For the second time this summer, Watkins Glen International has tapped one of the biggest names in motorsports history as grand marshal for a race weekend.
After NASCAR Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace played the part in August’s NASCAR Cup Series Go Bowling at The Glen over the weekend, the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and American Motorsports Hall of Famer Al Unser Jr. is the Grand Marshal of the Hilliard US Vintage at the road course. Grand Prix, featuring three full days of racing from September 9-11. The featured brand for the event is Mustang, with a gathering of Bugatti and historic Trans-Am cars also highlighting the weekend.
Unser, 60, also made an appearance at Friday’s packed Watkins Glen Grand Prix Festival presented by Chemung Canal in downtown Watkins Glen.
He won one of the closest finishes in Indy 500 history in 1992 and captured the race again in 1994. Unser won 34 IndyCar races in 329 starts from 1982 to 2007 and was the 1990 and 1994 CART Indy Car World Series champion. .
Unser wrapped up titles in the four-race International Race of Champions (IROC) with wins at Watkins Glen in 1986 and 1988. He added a win at WGI in 1989, giving him three wins from five races there.
His father, Al Unser Sr., won the Indy 500 four times and Al Sr.’s brother, Bobby Allison, won the race three times. Mr. Al died in December 2021, seven months after Bobby’s death.
On September 30 of last year, Unser Jr. married Norma Lawrence. “She’s hilarious, she’s hilarious. She’s a firecracker. I love her so much,” Unser said Friday. The couple lives in Indianapolis.
Last year also saw the release of “Al Unser Jr: A Checkered Past,” a memoir co-authored with Jade Gurss chronicling Unser’s personal struggles and racing career.
Question: What are your thoughts on being at Watkins Glen this weekend?
Answer: The Hilliard Vintage Grand Prix folks here at Watkins Glen called me up and said, ‘Would you like to be grand marshal?’ I said, ‘Hell yeah, I’d love to be a grand quarterback.’
Watkins Glen has a lot of tradition. I’ve been coming here since I was a little kid and I watch my dad and Uncle Bobby race in the early ’70s and all that. I got my first chance to race here in 1981 in a Super Vee and then in ’82 in a Can-Am car. Then I won a couple of IROC championships in ’86 and ’88 here at The Glen. It is full of tradition and it is a beautiful country. Seneca Lake behind us is just amazing.
Q: When you come back up this path, what are some of the memories that come to mind?
A: Actually, when I first came here as a kid, I saw my father race in the Formula 5000 series in the early ’70s. I think it was ’74 when I was here for the first time. As I’ve come back over the years, to see the changes to the track, all the improvements that have been made to it, it really has become a world-class race track here in the States. It’s great.
Q: If you had to choose a favorite moment in your career, what would it be?
A: I guess my favorite moment is winning the Indy 500 in 1992. That was just a lifelong dream of mine. I was lucky to be born where I was born, in a nutshell. With Dad winning four times and Uncle Bobby three times and the success they had in every race, not just the 500 but the IROCs and the 24 Hours of Daytona and all that kind of stuff, so Blessed to have been born when i was born
Q: What do you think about what your father and uncle meant to the sport and to you?
A: My dad and my uncle, I loved them very much. The kind of people who were away from the racetrack were great people. Especially my father was a better person as a father than he ever was as a racing driver, and he is one of the top legends as a racing driver. We miss you so much. I feel very lucky that we can carry on his legacy and that’s what I took on my responsibility with his passing: making sure they’re still here with us all the time at the races and stuff.
Q: Unser and Andretti are at the top in terms of iconic racing families. What is the relationship between the families?
The Unser’s and the Andretti’s go back a long time. Uncle Bobby was very close to Mario, although he was never a teammate, while my father was a teammate of Mario’s. When I met Michael Andretti, Mario’s son, we were like 10 or 11 years old and we were riding minibikes in Pennsylvania. The families just grew up together and are the elite of the elite. I feel blessed, as does Michael, because we were born where we were born and pursued our careers the way we did and were very successful at it.