came with Parnelli Jones as he scored two of his 500 victories and 1970 title for his fellow ex-500 winner, but he also enjoyed strong runs for current IndyCar head Roger Penske‘s team with whom he claimed his last two championships and final 500.

“We have lost a true racing legend and a champion on and off the track,” read a statement from Penske. “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. From carrying on his family’s winning tradition at Pikes Peak to racing in NASCAR, sports cars, earning championships in INDYCAR and IROC and, of course, becoming just the second driver to win the Indianapolis 500 four times, Al had an amazing career that spanned nearly 30 years. He produced two championships and three wins for our race team, including his memorable victory in the 1987 Indy 500 when he famously qualified and won with a car that was on display in a hotel lobby just a few days before. We were honored to help Al earn a place in history with his fourth Indy victory that day, 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.”

Nicknamed “Big Al”, he also dabbled in other disciplines such as the NASCAR Cup Series, International Race of Champions, and the 24 Hours of Daytona. Unser won the IROC championship in 1977 while he and A.J. Foyt, also a quadruple winner of the 500, joined Thierry Boutsen and Bob Wollek in scoring the 1985 Daytona 24 overall crown.

He retired from driving in 1994, the same year that his son Al Unser Jr. won the 500 on the elder Unser’s 55th birthday. Unser was inducted into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame in 1986 and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1998. In May, he, Foyt, and Rick Mears attended the Indy 500 where they watched Castroneves tie their win record.

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

“I was really sorry to hear about Al Unser,” commented Foyt. “We were able to catch up in July at the four-time winners (photo shoot) we did at Indy and I’m glad for that. I always thought a lot of Al, even when he first came to Indy. That’s why I was happy to give him his first ride there. He was a nice person and well-respected because he was a cool, smart race driver. Always knew what he was doing, knew how to take care of a car. He was very smart and when he was winning you had to be because racing was a lot more dangerous back then. I always had a lot of respect for Al. It’s a sad day.”

Credit: Penske Entertainment

“RIP AL SR…you will b missed! Descance em paz AL …vamos sentir sua falta,” read Castroneves’ Instagram post. The Portuguese in the second sentence approximately translates to “Rest in peace Al … we’ll miss you.”

Takuma Sato, twice winner of the 500, tweeted it was an “absolute honor” to attend Unser’s Baby Borg trophy ceremony prior to the 2021 500 which celebrated his 1970 and 1987 triumphs. Sato added Unser’s speech at the function was “very funny and so charming. Huge respect. My deepest condolences to his family.”

Mario Andretti, a rival and friend of Unser during their driving days, posted a photo of them racing on the dirt together at the DuQuoin Fairgrounds. He captioned, “I feel loss & sadness at the passing of Al Unser. One of the top 5 racers who has ever lived – and the kindest, calmest, smartest, toughest, most fun, well-liked guy ever. Our most fun was on dirt; here he and I battled and laughed at DuQuoin Illinois- and then had a beer. RIP”.

The news comes in what has been a difficult year for the Unser and IndyCar families. His older brother Bobby, three-time Indy 500 champion, died in May as did Bobby’s son Bobby Jr. a month later. Legendary announcer Bob Jenkins and acclaimed series journalist Robin Miller both passed in August.

Al Unser: 29 May 1939 – 9 December 2021

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History major at San Jose State University and lifelong motorsports fan who covers NASCAR and the Stadium Super Trucks.
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