Friday, August 09, 2002

Back on track, in car and in life

        ×deck Out of rehab, Unser possesses newfound humility
        By Dustin Dow,
       The Cincinnati Enquirer

        SPARTA, Ky. — Al Unser Jr. cannot wait to get back into his Corteco/Bryant No. 7 car for Sunday's Belterra Casino Indy 300 at Kentucky Speedway. If he wins, though, he said he would rather have a glass of milk than a bottle of champagne.

        Unser was in an upbeat mood here Thursday as he discussed the past three weeks he spent in alcohol rehab. With the first step of treatment behind him, he said he has never been more excited to get back into racing.

        “I now have the knowledge I needed to fight this disease,” Unser said. “Before I didn't know why I would always go back to drinking. Now I know that it was my cockiness that led me back to the bottle.”

        Unser was in an undisclosed drug and alcohol treatment center in Connecticut that he voluntarily entered July 18 after his arrest July9 in Indianapolis for allegedly hitting his girlfriend, Jena L. Soto. Formal charges were never filed. Unser declined to comment on the status of his relationship with Soto beyond saying she is doing fine and that he wants to keep his personal life private.

        “I did an insane thing to my girlfriend,” he said, “the one I truly love.”

        Last weekend his doctors told Unser's Kelley Racing Team president Tom Kelley that Unser's health was good enough for him to return to racing. Unser's presence this weekend gives Kelley Racing three drivers, including Scott Sharp and Tony Renna, who filled in for Unser. This is Unser's first season with Kelley Racing.

        “I feel very comfortable as a team owner putting Al back out there,” Kelley said. “He stayed at our house in Fort Wayne early this week, and I was very impressed. I hadn't spent a lot of time with Al before. I offered him a place to stay whenever he needs it.”

        Unser said he is an Alcoholics Anonymous member and said he knew he needed help when he sat in a jail cell on the night of his arrest. Team officials then began working out the details for him to enter rehab.

        The latest slide began for Unser, who had been sober for two months at the beginning of the year, after a second-place finish in the Boomtown 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on June8.

        “The champagne was flowing that night,” Unser said. “And the cockiness set in.”

        Unser has battled alcoholism since his divorce in 1999, the same season in which he broke his leg in the first race of the CART season.

        The two-time CART champion and Indianapolis 500 winner in 1992 and 1994 stressed that alcohol never played a role on the racetrack.

        “Never did it come close to being near that racecar,” Unser said. “That was the most popular question in rehab when they found out who I was: "Did I drink and drive when I was racing?' No way.”

        Unser says he is now faced with living with alcoholism for the rest of his life. Unser also has to deal with the stigma of being a recovering alcoholic while living a public life.

        “Honestly, what I've been through, it makes me realize that I'm just a human being,” Unser said. “Basically (racecar drivers) are just the last nut that the crew chief screws into the car. We just go out and drive.”


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