John Tudor on Al Unser Sr.: A champion and a competitor, the man with the greatest family name on NASCAR

In October 1982, the four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser Sr. died of a heart attack after a big race at Road America. The day before the race, he was hospitalized with chest pains, caused by the process of intestinal-muscle squeezing. While the doctor concluded that he would be fine for the race, Unser was replaced in the starting line by Burt Munro. Munro would enter the race as the back-up to Danny Sullivan, who had a mechanical problem, and would lose in the race by a single-file line.

According to published reports, in a report from October 1982, Unser’s son, Al Unser Jr., said, “Dad was a little bit surprised … but he knew the team had to do what it had to do to get him back in the car and feeling healthy. … That was just a very normal reaction.”

Mr. Unser Jr. followed in his father’s footsteps and also won four championships in NASCAR and entered the Indy 500 with arguably the strongest team in its history.

He missed the 1977 Indianapolis 500 with a broken leg, but proceeded to win the championship in 1980, 1981, 1982 and 1983.

Mr. Unser, who died Saturday at the age of 82, is also remembered for his one-on-one racing battles with Roger Penske, including the 1982 Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, at the age of 41 years old. It was not for a win in a race, but a work-related collision, which he admits after the race with some pride: “It was what it was.”

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