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Unsers gone for good? Probably not

INDIANAPOLIS – Bobby Unser came to Indianapolis Motor
Speedway last weekend looking for the usual familiar faces. When he
couldn't find them, he wasn't sure what to do next.

Anywhere other than Indianapolis, Unser may have accepted the
fact that his relatives were no longer racing Indy cars. But to be
here, on this historic 2½-mile oval, without cheering for kin? That
seemed almost unthinkable.

"It's sad," he said. "It seems weird to me. I've always had
somewhere to go on pit road."

Not this year.

For the first time since Bobby Unser's rookie season in 1963, no
Unsers tried to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, and it's only the
second time since then that an Unser hasn't started in the 33-car
field.

The Unsers, who are to auto racing what the Kennedys and Bushes
are to politics – a sort of royal family – are hoping this is just
a brief respite in their long tradition at Indianapolis.

But even an Unserless race hasn't kept Indianapolis' first
family away from its home away from home.

Four-time Indy winner Al Unser still works as a driving coach
and frequently signs autographs in the famed Gasoline Alley. Bobby,
a three-time winner and Al's brother, still makes the annual trek
from Albuquerque to Indianapolis each May. Two-time winner Al Unser
Jr., who retired last summer, was in town this week, too.

The newest Unser edition, Al Unser III, prefers the nickname
"Just Al" and represents the fourth generation of race-car
drivers. He was to make his debut at Indianapolis in the IndyCar Series'
developmental series race, Friday's Futaba Freedom 100.

"It's great to have Little Al show an interest in racing,"
said his father, the first to go by Little Al. "He uses his head
instead of just smashing the gas and steering."

A quick glance at the Unser family tree reads like a who's-who
of auto racing. They have battled brother against brother, father
against son and cousin against cousin since Louis Unser first came
to Indianapolis in 1940.

Although he didn't qualify for the race, it started a stream of
followers. First came the three brothers – Jerry, Bobby and Big Al.
The next generation offered the three cousins – Little Al; Robby,
Bobby's son; and Johnny, Jerry's son. Just Al is the fourth
generation.

But even after Jerry Unser was killed in a practice crash in May
1959, the lure of Indianapolis kept attracting the Unsers.

"Our parents sat us down and explained he was doing what he
wanted to do, so don't let that discourage you," Big Al said. "We
Unsers have had our ups and downs in racing, but we love it and we
still carry it on."

In all, seven Unsers – nearly twice as many as any other family
– have combined for 71 starts, won four poles and made nine trips
to Victory Lane on the track that made them world famous.

The sibling rivalry reached a new level in 1968 when Bobby won
the family's first Borg-Warner Trophy. Big Al upped the ante in
1971 when he became the first driver to win back-to-back Indy
titles since Billy Vukovich in 1953-54. Bobby matched his brother
with another win in 1975 and his third in 1981, while Big Al
rewrote the record books with another win in 1987. That made him
the second four-time winner of the race and came just five days
before his 48th birthday – giving him the distinction of being the
oldest winner in 500 history.

Little Al made his contribution to the family's trophy case by
beating Scott Goodyear in 1992 by 0.043 seconds – the closest
margin in Indy history. He followed that with another victory in
1994.

In 1995, he inexplicably failed to qualify for the race and then
missed the next four races after the CART-IRL split.

That's when the other Unsers joined the family business. Johnny
started five straight races from 1996-2000, racing twice against
cousin Robby, and once against Al Jr. when he returned to the track
in 2000.

"It's not all inbred, like people would like to think it is,"
Bobby said. "A lot of it has to do with the environment, and we
don't have the same influence on our kids' kids."

Occasionally, the fiercest family battles took place somewhere
other than Indianapolis.

In 1985, it was an all-Unser race to the finish for the CART
points championship, in which Big Al beat his son by one point to
win the title.

"It was very difficult because going into that last race, we
knew an Unser was going to win the championship," Big Al said. "I
didn't look at him as my son, I looked at it as I had to beat the
Domino's Pizza car. That's the only way I could look at it."

But somehow, it has always wound up being about Indianapolis.

"In racing, Indianapolis is home for us," Big Al said.
"That's why I say Indy is the most important race, the big red
apple, the greatest spectacle in racing. There's no other place
that gives you the love by winning it."