Bobby Unser is without question one of the most colorful characters in the history of the Indianapolis 500. He’s also one of the most successful drivers, with three victories (1968, ’75 and ‘81’) in a long and successful career.
Bobby was the second of the famous Unser brothers to compete at Indianapolis. Older brother Jerry participated in the 1958 race, miraculously surviving a 13-car accident that pitched his car over the Turn 3 wall. Jerry was killed in a fiery crash while practicing for the 1959 Indy 500, an event that led to the mandating of fireproof driving suits.
Bobby started his driving career at age 15 in 1949 and like his Uncle Louis, he soon became a specialist at the Pikes Peak Internationaly Hill Climb. From 1956 to 1963, Bobby was the overall champion at Pikes Peak in seven of eight years. In all, he was champion of the mountain eleven times.
Unser made his Indianapolis 500 debut in 1963 driving one of the fearsome Novi Special, but he crashed in Turn 1 on the third lap to finish last. The following year, Unser completed only one lap before he was taken out in a wreck.
Unser finally made the finish at Indy in ninth place in 1967, but his big breakthrough came in the 1968 race. Despite a strong challenge from the STP-Lotus turbine cars, Unser led 127 laps and won by nearly a lap over his team owner, Dan Gurney. The Eagle-Offenhauser was the first turbocharged car to win the 500, kicking off a turbo era that lasted through 1996. The 1968 race was also immortalized in the movie “Winning,” with Paul Newman’s Crawford Special modeled after Unser’s winning car. Bobby had a cameo role in the motion picture.
Once he broke through at Indianapolis, Unser was always a front runner at the Speedway. From 1968 to 1981, his average Indy qualifying position was fifth. He took pole position in 1972 and 1981 and started from the front row nine times.
Hius most impressive qualifying achievement came in 1972, when helped by the introduction of wings and slick tires, Unser’s pole speed in the new Eagle-Offy was 17 mph faster than the year before! But Bobby lasted only 30 laps in the race before an ignition rotor failure sidelined him.
“In 1972, we raised the pole speed by almost 18 miles per hour, the largest increase in history, and that will probably remain the biggest jump no matter how far we can even fantasize about it,” Unser recalled. “Naturally that’s a big thing. It never happened before, and it will never happen again. So that’s a big deal.
“The technology of the cars I won in changed so much in those years,” he added. “From the 60s through the ‘80s, that’s thirty years. And look at the difference at how the cars looked over the course of my career!
Unser finished second at Indianapolis in 1974 and was leading when rain ended the 1975 race after 435 miles to claim his second win in the 500.
His career was rejuvenated in the late 1970s when he joined Penske Racing. Unser looked set to win the 1979 Indianapolis 500 in the new Penske PC-7, but his gearbox stuck in third gear near the end of the race, allowing his teammate Rick Mears through to score the win.
In 1981, Unser’s Penske PC-9 was the class of the Indianapoli 500 field and he took pole position. He was the strongest driver in the race, leading eight times for 89 laps, but his victory was shrouded in controversy due to a dispute over passing cars under caution. In fact, when the official results were posted the day after the race, Mario Andretti was listed as the victor and Unser was penalized a lap for the caution flag infraction.
Team owner Roger Penske protested the result, and some four months later, Unser was reinstated as the winner of the 1981 Indianapolis 500.
“Someone looked at the TV afterwards and said he didn’t blend properly and they took it away from us,” stated Penske. “Obviously we had a car that was better than anyone else, and Bobby was fast that day. As it turned out, an independent board said you can’t take a speeding violation and assess the penalty after the event.
“The stewards had the information, but they never called the blend violation,” Penske added. “If they would have, they could have given us a penalty on the spot. But we were fast enough that we could have gotten a lap back, and we showed that. So ’81 really goes down for Bobby, but we always worked hard to do our part as the car owner’s side of the wall as they do on the race track.”
Unser’s teammate during his three years at Penske was rising star Rick Mears. Mears actually had the opportunity to work with both Bobby and Al Unser.
“They were two opposites in a sense, Bobby and Al,” Mears related. “Bobby was more of a developing guy as far as working on the chassis, taking it home and coming up with ideas, changing this, changing that. He spent a lot more time really focusing on making the car work. Al worked hard at it too, but Al wasn’t into the detail as much as Bobby was, as far as taking it home, building his own little wind tunnel, all that kind of stuff. That didn’t mean that he didn’t care, or that he didn’t work at that kind of stuff. But Bobby was more technical in that respect.”
Mears noted that Bobby Unser’s reputation as a cagey operator who played his cards close to his chest was well deserved.
“Bobby has always said over the years that he taught me everything I know,” laughs Mears. “My comment back is that he taught me more than he knows. He taught me how to read between the lines. You learn to figure out people pretty quick. Bobby’s Bobby, and Bobby’s out for Bobby. So when I did beat him, from time to time, and I beat him without asking him how to do it, that drove him nuts. And I got a lot more satisfaction out of it.”
Unser retired from driving Indy cars at the end of the 1981 season. He continued to race occasionally, most notably in 1986 when he drove an Audi to a new course record at Pikes Peak. He ranks in the top ten at Indianapolis in races led (10), laps led (440) and laps completed.
Unser remained close to Indy car racing into the 1990s as a color commentator on ABC’s race coverage. As he approaches age 80, he’s still not shy about expressing his opinions.
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