Al Unser Sr., one of the icons of American open-wheel motorsport, has died at the age of 82. He was diagnosed with cancer 17 years ago. His death follows that of his older brother Bobby in May of this year.
Unser passed away at home in Chama, New Mexico, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway said.
Unser Sr. was a true legend of American open-wheel motorsport. His four wins at the Indy 500 and three IndyCar championships firmly cemented him in the annals of racing history — but he was also tied to two other Brickyard winners. His son, Al Unser Jr., won the race twice, making them the only father-son duo to win the 500. His brother, Bobby Unser, also won the 500 three times. They’re the only brothers to have done so.
That he became an icon of the motorsport scene was unsurprising; Unser Sr. was born into a family that had been competing in the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb since 1926, and Unser got behind the wheel himself at age 18, in 1957. He started competing in modified roadsters, sprint cars, and midgets before making his Indy 500 debut in 1965.
Bobby Unser won the 500 in 1968, and Al Unser Sr. followed in 1970. After qualifying on pole, he led for all but 10 of the 200 laps — but that was no surprise for a man who had won a record amount of 10 wins on ovals. He took victory again in 1971 and nearly did so in 1972, only just losing out to Mark Donohue. He won again in 1978 — which made him the only driver to win the “Triple Crown” of 500-mile races at Pocono, Ontario, and Indy in a single season — and a fourth time in 1987.
That ‘87 victory was perhaps his most stunning. Unser had been dropped by Team Penske ahead of that season, and it was only when Danny Ongais — his replacement — suffered a concussion that Unser was given a spare car that had started out the Month of May as a show car.
That year, he was 47 years old, which made him the oldest winner in Indy 500 history.
He retired in 1994 and remains the career lap leader for the Indianapolis 500 with 644.
Unser also competed in other series. He ran five NASCAR races, securing a best finish of fourth in the 1968 Daytona 500 alongside three other top 10s. He was a three-time winner in the International Race of Champions. He won the 1985 24 Hours of Daytona — making him one of the most highly accomplished all-around racers in motorsport history.
“My heart is so saddened. My father passed away last night,” his son Unser Jr. posted on Twitter. “He was a Great man and even a Greater Father. Rest In Peace Dad!”
“Al was the quiet leader of the Unser family, a tremendous competitor and one of the greatest drivers to ever race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway,” Roger Penske said in a statement. “We were honored to help Al earn a place in history with his fourth Indy victory ... and he will always be a big part of our team. Our thoughts are with the Unser family as they mourn the loss of a man that was beloved across the racing world and beyond.”
“Some days the race track smiles on you and some days, you got it the other way,” Unser said during a July celebration that honored Hélio Castroneves for become the latest person to win the Indy 500 for a fourth time. “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.”
“Al was one of the smartest drivers I ever raced against,” Mario Andretti said. “I often said that I wished I could have had some of his patience.”
Unser is survived by his wife, Susan, and son Al Jr. He was preceded in death by his daughters Mary and Deborah. Our thoughts are with his family at this time.