Al Unser, one of only four drivers to win the Indianapolis 500 a record four times, died Thursday following a long illness. He was 82.
Unser died at his home in Chama, New Mexico, with his wife, Susan, by his side, Indianapolis Motor Speedway said early Friday. He had been battling cancer for 17 years.
“My heart is so saddened. My father passed away last night,” son Al Unser Jr., himself a two-time Indy 500 winner, posted on social media. “He was a Great man and even a Greater Father. Rest In Peace Dad!”
Unser is the third member of one of America’s most famed racing families to die in 2021. His oldest brother, three-time Indy 500 winner Bobby Unser, died in May, and Bobby Unser Jr. passed six weeks after his father.
Known as “Big Al” once his own son made a name for himself in racing, Unser is part of an elite club of four-time winners of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” Unser won the Indy 500 in 1970, 1971, 1978 and 1987, and is the only driver in history to have both a sibling and a child also win one of the biggest races in the world.
His final victory at age 47 made him the oldest winner in Indy 500 history. He dominated in his first Indy win in 1970 by starting from the pole and leading all but 10 of the 200 laps. Unser beat runner-up Mark Donohue by 32 seconds that year.
Unser led over half the laps in three of his Indy 500 victories, and his 644 total laps led at Indianapolis is most in race history. He made 27 starts in the Indy 500, third most in history, and qualified once on the pole and five times on the front row.
Unser won three Indy car national championships over his career, and his total of 39 victories is sixth on the all-time list.
He and son Al Jr. were the first father-son pairing at Indianapolis, and in 1985 they battled one another for the CART championship. A pass in the closing laps of the race gave Unser a fourth-place finish in the season finale at Miami’s Tamiami Park road course, and it was enough for him to beat Al Jr. for the championship by a single point. He fought back tears while describing the “empty feeling” of defeating his son.
Unser also ran five NASCAR races in his career, finishing fourth in the 1968 Daytona 500. He earned three top-10 finishes in NASCAR. He also won three times in the International Race of Champions, an all-star series that pitted the top drivers from various disciplines against each other.
Unser won the Indy car “Triple Crown” by winning all three of of the 500-mile races on the 1978 schedule, which included stops at Pocono Raceway and in Ontario, California. He’s the only driver in history to win all three of those races in the same season.
The Unser family combined for a record nine wins in the Indy 500; Al Jr. won the Indy 500 twice — in 1992 and 1994. Coincidentally, Al Unser, Al Unser Jr. and Bobby Unser all won their final Indy 500s driving for Roger Penske. Helio Castroneves won his first three Indy 500s driving for Penske.