Bobby Unser – Racing Remembers A Legend

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, May 7 2021

Bobby Unser became a three-time Indy 500 winner in 1981. He passed away on May 2. (Photos courtesy of INDYCAR)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Motorsports fans of a certain age readily can conjur up an image of Bobby Unser behind the steering wheel of a race car sporting a white t-shirt, open-face helmet and a crescent wrench clenched between his teeth.

“Well, I doubt that,” Johnny Rutherford, like Unser a three-time Indianapolis 500 champion, said with a chuckle. “But Bobby drove really hard and a lot of times that didn’t work because he drove by his own rules, you know? He won a lot of races and was a friend. We were rookies together at Indianapolis in ’63 and did a lot of racing together in Sprint Cars and Midgets and… everything.”

One of the most colorful, outspoken and popular drivers in the history of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” Robert William Unser died Sunday, May 2, 2021 at his Albuquerque, N.M, home. He was 87.

Unser won the Indianapolis 500 in 1968, 1975 and 1981. He is one of just 10 drivers to win the Indy 500 at least three times and is a member of numerous motorsports Halls of Fame, including induction into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame in 1990. Unser and Rick Mears are the only drivers to win the Indy 500 in three different decades.

Bobby was one of six members of the Unser family to race in the Indy 500. Bobby and younger brother Al, a four-time winner, are the only siblings to win the race.

Bobby Unser also was renowned and admired for his work in and out of the cockpit before his Indianapolis 500 and INDYCAR driving career started and after it ended. He dominated the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb before he ever turned a lap around the 2.5-mile IMS oval, and went on to become a popular INDYCAR color analyst on national telecasts during the 1980s and 1990s after retiring as a driver.

Bobby Unser hitting the bricks at Indy in 1968.

“There simply was no one quite like Bobby Unser,” said Roger Penske, chairman, Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Team Penske in the NTT IndyCar Series. “Bobby was a ferocious competitor on the track, and his larger-than-life personality made him one of the most beloved and unique racers we have ever seen. Bobby brought so much to Team Penske during his time with our team, including a memorable victory in the 1981 Indianapolis 500.

“Beyond his many wins and accomplishments, Bobby was a true racer that raised the performance of everyone around him. He was also one of the most colorful characters in motorsports. Throughout his time as a driver, a commentator and an ambassador of our sport, Bobby’s stories and his passion for racing were legendary. Our thoughts and condolences are with (wife) Lisa, the Unser family and Bobby’s many friends and fans during this difficult time.”

Unser was born Feb. 20, 1934 in Colorado Springs, Colo., the third of four brothers. When he was 1, his family moved to Albuquerque _ the city forever associated with the Unser family racing dynasty.

In 1949, Unser started racing at Roswell (N.M.) Speedway. In 1950, he raced at Speedway Park in Albuquerque and won his first championship in Southwestern Modified Stock Cars. After serving in the U.S. Air Force from 1953-55, Unser and his brothers Jerry and Al, decided to pursue racing careers in United States Auto Club (USAC) competition.

Bobby Unser raced successfully in USAC Sprint Car, Midget and Stock Car competition. He earned seven career USAC Sprint Car feature victories and placed third in the standings in 1965 and 1966. He also won six USAC Stock Car races and three USAC Midget features.

Unser’s career in Indy cars started at the end of the 1962 season. He spent three years driving Novi-engined cars for colorful owner Andy Granatelli, including the No. 6 Hotel Tropicana, Las Vegas Kurtis/Novi roadster in which he qualified 16th and finished 33rd and last as an Indy 500 rookie in 1963. Unser’s day ended after completing just two laps due to an accident. Indy’s rookie class of ’63 included future 500 winners Jim Clark of Scotland and Rutherford, of Fort Worth, Texas.

Bobby Unser was all smiles after winning the 500 in 1968.

In fact, Unser’s first two career Indy starts gave no indication of his future success. After completing two laps and finishing last as a rookie in 1963, he completed just one lap in 1964 and was credited with 32nd place in the four-wheel-drive No. 9 Studebaker-STP Ferguson/Novi fielded by Granatelli. Unser was caught in the fiery, multi-car accident that claimed the lives of rookie Dave MacDonald and Eddie Sachs.

Unser earned his first career top-10 finish at Indy by placing eighth after starting 28th in 1966 for Gordon van Liew’s team. In 1967, he moved to Bob Wilke’s Leader Card team for a four-year stint, which resulted in greater fortune at Indianapolis and on the USAC Championship Trail.

Unser earned his first Indianapolis 500 victory in 1968 in the No. 3 Rislone Eagle/Offy, one of the most iconic and beautiful rear-engine cars in Indianapolis 500 history. His first spot on the Borg-Warner Trophy came after a spirited duel with Joe Leonard in one of Granatelli’s famous STP Lotus cars powered by a Pratt & Whitney helicopter turbine engine. Unser led 118 of the first 191 laps but was running second to Leonard when Leonard’s fuel shaft broke on Lap 192, with Unser powering past for his first 500 victory.

Later that year, Unser won the first of his two USAC National Championships, ending the season with five victories and edging Mario Andretti by a scant 11 points.

The 1968 season also saw Hollywood return with Universal Pictures to the Speedway to film Winning, starring Paul Newman, his real-life wife Joanne Woodward and Robert Wagner. Newman was cast as Frank Capua, a driver who risked his marriage in a bid to win the Indy 500. Filming began one week after the Indy 500 in May 1968 and lasted through July 18. 

Newman’s race car appears to be the same No. 3 Rislone Eagle/Offy Unser had driven to victory. It was, in fact, the No. 18 City of Seattle Eagle/Ford that Rutherford had finished 18th in after a collision on Lap 125 on Race Day, May 30.

Indianapolis 500 win No. 2 came in 1975 for ‘Uncle Bobby’.

“They painted my car like Bobby’s, since that (winning) car was gone, in a museum or something,” Rutherford said during a phone interview with RacinToday.com. “Anyway, I did some of the driving.” As noted in his autobiography, Lone Star J.R. by David Craft, Rutherford served as a driving double for Newman and Wagner during filming.

Among those appearing as themselves were Unser, Gurney, former IMS owner Tony Hulman, Bobby Grim, Roger McCluskey, Lou Palmer and starter Pat Vedan. Mimi Littlejohn, the 1968 Indy 500 queen, even delivered a victory kiss on Newman after he won the filmed version.

Sporting a crewcut, Rutherford also enjoyed cameo appearance right before the start of the filmed race. “I walked on and shook Paul Newman’s hand and wished him luck and went on down to my car,” Rutherford said. “That movie is when Newman got interested in racing. He would go out to shoot with the camera car, they would get through and he would make a lap by himself. You could hear him flat-chat down the back straightaway. He really enjoyed that.”

In 1972, Unser earned the first of his two Indianapolis 500 poles during a successful five-year partnership with Dan Gurney’s All American Racers. Speeds skyrocketed that year with the legalization of bolt-on wings to chassis, and no one took better advantage than Unser. His four-lap/10-mile record qualifying average speed of 195.940 mph in the No. 6 Olsonite Eagle was more than 17 mph faster than Peter Revson’s pole speed of 178.696 mph in the No. 86 McLaren/Offenhauser from the previous year _ the largest year-to-year increase in 500 history.

Unser won his second and final USAC National Championship in 1974 after finishing runnerup to Rutherford and his No. 3 McLaren/Offy in the Indy 500.

In 1975, Unser won the Indianapolis 500 for the second time, driving the No. 48 Jorgensen Eagle fielded by Gurney’s team. Unser led only 11 laps, taking the top spot from Rutherford on Lap 165 and holding it until the race was ended by a downpour on Lap 174 of the 200 scheduled laps. The podium was rounded out by A.J. Foyt Jr., then a three-time Indy 500 champion.

“I was leading the race (Laps 162-164) and the weather looked terrible out west,” said Rutherford, who had started seventh in the No. 2 Gatorade McLaren/Offy. “You know, ‘It’s raining in Terre Haute,’ that type of thing. So (crew chief) Tyler Alexander called me in for fuel on a regular pit stop and the rain was coming and Bobby and Dan Gurney stayed out and chanced it. I went out in second place and it started raining and it was over. That was the end of the race.

“I made statements (post-race) that if it hadn’t rained, I would have won the race and it really made Bobby mad. He was upset about that and he wouldn’t talk to me. Anyway, the next year we had a meeting at Goodyear and Bobby was there and I was there. And I got up and said, ‘You know, sure I think I could have won the race (last year). But, in 10 years or 20 years you’ll look at the record books and the winner’s going to be Bobby Unser. And he won the race.’

“After that, I was walking down pit lane at the Speedway and I felt this hand on my shoulder, and it was Bobby. And he gave me a hug and nodded his head. And we were good from then on.”

Former competitors Bobby Unser and Mario Andretti took part in pre-500 festivities in 2018.

Unser drove for Fletcher Racing in 1976 and 1977, returning to Gurney’s All American Racers for one season in 1978.

Unser joined Team Penske in 1979 for the start of a three-year stint in which he won 11 races and finished second in the Championship Auto Racing Teams standings in 1979 and 1980.

For sure, the most infamous race during Bobby’s Penske tenure was the 1981 Indianapolis 500, which he won from pole position in a controversial and contentious outcome. Unser beat Andretti to the finish line by 5.18-seconds in the No. 3 Norton Spirit Penske/Cosworth, but USAC officials ruled Unser had illegally passed cars while exiting the pit lane and blending into the field during a caution on Lap 149. Unser was penalized one position, with Andretti declared the winner in his No. 40 STP Oil Treatment Wildcat/Cosworth.

A lengthy protest and appeals process ensued. Unser’s penalty was rescinded and he was re-instated as the winner on Oct. 9, 1981. That victory became the last of Unser’s storied INDYCAR career, as he skipped the 1982 CART season to serve as driver coach for Mexican Josele Garza and decided against a planned comeback in 1983 with Patrick Racing.

Unser finished his career with 35 career INDYCAR victories and two championships among his eight top-three finishes in the season points.

Unser concluded his driving career as one of the greatest performers in the history of the 500. He produced 10 top-10 finishes in 19 career Indy 500 starts. Unser led in 10 races for a total of 440 laps, still 10th on the all-time list.

Unser’s nine front-row starts included poles in 1972 and 1981. His speed in qualifying at the Speedway was exceptional, as he was one of the 12 fastest drivers in 18 of his 19 starts. Fourteen of his 19 starts came from the first three rows.

“When you mention icons in racing, and particularly the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Bobby Unser was a legend,” said J. Douglas Boles, president, Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “He could drive, and win, in any type of car and on any type of track. And he was magical at Indy. But driving was just a piece of what made Bobby so iconic.

“Over the last several years, I have seen the true Bobby Unser _ the man who loved our sport, loved the Indianapolis 500 and loved to be with the fans. He would go out of his way to do whatever he could to be here in May to help us keep motorsports growing. He was always available to give speeches, to sign autographs or to just tell stories. His driving record speaks for itself. His lifelong passion for promoting auto racing and his enthusiastic, no sugar-coated opinions that continued after he hung up his helmet had such a meaningful impact.

“Everyone at IMS extends our deepest sympathies to Bobby’s family, friends and fans. He was one of a kind and will be deeply missed, but always cherished in the heart of every race fan.”

While his statistics are among the greatest in Indy history, Unser produced even more eye-popping numbers at the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, nicknamed “Unser Mountain” due to his family’s success in the famed race in Colorado Springs. Unser won 13 class titles at Pikes Peak and earned “King of the Mountain” honors 10 times during his career as the fastest driver overall up the mountain, tops among the racing Unser family that dominated the event.

Unser also had a keen engineering mind that always searched for a technical advantage over his rivals. He sometimes would call his crew chief well after midnight with an idea for chassis setup or another technical issue, and his prowess as a test driver was highly regarded because he turned every lap at the car’s limit.

Every angle was pursued by Unser when it came to trying to find the edge against his foes. Team-owner Jim Hall’s famous No. 4 Chaparral chassis _ the first Indy car with ground-effects aerodynamics underneath _ got upside-down when Rutherford crashed in 1980 in the CART season-finale at Phoenix. Unser learned of a photographer who had taken pictures of the closely guarded aero channels and tunnels beneath the Cosworth-powered “Yellow Submarine,” and he obtained those photos, which were used in the development of Team Penske’s 1981 ground-effects chassis.

“I try not to remember that (wreck),” Rutherford said, “but yes, I do. Yeah, for sure, Bobby would have done that. Wasn’t worried about me!”

After his driving career ended, Unser combined his vast racing experience and considerable skills as an outspoken raconteur to become a popular broadcaster on ABC, NBC and ESPN INDYCAR telecasts and on IMS Radio Network race broadcasts. The booth trio of play-by-play announcer Paul Page and the opinionated Unser and the erudite Sam Posey _ with Unser and Posey’s styles and comments almost always contrasting and often clashing _ was one of the most entertaining and popular in INDYCAR television history.

Two of Unser’s proudest moments in the TV booth came when he called the finish in 1987 with play-by-play announcer Jim Lampley as brother Al earned his record-tying fourth Indy 500 victory. In 1992, Unser and Page called the race as his nephew, Al Unser Jr., won Indy for the first time in the closest 500 finish ever.

Unser also was part of the ABC Sports broadcast team that won an Emmy Award for “Outstanding Live Sports Special” for its coverage of the 1989 Indianapolis 500.

After his TV career ended, Unser continued to visit IMS every Month of May. In 1998 and 1999, he served as driver coach and assisted with race strategy on the radio for his son, Robby, during his two starts in the Memorial Day weekend classic. Robby finished fifth and eighth, respectively, in those two starts with his father’s help.

Fans always flocked to “Uncle Bobby” to get a picture or autograph, to share their memories or to hear one of Unser’s countless stories about his career and fellow racers. He also savored spending time in the Media Center swapping tales with many veteran journalists every May, as Unser was a tireless ambassador for IMS and the Indianapolis 500 until the end of his life.

“We at the Road Racing Drivers Club are saddened by the death of a national hero and icon, and one of our longtime members,” said RRDC President Bobby Rahal, one of Unser’s open-wheel peers and winner of the 1986 Indy 500. “Bobby Unser was a champion race-car driver, a beloved and charismatic curmudgeon and, above all, one of the rarest of breeds in the racing world. He’s done it all. He was a three-time Indy 500 winner, two-time USAC National Champion, an IROC champion, and won the Pikes Peak Hill Climb 13 times, 10 of them overall. He will be missed.”

Unser is survived by his wife, Lisa; sons Bobby Jr. and Robby and daughters Cindy and Jeri

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, May 7 2021
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