Al Unser, one of only four drivers to win the Indianapolis 500 a record four times, died Thursday following a long illness. He was 82.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway said early Friday that Unser died at his home in Chama, New Mexico, with his wife, Susan, by his side. He had been battling cancer for 17 years.
His son Al Unser Jr. spoke about the passing, saying, “He was a great man and an even greater father. I will miss him dearly.”
Unser is the third member of one of America’s most famed racing families to die in 2021. His oldest brother, three-time Indy 500 winner Bobby Unser, died in May, and Bobby Unser Jr. passed six weeks after his father.
Known as “Big Al” once his own son made a name for himself in racing, Unser is part of an elite club of four-time winners of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” Unser won the Indy 500 in 1970, 1971, 1978 and 1987, and is the only driver in history to have both a sibling and a child also win one of the biggest races in the world.
His final victory at age 47 made him the oldest winner in Indy 500 history. Unser won three Indy car national championships over his career and 39 victories. He led 644 total laps at Indianapolis.
The Unser family combined for a record nine wins in the Indy 500; Al Jr. won the Indy 500 twice — in 1992 and 1994. Coincidentally, Al Unser, Al Unser Jr. and Bobby Unser all won their final Indy 500s driving for Roger Penske.
Unser earlier this year was at Indianapolis Motor Speedway to welcome Helio Castroneves as the newest member of the four-time winners club. Unser achieved the feat after A.J. Foyt, and Rick Mears won his fourth in 1991. Castroneves won in May to become the first new member in 30 years.
“Some days the race track smiles on you and some days, you got it the other way,” Unser said during the July celebration. “It’s not always that you’re going to think you’re going to win because your chances are very slim. There’s 32 other guys who want it as bad as you do.”
Unser received his “Baby Borg,” — the 18-inch replica of the Indy 500 winner’s Borg-Warner Trophy that lives onsite in the speedway’s museum — during a celebration in May with family and friends. He was set to be honored in 2020 on the the 50th anniversary of his 1970 victory at Indianapolis, but the celebration was postponed because of the pandemic.
Both Castroneves and two-time Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato lauded Unser on social media, with Sato calling Unser’s speech at the May winner’s ceremony “very funny and so charming.”
“Huge respect,” Sato said.
The youngest of four racing brothers, Unser was born in in Albuquerque in 1939 to a family of hardcore racers. His father Jerry Unser and two uncles, Louis and Joe, were also drivers. Beginning in 1926 the family began competing in the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, an annual road race held in Colorado.
Al’s oldest brother, Jerry, became the first Unser to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 in 1958; he was killed in a crash during practice the following year.
Unser began racing himself in 1957 when he was 18, but competed mostly in sprint cars. He made it to Indy in 1965 and was part of the rookie class with future Indy 500 winners Mario Andretti (1969) and Gordon Johncock (1973, 1984).
Tributes to Unser
From IMS president Doug Boles:
From Takuma Sato:
From Helio Castroneves:
From Dario Franchitti:
From Gov. Eric Holcomb:
“It’s truly a sad day for race fans around the world in saying goodbye to racing royalty Al Unser Sr. This one man cast a such a long iconic shadow over the entire sport and gave fans and families so many priceless memories we’ll hold on to forever. Our thoughts and prayers are with the generations of Unser’s who mourn the loss of one of the all-time greats and carry on his family tradition.”