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Bobby Unser

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 started his driving career in 1949 at age 15 in Albuquerque New Mexico driving super modified stock cars and won the Southwest Championship by age 16. Bobby set his sights on Pikes Peak and like his Uncle Louis, he soon became a multi-winner at the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. From 1956 to 1963, Bobby was the overall champion at Pikes Peak in seven of eight years. In all, he was overall champion of the mountain 13 times.

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 fire retardant driving suits.

Unser made his Indianapolis 500 debut in 1963 driving one of the fearsome Novi Special, but he crashed in Turn 1 on the second lap to finish last. The following year, Unser was involved in the terrifying Eddie Sacks & Dave McDonald 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 Dan Gurney. Bobby drove for Leadercard Racers, considered a premier team at the time, in the Eagle-Offenhauser which 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 the Rislone Special. 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.

His most impressive qualifying achievement came in 1972, with the technological changes of larger wings, slick tires & the Gurney Flap (invented by Dan Gurney and developed by Bobby), Unser’s pole speed in the new Eagle-Offy was 17.244 mph faster than the year before!

“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.” Unfortunately Bobby lasted only 30 laps in the race before an ignition rotor failure sidelined him.

“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

In 1975 Bobby was leading the race when rain came and ended the race after 435 miles to claim his second win in the 500.

Late in 1978 Bobby joined Penske Racing. In 1979 Unser looked like he was set to win his third Indianapolis 500 in the new Penske PC-7, leading 89 laps when his gearbox stuck in third gear near the end of the race and he finished 5th.

In 1981, Unser’s Penske PC-9B was the class of the Indianapolis 500 field and he won the pole position. He was by far the fastest 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. What the officials did not see on the replay was Mario Andretti had passed a lot of the very same 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 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 a 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 the 1981 win belonged to Bobby.”

Unser’s teammate during his three years at Penske was 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 wind tunnel, all that kind of stuff. That didn’t mean that Al didn’t care, or that he didn’t work at that kind of stuff. But Bobby was more technical in that respect.”

He ranks in the top ten at Indianapolis in races led (10), laps led (440) and laps completed.

Although he was no longer an Indy car driver, he was hardly retired. There were businesses to run and still some racing to do. In 1986, he returned to Pikes Peak to win and unprecedented 13th title-in record time. And, in 1993, he set a Bonneville Salt Flat land speed record of 223.709 in the Modified D Roadster class which stood for 18 years. Also in 1993 Bobby raced in “the “Fastmasters” series winning the championship in a very competitive field of retired professional race drivers. Winning was very satisfying and the $100,000 payday was a great bonus for having fun!

But most memorable was when he joined ABC sports as a driver analyst in 1987 and had the pleasurable experience of helping call his brother’s fourth Indy 500 win. In Victory Lane, milk still in hand, Jack Arute passed his headset and microphone over to Al. From the booth, Bobby said, "The family is proud of you." Never without an opinion, Bobby’s verbal duels with fellow driver analyst Sam Posey made for entertaining television. In 1989, he won an Emmy for his part in ABC’s Indy 500 telecast. He was on the air for 11 consecutive Indy 500s through 1997 and had reached a new pinnacle, but that should hardly be surprising. It’s what he had always done.

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Fun Fact #10
Jeff Gordon became the first driver to win the Brickyard 400 and the NASCAR Sprint Cup season championship in the same year, 1998.
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