Bobby Unser, three-time Indianapolis 500 winner, died
There wasn’t much Bobby Unser wouldn’t do to promote the Indianapolis 500, which is how he saw himself at a show-and-tell at an Indiana elementary school a few years ago.
He had the famous Borg-Warner Trophy of the Indy 500 winners with him and proudly showed students the Unser legacy. He pointed to the nine places where their faces are carved out of sterling silver – four places for his younger brother, Al; three for him; two for nephew Al Jr.
One girl had a question: if your brother was there four times and he was only there three times, was your brother the best driver?
It was one of the few times that anyone saw Unser speechless.
Unser, who started competing in clams in New Mexico and went on to become a beloved figure in the races and part of the only pair of brothers to win “The Greatest Show in the Race”, died on Sunday at 87. He died at his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, of natural causes, said Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“There just was no one like Bobby Unser,” said Roger Penske, now the owner of the track. “In addition to his many victories and achievements, Bobby was a true driver who raised the performance of everyone around him. He was also one of the most colorful characters in motorsports. “
Unser was a member of one of America’s most famous racing families and one of the greatest drivers in the history of the race track, capturing the race in 1968, 1975 and 1981.
“It is part of Mount Rushmore of Indy,” said Dario Franchitti, another winner of the Indy 500 three times.
Unser’s final Indy 500 victory at a Penske entry was one of the most controversial results and is still disputed today.
Unser won from pole and beat Mario Andretti by 5.18 seconds, but officials determined that Unser illegally overtaken cars while leaving the pit lane under caution – tying a penalty that reduced him to a position and led Andretti to the winner.
Penske and Unser appealed and, after a long process, the sentence was rescinded in October of that year.
“Bobby was never exonerated from the offense and the USAC, which was the only sanctioning body in Indianapolis at the time, was a very weak organization,” Andretti said on Monday. “Roger Penske’s lawyers were much smarter than USAC lawyers. And that is a fact: Bobby committed the offense. But under the circumstances, the penalty was very severe.”
In the end, Unser was fined $ 40,000 and declared the winner for the 35th and final victory of his career.
Andretti, who infamously won only once in Indy, told the Associated Press on Monday that to this day he still wears the 1981 winner’s ring that was presented at the banquet the day after the race, instead of his victory in 1969.
“Every time I saw Bobby, I showed him my 81 ring, that’s what I wear, I never returned it. I would just rub it in your ear, “said Andretti, who added that he last spoke to Unser about three weeks ago.
Unser was one of six members of the Unser family to compete in the 500 miles of Indianapolis; an older brother, Jerry, died in an accident during preparations for the 1959 Indy 500.
Al Unser is one of only three drivers to win the Indy 500 four times – 1970, 1971, 1978 and 1987. The Unser family tradition extended to Al Unser’s son, Al Unser Jr., who won Indy in 1992 and 1994.
Bobby Unser was born on February 20, 1934, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and moved with his family as a child to New Mexico. His father owned a garage along Route 66 and his three brothers grew up working in old clunks before leaving school at 15 and starting their racing career at Roswell New Mexico Speedway.
After two years in the United States Air Force, from 1953 to 1955 – a passage of which he was proud – Unser turned to racing full-time in what has become a powerful career. His family was legendary at Pikes Peak International, Colorado – nicknamed “Unsers’ Peak” because of his feat on the annual hill climb – but it was “Uncle Bobby” who was the best. He dominated with 13 championships, including six in a row from 1958 to 1963.
At Indy, one of the most difficult and challenging race tracks in the world, Unser was a magician.
He was one of only 10 drivers to win the 500 at least three times, and Unser and Rick Mears are the only drivers to win the 500 in three different decades. Unser got 10 results in the top 10 in 19 career matches. He led in 10 races for a total of 440 laps, which still ranks 10th on the all-time list. He won two poles, in 1972 and 1981, and had nine starts on the first row.
Franchitti spent time every year at the race track or having dinner with other previous winners and said that Unser was “always the greatest personality in almost any room”.
“He showed up at the race track and regardless of when he last raced, he still understood the race and what it took to win it and was still very insightful,” said Franchitti. “He loved the Indy 500 a lot. He loved coming back. “
The exclusive club of ex-winners meets in Indy annually – the pandemic put an end to the tradition last year – to remember its days on the racetracks. Unser has always maintained the court among the motorsport giants, none of them taking the deadly dangers of Indianapolis for granted.
“He was a fun guy and he liked to talk and make fun of a lot and he always talked a lot, especially at the dinners in Indy where everyone gets together. We would get together to have a steak in the center, “said Andretti.” The fact that we survived. We lost so many. We dodged a bullet. “
After his racing career, Unser moved on to a 20-year broadcasting career and won an Emmy Award as part of the ABC Sports broadcast team for “Outstanding Live Sports Special” for his coverage of the 1989 Indianapolis 500.
He was at the booth in 1987 when he announced Brother Al’s fourth win, which broke the record for the fourth time, and again in 1992, when his nephew Al Unser Jr. beat Indy for the first time in the nearest 500 positions. When his TV career ended, Unser continued to visit the racetrack every May. He was a driver trainer who helped with race strategy in 1998 and 1999, when his son Robby Unser finished fifth and eighth.
Unser leaves his wife, Lisa; sons Bobby Jr. and Robby; and daughters Cindy and Jeri.