I've always wondered what would have happened if Al Unser Junior's career had zigged instead of zagged. How is that he could have fallen so far?
Let's back up.
In 1993 Unser and his Indy Car sponsor Valvoline accepted the invitation of Rick Hendrick and went racing in the Daytona 500. The fit was a natural. The defending Indy 500 champ was a fast-driving, hard-partying racer out of Albuquerque. He had an infectious smile and ever since he'd won the 1986 IROC championship, rivals like Dale Earnhardt and Kyle Petty had practically begged him to bail on open wheel racing and come race in what seemed like his natural habitat.
He was the first true open wheel crossover star since A.J. Foyt, the one guy in Indy Car that NASCAR fans loved without question. He walked, talked and drove like a stock car racer and went nose-to-nose with The Intimidator and Co. at places like Talladega and Michigan and never flinched.
"Little Al's really a NASCAR driver," Petty once said. "We're just letting them borrow him over there (in Indy Car). When he wants to go racing with us he knows he can."
He started 40th out of 41 cars in the '93 Daytona 500 and looked racy before wrecking and finishing 36th.
"I thought maybe once Al got a little taste he'd want to do this full-time," Hendrick said recently. "But his heart was in Indianapolis."
His father Al Senior won the 500 four times, his uncle Bobby won it thrice, and his other uncle Jerry died during the race in '58. Because of his bloodlines and likability, no one in the late '80's and early '90's had a bigger following in American open wheel racing. As a result, no one's career took a bigger hit after the '96 open wheel schism than Unser's. The effects were immediate and devastating.
Truthfully, he still hasn't recovered.
Last week the two-time CART champion's name popped when the New Mexico district attorney's office said that Little Al was one of two extortion victims in a 137-count indictment against a man accused of running a prostitution ring. Strip club owner Bobby McMullin reportedly threatened to release a "compromising video tape" of Unser to the public unless the legend forked over $750,000 in hush money.
Sadly, Al was an easy target.
Never one to say no to a good time (he inherited those traits from his forefathers as well), Al didn't truly lose the handle on his own life until after the IRL-CART split. In 1997, I was on hand for the inaugural race at the Gateway International Raceway outside of St. Louis on Memorial Day weekend. It was Al's third consecutive Memorial Day without a starting spot in the Indy 500 and the disgust had grown with each passing year.
Four hours to the northeast the IRL was preparing the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Twelve hours to the southeast NASCAR was practicing for the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte. Meanwhile, the man who once decreed, "You don't know what Indy means!" was stuck in western Illinois running a 300-mile race he cared nothing about and knew that most race fans cared nothing about. He groused and grumbled and showed up late for interviews and practice sessions.
That was also the first weekend I started hearing rumors about Little Al's depression and drug use. They weren't new rumors. It was just the first that I was hearing them.
As the chasm grew wider between the open wheel divisions, his problems became public. There was an arrest in 2002 for a late night alcohol-fueled fight with his girlfriend, an incident that exposed the fact that he was living in an RV in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway infield, allowed to stay there by old friend and IMS owner Tony George. Four years later he was arrested for a DWI hit-and-run near his new home outside Las Vegas. Even after he returned to Indy as a racer in 2000, he hadn't been able to outrun his demons.
All I've been able to think about is: what if?
What if the open split hadn't happened?
What if he hadn't wrecked at Daytona in '93?
What if he'd listened to Earnhardt and Petty and jumped from Indy to NASCAR more than a decade before it became trendy to do so?
That same weekend at Gateway back in '97 I was riding in the Champ Car World Series pace car with an ESPN TV crew. We hammered down the backstretch in the bright yellow Mercedes-Benz and the turn three wall started becoming larger and larger through the front windshield.
I checked the tightness of my seatbelt, grasped the door handle to my right, and looked out of the corner of my eye at the speedometer.
Resigned to our fate as a wet spot on the concrete, the driver of the car patted me on the leg, which meant he was now driving the car with only his left hand, which was draped over the steering wheel's twelve o'clock like Vanilla Ice cruising in his 5.0. He didn't look strung out. He didn't look depressed. He looked like he was at home.
"Hey man, relax," Al Unser Junior said with his trademark teenage-ish smile as we cruised through the two turns like we were riding a tandem bike through Central Park. "I got this."
I hope he can get it back again.