NASCAR

Unser Jr's alcohol abuse admission is rare in racing

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Jules Goux sipped champagne during pit stops on the way to winning the Indianapolis 500 in 1913. Nobody would think of emulating the Frenchman in modern racing, where superbly conditioned drivers often race side-by-side at speeds above 200 mph. When Al Unser Jr. admitted last week that he has a problem with alcohol, it shocked American auto racing. Unser spent a night in jail after being accused of hitting his girlfriend and then abandoning her on the roadside during a drunken argument. Authorities later decided not to bring charges against him, but the two-time Indy 500 winner said he would seek treatment for alcohol abuse and stay out of his Indy Racing League ride until the problem is under control. The situation raised questions about alcohol and substance abuse policies for drivers. "There is language in the rulebook that addresses negative conduct and includes some language involving testing. It's rarely needed," said IRL spokesman Ron Green. In fact, all NASCAR, CART and IRL drivers, crewmen and employees agree to drug testing when they sign the yearly application for a season credential. "In CART, anybody who is a registered competitor at any level can be tested any time there is a question," said Adam Saal, a spokesman for the Champ car series. "It has happened, but not to a driver." Roger Penske, who owns teams in both NASCAR and the IRL and was a longtime competitor in CART, employed Unser from 1994 through 1999. Unser won his second Indy 500 and the CART championship in 1994 and was runner-up the next year. Then began a four-year winless string in 1996. He finishing fourth in the points that year but slipped all the way to 21st in 1999 as his slump worsened. During that period, one of his daughters, Cody, was hit by a rare disease and paralyzed from the waist down, and Unser also went through a divorce. "There was a question the last year he drove for us," Penske said. "There were some rumors he had a drug problem. I sat down with him as his friend No. 1 and his car owner No. 2 and I said, `Listen, people are wondering what your situation is. What I'm going to do is random test you this whole year.' It's ironic I can say this sitting here today, but he absolutely was clean." NASCAR, of course, had its roots in moonshining in the South, and brewers such as Budweiser and Coors are major sponsors, but the sport rarely has been troubled by the problem. There were stories of early NASCAR stars such as Curtis Turner and Joe Weatherly being heavy drinkers and sometimes showing up at the track with hangovers in the 1950s. Nobody ever accused them of driving under the influence. A handful of drivers, including Bill and Don Whittington, John Paul Jr., Gary Ballough, Billie Harvey and Randy Lanier, have spent time in prison for selling or transporting drugs. More recently, Sammy Potashnick, who finished second last year in NASCAR's Winston West series, was suspended from racing while awaiting trial on drug possession charges. Recreational drug use and concern over performance-enhancing drugs has troubled other major sports, including baseball, football, basketball and hockey. , the current Winston Cup points leader, said he was surprised to hear about Unser's drinking problem. "I've raced Little Al before and I never noticed a problem," Marlin said. "I guess you never know what anyone does in their personal life. "Guys in this garage area know when it's time to race and they know when it's time to have a good time. Having a good time is usually for Tuesday and Wednesday," Marlin said. "We work on the weekends and I've never worried that someone wasn't playing by those rules." Drivers in all three of the top American series said they would have no problem with more drug testing. "I'm all for it and I think we need more of it," said four-time NASCAR champion . "We all have our problems, but there's no room for those kind of things in our sport. The good thing is that I don't really think we have any of that. "I feel confident that when I get in the car, everyone around me has enough professionalism and respect for one another to not bring that element into what we do." Eddie Cheever, a longtime competitor in Formula One, CART and the IRL and now a driver-owner, said performance enhancing drugs wouldn't do much for a race driver. "Racing is different from other professional sports in as much as it is 95 percent mental and 5 percent physical," he said. "Anybody that has juggled his life in his hands knows that taking anything that would change reality or your perception of reality is very dangerous. "In this game, you don't double fault on your serve. No timeouts. I make probably a million decisions in a race, decisions on steering and speed. I would never take anything that would change that." Cheever, who nearly hired Unser to drive for him this season, called what his friend and competitor has done "very brave." "He's paying his consequences," Cheever added. "There were a whole series of personal problems with his daughter getting ill, the divorce and his career. Sometimes those things have a toll on people, and they'll go in the wrong direction." Penske said what has happened to Unser should not be a reflection on the whole sport. "I'm glad for Al that he's getting some help now, and I don't think the sport today deserves any black eye because of this," Penske said. "He's getting some help. Let's see what the outcome is."

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