Al Unser Jr. to Seek Alcohol Treatment

Friday, July 19th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) _ Two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Al Unser Jr. will seek treatment for alcohol abuse and won't race for the next several weeks.

Unser revealed his plans Thursday, just hours after prosecutors said he would not face criminal charges on accusations that he hit his girlfriend and left her stranded along a highway.

``I have a problem with alcohol abuse,'' he said. ``Nearly ever poor choice that I have made in my life was under the influence of alcohol. I don't understand why I have a problem, but I know I have to straighten out.''

Unser said he had been feeling good about his racing this season in the IRL, but all that changed with his arrest July 9.

``I made some very poor choices and spent the night in jail,'' he said. ``That is something that I want to never do again.''

Unser's voice cracked as he read his statement during a news conference at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He declined to take reporters' questions, but promised to do so after he completes his alcohol treatment.

``Between now and then, I have many questions myself _ and I look forward to learning the answers that will help me as I move forward with my life,'' he said.

Unser said he made his decision to enter an unspecified treatment center after meeting with car owner Tom Kelley and Gregory Gyllstrom, chief executive of Unser sponsor Corteco.

The team said that Unser would miss at least the next two IRL events and would be replaced by test driver Tony Renna. The earliest Unser would return is mid-August.

IRL president Tony George said the league does not contemplate any action against Unser and is satisfied with his decision to seek treatment.

Marion County Prosecutor Scott Newman said Thursday there was not enough evidence from the initial 911 call, statements and photographs to obtain a conviction against the 40 year-old driver from Albuquerque, N.M.

``Those are the facts I had to work with and I concluded from these facts that there is not a jury in the world that would treat this as a criminal case,'' Newman said.

Jena L. Soto, 38, of Albuquerque, told police July 9 that she and Unser hit each other during an argument while she was driving on Interstate 465 about 3:30 a.m. after they had left a strip club.

Newman said Soto had cooperated with investigators, answering all of their questions while repeatedly saying she did not want to press charges. A police spokesman said last week that Soto had downplayed the fight in an interview with detectives.

Newman said his office sometimes proceeded with domestic violence charges even when the victim did not want to cooperate with authorities, but that he did not have enough evidence in the Unser case.

Unser won the Indianapolis 500 in 1992 and 1994, and has been having his best season in years. He is sixth in the IRL standings.

In her 911 calls and statements, Soto said that she was driving to Unser's motor home at the speedway because he was intoxicated. She told officers she hit Unser first to stop him from trying to shift the gears of the vehicle, and that Unser responded by hitting her in the face.

She said she pulled to the side of the highway after Unser hit her, got out of the sport utility vehicle, and that Unser then drove away.

Newman said he could not have filed drunken driving charges against Unser even though evidence suggested that he was drunk. He said that no one had seen Unser driving in an impaired state and officers did not obtain a blood-alcohol test.