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Emotions Flow on Father's Day as Johnny Unser Shows Daughter Racing Ropes at IMS

These are the kind of memories he was unable to have with his dad, so this Father’s Day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is incredibly sentimental for Johnny Unser.

His quality time will be spent coaching 19-year-old daughter, Loni, as she drives a No. 8 1960 Porsche 356B Coupe with owner Marcus Pillion. She’s entered in a Sportscar Vintage Racing Association (SVRA) Group 3 Vintage Classic Enduro race Sunday as part of the fourth annual Brickyard Vintage Racing Invitational.

On this special day, Johnny will inevitably remember his dad, Jerry, whose 1959 death came two weeks after suffering injuries in a fiery crash during Indianapolis 500 qualifying. Jerry was the first Unser at Indy, the one usually overlooked in the annals of history because he departed so soon and because he was the older brother of Bobby and Al and the uncle of Al Jr., three legends who have combined to win nine Indy 500s.

Jerry was just 26. Johnny was just 6 months old.

“I didn’t have the chance to know my father and have him show me this place,” Johnny said Friday of IMS, “so to be able to show it to my daughter on Father’s Day is something I can’t put into words.”

The tone of his words hint at the importance of this day.

“It’s easy to get emotional,” said Johnny, now 58, his voice cracking.

“I think he tries to hide it,” Loni said with an admiring gaze at her dad, “but he’s a big softie.”

If you’re an Unser, Indy means everything.

“This place is so special for our whole family,” Loni said. “Being here, it’s like our second home. We love it here. I’ve been coming here since I was born and watched him race. Now he gets to watch me out on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. That’s pretty cool. I think we both get pretty sentimental about it.”

Johnny raced first this weekend as he teamed up with Shannon Ivey to finish second in Saturday’s Indy Legends Pro-Am B division race. As much as five-time Indy 500 starter Johnny gets a kick out of racing again at IMS, although not on the oval but on the 14-turn, 2.439-mile road course, what excites him is seeing Loni following her impulse to race.

Until now, the timing just wasn't right.

“It was always something that was in the back of my mind,” she said. “I would always be around race cars and be like, ‘Oh, wow, it would be so cool if I could get an opportunity.’ I wasn’t sure that was going to happen, but I knew I always wanted to be involved in the sport.

“I remember my ski team and I would go to the go-kart track, and I would have it in the back of my mind, ‘Oh, my family races cars.’ For some reason, I’d be able to go out there and do a really good job even without any coaching.”

Johnny last raced an Indy car in 2000 and has immersed himself in various endeavors. He runs an Unser Karting go-kart facility in Denver and has been a 25-year partner in an Automotive Sales Training business in Franklin, Tennessee. Not far from his home in Hailey, Idaho, he owns Unser Hay Company, where he grows organic alfalfa for dairy cows.

And he’s still involved in racing. He’s a spokesperson and technical consultant on racing and street tires for Cooper Tires in Findlay, Ohio. The past decade, he’s also been coaching Mazda Road to Indy drivers, including eventual Indy 500 qualifiers Spencer Pigot, Sage Karam and Zach Veach.

It’s one thing to coach those promising drivers, but something else when it’s your daughter.

“You watch it differently, and you want everything to be so correct,” Johnny said. “You want to tell them not too much but enough and say the right things. What has been a real help, since I’m at a lot of IndyCar races with the Road to Indy kids, when I’m not there (cousin) Robby has been there. He’s been a great help and a great coach, and it’s not her dad.”

Loni just completed her freshman year at the University of Colorado. She’s undecided on a major but clear it’s finally go time in a race car. She previously prepared by participating in the BMW driving school in California and the Mid-Ohio racing school.

“She’s been to the Speedway and been around racing,” Johnny said, “but as far as her driving herself, it wasn’t easy to do from Idaho. She always wanted to be competitive, and she always was very competitive as a ski racer. That’s what we have to do in Idaho. I think she focused her competitive nature in ski racing. We never really pushed the automotive side of it, the car racing, because it wasn’t there, and it’s a tough world.”

Her pro debut came in March, when she drove a Spec Miata at the NASA Rocky Mountain Region in Pueblo, Colorado. Other recent events include 30-minute sprints and 2 1/2-hour endurance races for NRG Motorsports. She also intends to compete in World Racing League endurance races.

“I understand what he’s trying to tell me,” she said.

“Trying?” he said, amused.

Loni is convinced she was born with this passion for racing.

“I knew I loved it probably since the first time I saw a race car,” she said.

The earliest she can remember that happening was as a 2-year-old toddler. Seriously, she insists she remembers.

“He put me in his Indy car,” Loni said of Johnny’s 1999 introduction in the back of the C block of Gasoline Alley.

“We snuck her into the garage,” he said. “I was running for Ron Hemelgarn. You couldn’t have kids in. It was late in the day. Drivers had always snuck their kids in.”

Loni smiles as she described the view from the cockpit of that purple car.

“It was a little snippet in time, but I just remember looking up and being like, ‘Wow,’” she said.

For a moment, father and daughter discussed details to determine what year this actually occurred. Leave it to his wife and her mother, Shauna, to pin it down.

“It was 1999 because that was the 40th anniversary of your dad’s death,” Shauna said.

Johnny suggests Loni got into that car and started working the gears and sway bars. But what do they really remember?

“Cute little button,” Johnny said.

“She didn’t have much hair, but she was darling,” Shauna said.

“We’ve got to find that picture,” Johnny said.

Maybe some day, Loni can make her father even more proud by racing in the Indy 500, too.

“You never know where it’s going to lead,” he said.

For now, Father’s Day couldn’t mean more.

“It’s something I will always remember,” she said. “Especially since it’s Father’s Day weekend, it’s a great way to spend the weekend, racing and doing what we love together.”

Visit IMS.com to order tickets or learn more about the Brickyard Vintage Racing Invitational. Ticket prices are $20 Sunday. Kids 15 and under are free when accompanied by an adult.

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Emotions Flow on Father's Day as Johnny Unser Shows Daughter Racing Ropes at IMS
These are the kind of memories he was unable to have with his dad, so this Father’s Day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is incredibly sentimental for Johnny Unser. His quality time will be spent coaching 19-year-old daughter, Loni, as she drives a No. 8 1960 Porsche 356B Coupe with owner Marcus Pillion. She’s entered in a Sportscar Vintage Racing Association (SVRA) Group 3 Vintage Classic Enduro race Sunday as part of the fourth annual Brickyard Vintage Racing Invitational.
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