FRIDAY, May 25 (HealthDay News) -- Just ahead of competing in this Sunday's Indianapolis 500, racing legend Al Unser Jr. is shifting gears to focus on an even bigger challenge: alcoholism.
For the first time, the two-time Indy champ is publicly acknowledging that he is an alcoholic.
"I've been fighting alcoholism for a long time," said Unser Jr, 45. "And I really feel that by telling a little about my story and my struggles and my knowledge of the disease that I can help people learn about it."
He hopes his story will "motivate them to seek help from a doctor or a therapist or counseling, and show them that there's many options for getting treatment for this disease."
Unser Jr. has teamed up with a new national alcoholism-awareness campaign, entitled LIVE Outside the Bottle, designed to educate the public about alcoholism and provide resources for treatment.
Launched in March, the campaign's multi-media exhibit, "The Story of Alcoholism in America," is right now making its way through 14 cities nationwide. The project is sponsored by the pharmaceutical companies Alkermes and Cephalon. The two companies manufacture Vivitrol, an injectable drug used to curb alcohol cravings.
Unser Jr. will join the tour when it makes a pit stop in Indianapolis on Friday, setting up just outside the Indy 500 racetrack two days before the event.
"This gives me a big platform to tell my story and reach as many people as possible, both racing fans and non-racing fans," he said.
Unser Jr.'s struggle is shared by an estimated 18 million other Americans plagued by alcoholism, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. They note that alcoholism is the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States, with more than 100,000 deaths, and nearly half of all U.S. traffic fatalities each year, linked to problem drinking.
The scion of a famous car-racing family -- uncle Bobby and dad Al Unser are both rated among the top 10 Indy race winners ever -- Unser Jr. began his professional racing career at the tender age of 16.
"When you won the race, they gave you champagne," he said. "Now, I wasn't a big drinker in my twenties and thirties, but, again, the disease is progressive. So, it progressed on me and ended up taking over my life, and I didn't even know it."
Unser Jr. first came to terms with his illness back in 2002, after an arrest for a domestic violence incident.
"I kind of looked back on the fact that any time I got in trouble, it was alcohol-related," he said. "So, I put myself into a rehab, and I learned about the disease. Prior to that, my wife, Gina, would say to me that I'm an alcoholic, and I would say 'no way.' But with her past knowledge of the disease -- meaning her mom was an alcoholic -- she knew what she was talking about."
Unser Jr. could also have looked to his own family history, since his mother's father died of alcoholism.
But his 2002 attempt at rehab was short-lived. After 56 days sober, Unser Jr. started drinking again.
"During those 56 days, I started to tell myself, 'I'm not an alcoholic,'" he said. "That I can have one drink and stop. I had so many plans, so many different ways to prove that I wasn't an alcoholic. That's the sickness of the disease."
Retirement from the circuit in 2004 only exacerbated things.
"When I retired, I ended up drinking even more," he remarked. "It was a never-ending cycle. But I had control of it -- I thought. And, in fact, it had control of me the whole time, which eventually got me in trouble again this last January."
This time, Unser Jr. was arrested in Nevada for driving under the influence -- an event he described as a rock-bottom turning point.
"I was a professional racecar driver that was arrested for DUI," he said. "I had never been arrested for anything of that nature before."
That event "made me take a long hard look at my life," he said. "It made me admit 100 percent I'm an alcoholic. And I'm going to get control of this disease."
Since that time, treatment has meant reading as much as he can about the disease and talking with other alcoholics. Unser Jr. says he has not yet taken any prescription medications to help curb his alcoholism.
"But, again, I want to emphasize that there are so many options for treatment, because there are a lot of advances in terms of this disease," he noted. "AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) works for some people; it doesn't work for others. There's medication out there that works for people, along with counseling and therapy. Each person is different. And the whole basis of this is to learn about it, and learn what works for you."
Today, this father of six -- who ranks sixth on the all-time Indy win list -- says "it's awesome" to be both sober and racing again after a three-year hiatus. This Sunday, he'll be at the starting line again, competing in the race he first won back in 1992 and again in 1994.
Meanwhile, Unser Jr. is spreading the word that education and motivation are key to beating a crippling disease.
"Now I look back on it, and, without alcohol, I would've been a much better husband, a much better father, and a much better racecar driver," he said. "And I am so thankful that, today, I can say that I live outside the bottle, and life is wonderful."
There's more on alcoholism at the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.