Possible Dream: Al Unser Jr.


Al Unser Jr.’s dreams are different these days and they include helping Martha’s Vineyard Community Services (MVCS).

The two-time Indianapolis 500 winner will attend the Possible Dreams Auction to support MVCS with their work even as he also works to advance dreams close to him and his family.

For the auction, he has donated a driver’s suit he wore while winning The Vancouver Grand Prix race in 1993, and the opportunity for the winning bidder to ride with him (at 150 miles an hour) on a grand prix course prior to the inaugural Baltimore Indy Car Grand Prix race on Labor Day weekend in 2011.

Mr. Unser will also personally escort the winner and three guests “backstage” – around the paddock and pit areas – for an hour during the Grand Prix weekend. The package includes lodging at a four-star hotel in the Inner Harbor of Baltimore, four sets of three-day VIP tickets with pit passes, and access to the Indy Racing League (IRL) hospitality tent, close to all the action.

With nine Indy 500 wins in the race’s 100-year history, the Unser family (father Al had four and his uncle Bobby won three) have more wins than any other family in a glittery multi-generation lineup that includes names like Andretti, Petty, and Earnhardt.

Mr. Unser spoke with The Times this spring when he came to the Island to meet with MVCS staff and to donate his auction gift. He is a quiet, thoughtful, and soft-spoken man. He displays none of the qualities attached to the stereotype of a race car driver, nor does he doze in the enormous fame that has accrued to the Unser name. Rather, his commitment to MVCS reflects a career tempered with real life issues.

“My daughter Cody is 23. One day when she was 12, she played basketball on a Friday and woke up paralyzed on Saturday,” Mr. Unser said. “She suffers from a viral disease called transverse myelitis, which attacks the spinal column. Her immune system attacked the virus and in doing so destroyed two inches of her spinal column. She is a quadriplegic.”

The disease strikes about 1,400 Americans annually, usually those in their teens or their 30’s. Some sufferers have minor long-time effects. About 33,000 Americans, such as Cody Unser, suffer more severely, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

Shortly after Cody was afflicted, Mr. Unser began a struggle with his own issues involving alcohol. “I just couldn’t understand why, doing what I did for a living, I survived, and that happened to a little kid,” he said.

Four years ago, Mr. Unser began competing against his own disease and helping his daughter and his former wife, Shelley, in the battle against Cody’s illness. Cody recently graduated from Redlands University with a degree in bio-politics. “The science part is related to her disease and therapy options and the political part to making the world more accessible to people in wheelchairs,” he said. “She’s begun a foundation, Cody Unser First Step Foundation (CUFS) for that work.”

His recent visit with MVCS resonated with Mr. Unser. “I learned a lot about the challenges they face in the community,” he said. “As a recovering alcoholic, I’d like to be able to come back. In addition to participating in the auction, I hope I can come back and help in the community.”

That opportunity may well present itself. Mr. Unser, an official in the Indy Racing League (IRL) is also affiliated with an Island-based group, Baltimore Racing Group, which will launch the Baltimore Grand Prix in 2011. Founding members of the group in 2002 included Island residents Roger Greeley, Sean Conley, and Steven Wehner. Mr. Unser joined the team in 2008 and Island resident Norman Hall joined the group last year.

Both Mr. Greeley and his wife, Island artist Dawn Greeley, died within the past three years. Mr. Greeley will be commemorated during the first Baltimore Grand Prix next year.

Following approval of the Baltimore race in May, the group has formed a new company, International Marketing Development (IMD), an Island-based venture capital company with offices on Beach Road in Vineyard Haven. IMD will focus on sports and cross-brand marketing, including motor sports, Mr. Unser’s specialty.

Today, Mr. Unser sees his life in terms of service. “It’s about 50-50, racing service and community service,” he said. “My job is to help rookie drivers,” he said. “They’ve never been on an oval track. I’m somebody they can trust. I’ve been there but I’m not a competitor.

“In racing, I learned to show up, buckle in, and drive. The outcome wasn’t up to me. Mario Andretti used to say about the Indy 500, ‘God’s eyes are on you.’ You can’t predict the outcome. I was never the fastest car, I never held the lead before the final 15 laps in my Indy wins,” he said.

“What I’ve learned in sobriety is that driving was a gift I was given. I believe I survived for a reason. My job is to be of service and tell my story. Winners are the people working at their issues. All you have – that’s all you have to do.”