Unser Jr. catches, passes demon that ruled his life

When Al Unser Jr. was winning auto races, people called him “Opie.” He had a gentle manner and a birthmark on his right cheek that also called to mind John-Boy Walton.

The skeletons in his closet would have shocked those righteous TV characters.

Among his father, Al (four wins), Uncle Bobby (three) and himself (two), there are nine Indianapolis 500 victories belonging to lead-footed guys from New Mexico named Unser.

“Little Al” was an alcoholic when he won his.

After splitting with his first wife, Unser got drunk and was arrested for striking his girlfriend in 2002 and leaving her on the side of an Indianapolis freeway. They would move to Henderson and live in a home on Black Mountain Golf and Country Club for close to 10 years. They would get married. And Unser would quit drinking.

For a little while.

In 2007, he was charged with drunken driving after his SUV sideswiped a Mazda on Interstate 215 near Henderson. It was around 11 a.m. His blood-alcohol level of 0.22 percent was nearly three times the legal limit.

“Even the most skilled drivers in the world can’t drive well when they’re drunk,” L.J. O’Neale of the Clark County district attorney’s office said at the time.

The Las Vegas area might have seemed a curious choice for a recovering alcoholic to put down roots. As Unser, 49, said during lunch recently, “There’s no last call here.”

Since moving back to Albuquerque, the six-time winner of the Grand Prix of Long Beach has reconciled with his children. He says he isn’t drinking. When we met for lunch, he looked healthy and rested. His eyes were as clear — though nowhere near as wide — as when he lifted off the gas and nearly allowed Scott Goodyear to pass him at the finish line at Indy in 1992.

I had not planned to ask Unser about his personal problems because, frankly, they have become old news.

We chatted about the IndyCar Series, for which he works as a driving coach and a race control official, returning to Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Oct. 16. We chatted about mutual auto racing acquaintances. We managed to go an hour without invoking Danica Patrick’s name, before he remarked about there not being a last call here.

In my mind, when a person brings up past demons without being asked, it says something about that person and about those demons, and how they always are lurking.

Unser said the Henderson police officers who pulled him over that morning did him a huge favor.

As we got up to leave, I wished him well, and this time it wasn’t just a formality one says to another at the end of a business meeting.

One day at a time. Isn’t that what the 12-step program says?

It was 2:15 p.m. This day was more than half over.

I noticed that Al Unser Jr. had pulled a pack of Marlboro Lights from his pocket and seemed eager to have a smoke.

THREE UP

■ Call-ups Eric Thames, David Cooper, Brett Lawrie, Adam Loewen and Chris Woodward were in the starting lineup for the Toronto Northern 51s against Boston on Tuesday. It also warrants mentioning that Boston won, 18-6.

■ A reader’s email link to a story about Pavol Demitra, one of two former Las Vegas Thunder players killed in the Sept. 7 Russian hockey air disaster, recalled when the Slovakian had passed up an empty-net goal while playing for the St. Louis Blues that would have paid him $500,000 (per a clause in his contract) to selflessly pass the puck to a more-open teammate. I forgot having written that, but it may say more about Demitra than any obituary could.

■ In an introspective moment before his boxing weigh-in Friday, Floyd Mayweather Jr. told reporters his favorite movie was “The Notebook,” an epic love story. Then after he got on the scale, he attempted to choke Victor Ortiz.

THREE DOWN

■ Volunteers must pay $50 (for a “uniform” consisting of golf shirt, jacket and cap) to work for nothing at the Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open at TPC Summerlin. This probably sounds like a good deal to those who purchased Netflix stock.

■ Kurt Busch had run-ins with two reporters after the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Richmond, swearing at one and tearing up the notes of another upon which was transcribed a quote the Las Vegas native insisted he didn’t say. Jimmie Johnson (with whom Busch is feuding) was seen suppressing laughter, like when somebody tells a joke in church.

■ “Nicolas Cage says naked man eating a Fudgesicle broke into his home.” Though this headline does not pertain to sports, it does remind those who bet on Utah against Southern California before they changed the final score that there are worse fates.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.

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