Bobby Unser 1934-2021
We are sad to report the death on May 2 of Bobby Unser, one of America’s greatest, most charismatic and forthright racing drivers, at the age of 87. Bobby was part of the famous Unser dynasty.
His father Jerry, brothers Al, Jerry and Louie and Uncle Louis all lived for racing, especially the challenging Pikes Peak ‘Race to the Clouds’ hill climb which they dominated for very many years. They raced anything with wheels on any surface and Bobby declared that: “Winning is a matter of pride. It’s the way our family was raised.” This in spite of his older brother Jerry, who was 1957 USAC Stock Car Champion, being killed in practice for the 1959 Indy 500 at the age of just 26.
Bobby was born in Colorado Springs in 1934 and the family moved to Albuquerque the following year. He was brought up surrounded by racing cars and he first started racing himself in 1949, winning the South Western Modified Stock Car Championship the following season. He served in the Airforce from ’53-55 before embarking on a professional racing career. His dirt track racing honed his car control skills and Bobby won Pikes Peak outright 10 times plus another three class wins. His first win was in ’56, then six on the trot from ’58 to ’63. Younger brother Al won it in ’64 and ‘65 and Bobby won again in ’66 and ’68. Coming out of retirement he claimed his last win in 1986, setting a new outright record.
Uncle Louis won it nine times between 1934 and 1953. That’s quite some family record. On the race track the wins just kept coming. Bobby was crowned USAC Champion in 1968 and 1974 and IROC Champion in 1975. However, it was his three Indy 500 wins in 1968, ’75 and ’81 that made him a household name.
The year of the headline-grabbing ‘whistling’ turbine-engined cars was 1968. They were favoured to win but Bobby, in his Leader Cards Eagle Offenhauser Turbo, built by Dan Gurney’s All American Racers, dug deep. In qualifying he became the first man to lap at more than 170mph and he led the race for 127 of the 200 laps, setting a new race record pace of 152mph. He was the first Unser to win the Indy 500 which Indy boss Tony Hulman described as “the greatest, the most competitive 500 in history”. The Unsers were on a roll. Bobby was third in ’69, Al won in ’70 and ’71 and was runner-up in ’72. Bobby was second in ’74 and won again in ’75 in an AAR Jorgensen Eagle Offy Turbo. Al was third in ’77 and won in ’78 and Bobby won for the third time in 1981 in the ‘Norton Spirit’, a Poole-built Penske PC-9B Cosworth. He was reunited with this car at the 2011 Goodwood Festival of Speed. Not to be outdone, Al took his fourth win in 1987. Bobby and Al are the only brothers to have both won Indy and are in an elite group of three or more winners. Bobby retired from Indycar racing in ’82 but continued to work with car makers as a development driver. He then embarked on a successful career as an Indycar and NASCAR commentator for major US TV networks. Showing his versatility once again, in ’83 he set a new Modified Roadster class record at Bonneville of 223mph that stood for 18 years. Following his death, Al said: “He was my older brother and he gifted me with thousands of memories; hunting rabbits and catching rattlesnakes on the west Mesa as a boy; working on cars in our dad’s shop; watching him race at Speedway Park; following him to Pikes Peak and then on to Indy and Daytona, where his friends became mine; trying to outbuild and outrace each other in dune buggies and snowmobiles; teaming up for mountain search and rescue; being in and out of businesses together; harrowing trips with him in his airplane; and competing hard with him on the track and pulling pranks on each other off the track. “He made me laugh, made me angry, made me try harder and was one of my biggest fans. Anyone who has fallen victim to Bobby’s ‘advice’ can appreciate how many hours of brotherly advice I received on everything from raising children to packing wheel bearings. I learned many lessons from my older brother, am proud to have been Bobby’s little brother and am so thankful for his presence in my life.”
First Indy win in 1968. Credit IMS Photo.
Second Indy win in 1975. Credit IMS Photo. Bobby celebrates third Indy 500 win in 1981.
Credit IMS Photo. Bobby sideways winning 1960 Pikes Peak.
Credit The Henry Ford. Bobby at Goodwood in 2011. Credit Steve Havelock.
Reunited with his 1981 Indy 500 winner in 2011. Credit Steve Havelock.