New from Octane Press, Al Unser Jr.: A Checkered Past

Photo: Motorsport Images

Talented author and marketer Jade Gurss has another best-seller on his hands with Al Unser Jr.: A Checkered Past scheduled for release October 1. As with 2020’s Racer: John Andretti, Gurss spent countless hours with the new book’s central figure and co-author, “Little Al”, a premier talent in the 1980s and ‘90s, whose self-destructive battle with alcohol and depression off-track derailed both his life and his career.

Born into one of America’s most prominent motorsports families, Unser Jr., son of Indy 500 winner Al Sr., gained experience racing karts and sprint cars in his teens. The New Mexico Unser family scion burst onto the national scene in Pro Super Vee at age 19, winning four of the 1981 season’s nine-race championship and clinching the championship.

The next year, he moved into the SCCA Can-Am series, claiming another title, and made his Indy Car debut with a spectacular fifth-place finish at Riverside in a Forsythe Racing March-Cosworth.

Over the next two decades, Unser Jr. would cement a reputation as one of IndyCar racing’s most ferocious and successful drivers, notably a master of the Long Beach GP which he would win an unprecedented six times, including four years consecutively, 1988-1991.

With six wins and 10 podium finishes, Unser Jr. won the 1990 CART IndyCar championship; and in 1992, he finally won the Indianapolis 500 — by 0.043 of a second over Scott Goodyear, still the closest finish in 500 history.

A two-time winner of the Daytona 24 Hour (1986, 1987) and International Race of Champions series (1986, 1988), his career peaked in 1994 when the then-32-year-old won eight races in the 16-race CART championship — including the Indy 500 — en route to a second IndyCar title.

But soon, as Gurss chronicles and in Unser Jr.’s own words, it all began to unravel soon thereafter with a descent into alcoholism and depression. His life, already marked by tragedy — the death of his sister Debbie in a dune buggy accident in 1982 — was struck another blow in 1999 when the terrible spine disease transverse myelitis left his 12-year-old daughter Cody paralyzed.

“As his substance abuse spiraled,” book publisher Octane Press detailed, ‘[Unser’s] marriage turned volatile. When he retired as a driver, his troubles amplified. A domestic violence arrest. Multiple DUIs. Visits to a variety of rehab centers. Divorce. He made millions in his career, but fell into financial ruin. His life became pure darkness and depression and the isolation and despair led to a suicide attempt.”

“This book is an opportunity for me to tell the truth about everything I’ve been through,” said Unser Jr. “There were so many great times and massive wins on the race track. I’m so proud of that, and so glad to be a part of the Unser family. But there was so much I wanted to share that had been hidden from the public eye.

“So many people told me I’m taking a huge risk by sharing so much about my life,” Unser continued. “But my greatest hope is that my story can help those who may be struggling. Maybe others won’t make the same mistakes I did, and can learn from them.”

Co-author Gurss added: “Our paths had crossed numerous times over the past 25 years, so I am deeply honored to help share Al Jr’s story. I admire his honesty and willingness to share his entire story, not just the highlights. As a race fan, I love the stories about his family and the racing action; but as a writer, I took it very seriously to portray the not-so-shining parts of his life with honesty, empathy and understanding.

“Al Jr.’s story not always pretty, but it’s a story I believe will resonate with people, even those who aren’t motorsports fans.”

With an official release date of October 1st, the 320-page hardcover book, featuring a forward by one of Unser Jr.’s most famous former bosses, Roger Penske, is available for pre-order now from all major booksellers.