Al Unser Jr.: "I Am an Alcoholic."

Alcohol and sports seem to be eternally linked in the American mind, whether it's the inescapable beer commercials that pad sports broadcasts or the friendly softball games that end at the local tavern. But some in the sports world are looking at alcohol in a new way. After the death last month of St. Louis pitcher Josh Hancock in an alcohol-related accident, the Cardinals and other teams banned alcohol from their clubhouses. And four months after being arrested for DUI, two-time Indy 500 winner—and current Indy competitor—Al Unser Jr. is speaking out about his own battle with alcohol. Unser, who will start in 25th position in this year's race, is a spokesman for Live Outside the Bottle, an alcohol-awareness campaign sponsored by the biotech companies Cephalon and Alkermes. Unser spoke with NEWSWEEK's David Noonan and Ruth Olson. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: You were arrested for DUI in Las Vegas in January. Was that a shock? Or did you know before then that you had a problem with alcohol?
Al Unser Jr.:
It was not a shock to me in January. It was a shock to me, however, in 2002. I was in Indianapolis, and me and my girlfriend, who is now my wife, got into an argument. It was late, we were driving home. She was driving, and I told her to pull off to the side of the road, and I kicked her out on the freeway and left her there. And so she calls 911 and I get arrested for domestic violence in Indianapolis. It gave me time to reflect while I was sitting in that jail, the first time I've ever been arrested.

Was that a scary thing?
It was awful.

And in a town where you are pretty close to royalty.
Definitely. When I was being booked into the jail, they patted me down and one of the police officers said, "I've never patted an Indy 500 champion before." And there it was. That hit home. The only time that I had gotten in any kind of trouble or had any kind of arguments with even my first wife was under the influence of alcohol. And so I went into a rehab of my own doing, and I learned about alcoholism.

Did you start drinking when you were a teenager?
Sure. You know, you win the race, they give you champagne.

Sports and alcohol are all tangled up in this country. Liquor companies are still involved in motor sports, right?

And what is your view of that now?
I really don't have a view on that. I mean, business is business, and really my main focus is to educate people about alcohol, and the abuse of alcohol.

So what happened between '02 and now?
Learned about it, came out of the rehab, I get on ESPN, and the guy says, "Are you an alcoholic?" and I went, "Yes, I am. I am an alcoholic." And so I worked the programs and I lasted 56 days without a drink. And I was going crazy, because I truly didn't believe I was an alcoholic.

Why didn't you believe that you were an alcoholic?
Because when I first came out, I was, yes, I was set, and then it's, well, "I can have one drink. I can have one drink, I mean, why can't I have one drink?" And that's where it starts.
I'll bet you're not the first alcoholic to have that thought.

Hey, all of us have that same thought, that I can have one drink. There's always a new way to skin the cat. I've got it figured out this time, I'll just drink one. I'll just drink beer. I'll just have one drink, and I won't have the second one, you know. I'll drink today but I won't drink tomorrow. There's a new plan. I have a new plan this time. And I went four years with a new plan, every time I drank.

Did you ever experience a blackout?

So you would wake up in the morning and you wouldn't know how you got home?
That is correct.

Sometimes your car was in the driveway, sometimes it wasn't?
That is correct.

That's got to be scary.
It's damn scary. Damn scary. So with me, my most important thing right now is, I haven't had a drink for 116 days now. And Live Outside the Bottle contacted me, and I jumped at it. I jumped at the chance, because I get a platform, I can genuinely help other people now. I recognize the fact that I am an alcoholic.

Did you ever race while you were under the influence of alcohol?
No. It's suicide to get in a race car impaired in any way.

You grew up in a motor-sports family in a motor-sports world, in, for want of a better word, a macho environment, right? Do you think that there might be a gap in such a world in understanding what alcoholism is?
To be a man meant that you went out drinking, you were a womanizer, you just lived life to its fullest, and that was 200 miles an hour in all aspects. And that was a man. And what I've learned in recent months is that being a man is being loyal to your wife, is not going out and drinking and staying out all night and partying and gambling and all that kind of thing.

How many children do you have?
Six, including my wife's two.

That's a lot of responsibility.
Yeah. And they've seen the goods, and they've seen the bads. And believe me, they'd much rather have sober Al than the alcoholic Al.

So you're 116 days out. On the one hand that's a long time, on the other hand you're really just beginning this. How are you feeling? Are you nervous about it?
This time I feel very good. And it is a day at a time.

So you're in a 12-step program now?
It is one of my options. There's many options out there, and AA doesn't work for everybody. The thing to do is to educate yourself.

Did you go do another rehab in January?
No, I didn't.

You knew though, that ...
It was time. I had been in and out of drinking, and any time I was drinking, bad things happened, and when I wasn't drinking, good things happened. And so, why? I had had my stretch, after learning about the disease, and still trying to figure out another way around the corner, and it wasn't working, and so I dug deep inside and said, I'm an alcoholic. I cannot pick up one drink. I have the disease.

Are you avoiding any situations? Do you stay out of bars?
Sure, I do, as much as I possibly can. I mean, there are sponsor functions that they're cocktail parties, and so I show up late, I leave early.

Now, a couple of racing questions. First of all, what does it feel like to go 200 miles an hour?
It's tough to put into words. It's exciting, it's thrilling, it's scary, it's fun.

And what does it feel like to crash at 200 miles an hour?
Scary. Bad scary. Once you lose control of the car and you're sliding, you're going way too fast. You're on a roller coaster, and it's in God's hands on where you're going to end up. You just pray to God that you hit the wall the right way, not the wrong way, because once you lose control you're there for the ride, and everything all of a sudden goes into slow motion. Because it ain't over quick enough.

And what does it feel like to win the Indy 500?
For me it was just all dreams come true.

You go past that finish line so fast, but I'll bet you still manage to see that checkered flag.
Oh yeah, you can see it a long ways away.