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Published: Sunday, 5/16/2004

Brought to you by ... Unser relieved to get sponsor

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Al Unser Jr. has two Indy 500 wins in a career that has seen him suffer alcohol, marital and legal problems. Al Unser Jr. has two Indy 500 wins in a career that has seen him suffer alcohol, marital and legal problems.
TOM STRATTMAN / AP Enlarge

INDIANAPOLIS - Over the last few years, there have not been many reasons for Al Unser Jr. to smile. Personal and professional problems have been in a dead heat in his life, and both with considerable momentum.

So it seemed a little unusual this weekend when Unser, a two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 who came here this month without the backing of a major sponsor, was wearing a big, wide smile despite the ever-present gray skies and raindrops around the track.

On the eve of qualifying, Unser got a boost from the announcement that a deal had been reached with Stacker 2, an Ephedra-free energy pill, to provide significant sponsorship for his Patrick Racing car. Without that kind of support, Unser and Patrick had missed the first three races of the season, so the irony was obvious, and seemed appropriate.

The injection of sponsor money alone did not guarantee that Unser was back in the field for the Indy 500, but it certainly enhanced his position. Then Unser went out yesterday and posted a qualifying speed of 217.966 mph, which places him 17th in the middle of the sixth row.

“We re in, and we re in solid. Now we can go to work on the race car,” Unser said. “There s always hope, and we hoped we would be starting a little closer to the front. But then reality hits you. As late a start as we ve gotten, I think that overall we did a fantastic job to be where we are.”

Unser said there was a significant amount of relief in landing a major sponsorship, and no longer worrying about the uncertainty of the immediate future. Otherwise, he and Patrick were looking at going without a sponsor, and entering the biggest race of the year at a considerable financial handicap.

“We re happy with that, of course, because it s something that we ve been working hard at,” Unser said. “I always felt like it was just a matter of time, but we just kept trying, kept our head down, and kept talking with people, working on putting something together.”

In 2003, Unser, driving his second season for Kelley Racing, got his only win at Texas in June when he nipped Tony Kanaan by .0810 of a second.

Despite the fact he finished sixth in the IRL IndyCar Series points race, Unser s affiliation with Kelley dissolved following last season, and he and car owner Pat Patrick came to Indianapolis Speedway this year intent on finding new life and a sponsor. That distraction is now out of the way.

“We just keep working at it, and we know from past races that I ve been in here that it s not over until it s over,” Unser said. “I knew that as long as we can get in the show, and then get up somewhere near the front, then we ll go racing.”

Unser, the son of four-time Indy 500 winner Al Unser and the nephew of three-time winner Bobby Unser, has battled more than his share of demons in his 42 years - brought on by alcohol, divorce, legal woes and the sharp peaks and valleys in his career.

He missed several races in 2002 when he sought treatment for alcohol abuse after he was arrested for hitting his girlfriend. The two had engaged in a heated argument while driving home from an Indianapolis strip club, and police were called in to investigate the matter after Unser left his girlfriend along the roadside of an interstate highway about 3:30 in the morning.

Unser won the Indianapolis 500 in 1992 and 1994, then failed to qualify in 1995 while driving for Penske Racing. He did not return to the Indy 500 field until 2000.

Unser started 17th in last year s race, moved up as high as seventh by lap 60, and finished ninth. It was his ninth time in the top 10 at the 500, but Unser makes no secret of the fact that he does not come here to place, or show.

“The Indy 500 is the one you want to win,” Unser said. “Every race I run in is in preparation for the Indianapolis 500. Indy is the most important thing in my life. It is what I live for.”

Unser has won more than $5 million in the 16 times he has run in the Indy 500. He also has won two CART titles (1990, 1994) and two IROC crowns (1986, 1988), but the Indy 500 is the big one.

“If you win at Indy, you are in elite company,” Unser has said. “Even if you win it once. Indy just has so much history and tradition. It s the most important race in the world.”

Unser said it s premature to think about matching his father s win total here.

“I don t know about winning No. 4, because I m thinking about the third one right now,” Unser said. “I have kind of learned over the years to take it one day at a time.”



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