BACK IN 1936, Indianapolis 500 winner Louis Meyer was photographed chugging buttermilk, and ever since then milk—not champagne, not beer—has been the drink of choice for Brickyard winners. That suits Al Unser Jr. just fine. Last Saturday the two-time champ qualified for his 19th Indy 500, just four months after his career, not to mention his life, was on the verge of being derailed by alcoholism.
On Jan. 25 Unser, 45, was arrested for DUI outside Las Vegas. He now says he's been an alcoholic for "a long time," but until he was hauled off to jail he never saw the need to get clean. "That was the final straw for me," Unser says. "If I had recognized that I had a disease earlier and had sought treatment earlier, I would have been a better person and a better driver." To help others avoid his mistakes, Unser is working as an ambassador for Live Outside the Bottle, an organization that encourages alcoholics to seek help. That means he spends a lot of time talking about his past mistakes, of which he readily admits there have been many. In 2002 he was arrested for hitting his then girlfriend, Gina, who is now his wife. (No charges were filed.) And then there was the January bust, which Unser—who retired in '04 but raced at the Brickyard in '06—was convinced would ruin any chance he had of racing at Indy this year. (Unser pleaded not guilty; his trial is scheduled for July.)
Then in February, to his surprise, he got a call from A.J. Foyt. If any owner is willing to hand out second chances, it's Foyt, an old schooler who's gotten into his fair share of scrapes. (Once, at age 62, he punched another driver on Victory Lane.) "I don't pay attention to that," Foyt says. "I saw he was open, and there was no one better to drive my car. It's a big honor to have him in the car."
It didn't take long for Unser, who says he hasn't had a drink since his arrest, to accept Foyt's offer. Being at the track, where his time is filled and the prize he's eyeing is a big jug of milk, has made staying clean a bit easier. "For me," says Unser, "the best therapy is driving a car 220 miles an hour and racing in the Indianapolis 500."