Racing legend Unser almost was a victim
By Maureen West
The Arizona Republic
November 29, 2000

Al Unser Sr., who escaped death many times on the racetrack, was nearly killed by carbon monoxide poisoning on his Lake Powell houseboat in 1995.

"You never expect to run into death when you are having fun," Unser, a four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, recalled Tuesday.

He was entertaining friends when a storm came up and blew one of the anchor ropes loose. When he started the boat's motor, the ropes got tangled in the engine prop.

He didn't want his beautiful 74-foot houseboat torn up on the rocks, so he dove into the 20-foot-deep water to fix it.

The boat's electrical generator remained on to provide lights for the party.

"I sort of knew that could be dangerous, but I decided I wouldn't be down there that long. It was my own stupidity. That's what kills most people," said Unser, who was 55 at the time. "By that age, you are supposed to know better."

"When I was racing, I knew there was always a risk that I was going to die. I'd take all the precautions: safety helmet and fire-resistant suit and seat belts."

The rope was more tangled than Unser thought it would be. He bopped up four or five times into the air space below the swim deck to breathe. He didn't realize he was quickly poisoning himself in the "death zone" where the generator expelled its exhaust. Without warning, he became drowsy and lost his equilibrium.

"I didn't know where I was. I didn't know up or down or how to get out."

Unser struggled to the surface, where friends pulled him on board.

"They didn't know what was wrong with me. I couldn't walk or crawl."

He was taken to the Page Hospital where he was put on oxygen for four hours.

"I still love boating," Unser said, "But now I know better."

He has already given instructions that when his boat is pulled out of the water this winter for cleaning and repairs, the exhaust will be diverted to the side of the boat.

Unser, who lives in Albuquerque, said he is not taking any more chances with his or anyone else's life.

 

    Copyright 2000, The Arizona Republic. All rights reserved. This article graciously provided courtesy of The Arizona Republic.