Al Unser Sr.
Born In Albuquerque, New Mexico
He was born Alfred Unser in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on May 29, 1939. The youngest son of Jerry H. and Mary (Craven) Unser, he was born into a racing family. His paternal uncle, Louie Unser, had attempted to qualify at the Indianapolis 500 in 1940, and Al's older brother, Jerry, was national stock car champion in the mid-1950s but died of injuries suffered on a practice lap at Indianapolis in May 1959. Jerry's death left Al and older brothers Bobby Unser and Louie Unser—Jerry's twin—to carry on the racing tradition of the Unser family. Only a few years after Jerry's death at Indianapolis, Louie was stricken with multiple sclerosis. He has struggled against the disease, however, and in 1965 served as Al's mechanic at his first Indy 500. Al freely admits that a major motivation throughout his racing career was sibling rivalry. "I wanted to outrun Bobby," Unser told an interviewer for Indy 500.com. "Bobby always was the oldest, and he set the pace, and I wanted to outrun him."
Unser said that growing up as a member of a racing family, it was difficult not to want to be a race driver. He said as far back as he could remember he never had any doubt about what he would do in life. "My Lord, when I went to school I told my teachers you can't teach me what I want to do in life. They asked me what I wanted to do, and I said I wanted to be a race driver."
Unser wasted little time getting into racing. By the age of eighteen, he was driving modified roadsters in competitions in and around Albuquerque. He later progressed to midgets, sprints, stock cars, sports cars, Formula 5000, championship dirt cars, and Indy cars. He took time off from racing in 1958 to marry Wanda Jesperson, with whom he had three children, Alfred Jr., Mary Linda, and Debra Ann (deceased). In 1960, he competed in the Pike's Peak Hillclimb for the first time, finishing second to brother Bobby. Four years later, Unser made his Indy car debut at Milwaukee and later that year won the Pikes Peak race, putting an end to Bobby's six-year winning streak. In 1965 he repeated his win at the Pikes Peak Hillnd raced for the first time in the Indy 500.
Helping Unser to break into competition at Indianapolis was A.J. Foyt, one of the two other racers to have won four times at Indy. It looked as though Unser would have to race the Indy in a substandard car until Foyt came to the rescue and offered to let the rookie use his back-up car. In an interview with Indy 500.com, Unser recalled Foyt's generosity. "Still today, I say, why did A.J. do that? Bignotti [George, chief mechanic for Foyt] was against it. He threw a fit. He was with Foyt and didn't want that car to run. I took it over. Louie, my brother, came over [as a mechanic]." Foyt's faith in the rookie proved to be well-placed, for Unser finished his first race at Indy in ninth place, well ahead of Foyt, who came in 15th.