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Al Unser Jr. Leaves Rehab

August 8, 2002

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SPARTA, Ky. (AP) _ Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser Jr. said Thursday he is excited to get back in his car this weekend following nearly three weeks in a substance-abuse treatment center.

``I am Al, the grateful alcoholic,″ a guardedly optimistic Unser said during a 30-minute news conference at Kentucky Speedway, the site of Sunday’s Belterra Casino Indy 300.

``My recovery program didn’t end earlier this week. That’s just the beginning. I have a program that I’m following today, tomorrow, next week, next month and for the rest of my life.″

Unser, 40, was arrested July 9 in Indianapolis after his girlfriend, Jena L. Soto, 38, said he hit her in the face while drunk and left her on the side of the road.

Prosecutors did not file charges, deciding there was not enough evidence from the initial 911 call, statements and photographs to obtain a conviction.

``My problem with drinking was off the race track,″ he said. ``(The alcohol) was making me do the insane things that got me into trouble with my girlfriend in Indianapolis. That was insane.″

Unser entered an undisclosed substance-abuse center July 18 for inpatient treatment. He was released Monday and cleared to drive by Dr. Henry Bock, medical director for the Indy Racing League.

``The last few weeks have been very educational,″ he said. ``What the treatment center gave me was the knowledge and the tools I’ll need not to pick up a drink.

``The biggest misconception with alcohol is that it is a disease and that it kills. The tough part for me was admitting I was powerless against that disease and needed help.″

Unser said he was thrilled to be getting back behind the wheel after missing two IRL races while undergoing treatment.

``That race car is the best therapy I could go into,″ he said. ``It’s certainly not too soon.″

Kelley Racing team owner Tom Kelley struggled to hold back tears several times as he answered questions alongside his driver.

``I feel very comfortable as a team owner putting Al back in the car considering his experience,″ Kelley said. ``We’ve spent a lot of time together the last week and have had the chance to do a lot of talking and soul-searching.

``I have never felt at all that Al had not given us 100 percent on the race track this year. If you look at his performance, other than times things happened that were out of his control, he’s done a tremendous job.″

Kelley and team sponsor, Corteco, have promised to keep Unser in a car through the 2003 season. Unser and Kelley have a contract through 2004.

Unser insisted his alcohol problems were limited to his time off the race track.

``Once the people in rehab found out who I was, that was the most popular question,″ he said. ``Did I drink and drive? No, I did not. That would be like putting a gun to your head and pulling the trigger. No way.″

Unser said he has no problem being a role model for others with substance-abuse problems.

``I’m comfortable with the fact that I am just a human being and make the same mistakes that everybody else does,″ he said.

``If people look at my coming out and acknowledging the fact I was powerless against this disease and that my life was unmanageable gives them incentive to go and receive help, that’s great.″

Unser said he called the news conference to put his failures behind him and focus on a successful future.

``I am in the very early stages of recovery and still have big challenges in front of me,″ he said. ``But I look forward to meeting those challenges.

``I am a race car driver who has been very successful in all of his races. I’m a winner, and I’m going to take this race and run it one lap at a time. I’m going to win it ... we’re going to do good on this one.″

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