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.