Al Unser, 4-Time Indy 500 Winner, Dies at 82

by Matthew Memrick

Legendary racer Al Unser, a four-time Indianapolis 500 winner, died following a lengthy cancer battle on Thursday at 82.

According to The New York Post, the historic track issued a news release about Unser’s death on Friday, saying that his wife, Susan, was with him at the couple’s home in Chama, New Mexico. 

While reports said Unser fought cancer for 17 years, the man had a hereditary condition that led to liver cancer in 2004. In 2005, he had a tumor and half of his liver removed.

The 1991 Motorsports Hall of Fame of America inductee came from a storied racing family and was the third member of the family to die in 2021. Older brother and three-time Indy 500 winner Bobby Unser died in May. His son, Bobby Unser Jr., died six weeks after his dad.

‘Big Al’ Reigned As A Racer

Unser Sr., known as ‘Big Al,’ won open-wheeled racing’s most significant event in 1970, 1971, 1978, and 1987. He’s the only driver in history to have a brother and child also win that race, billed as one of the biggest races in the world.

 Of the 27 times he competed in that fabled race, Unser led 644 total laps. 

When he won his final Indy race at 47, he made the record books as the oldest winner in that race’s 110-year history. Additionally, he won three Indy car national titles over his 30-year career with 39 victories.

Born in Albuquerque, N.M. in 1939, Unser had a racing pedigree back then. His father, Jerry, and uncles, Louis and Joe, also raced. The family started running in the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb race in 1926.

Years later, older brother Jerry Unser qualified for the Indy 500 in 1958 but died in a crash during practice a year later. 

Al Unser’s racing career got off the ground in 1957, and the 18-year-old took mainly to sprint cars. By 1965, he started his Indy 500 racing career with fellow rookies and future Indy winners Mario Andretti and Gordon Johncock. Andretti won the event in 1969.

Racing A Family Affair for Unser

The Unser won a record nine times at the Indianapolis track as a family. Unser’s son, Al Unser Jr, won twice in 1992 and 1994.

Father, son, and uncle (Bobby) won their final Indy 500 races as a member of the Penske Racing team.

Al Unser honored Helio Castroneves earlier this year for the racer’s fourth Indy 500 win. Unser, A.J. Foyt, and Rick Mears were already part of the four-timers club.

“Some days the race track smiles on you, and some days, you got it the other way,” Unser told a reporter 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 would have been part of a 50th-anniversary celebration of his 1970th Indy 500 win, but the pandemic postponed the event.