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My Favorite Car: Bobby Unser

Note: This continues a series of interviews with Indianapolis 500 legends about the favorite car they drove in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” and why, in their words. “My Favorite Car” interviews will appear at IMS.com on Mondays through the spring. Read other installments of "My Favorite Car" here.

Q: What was your favorite car you drove in the Indianapolis 500?

Bobby Unser: It’s pretty simple. I had two number 3’s that I won with. There wasn’t any reason for that; it just happened. The good Lord was looking at Bobby, and He said, “I’m going to give you a good car, and I’m going to give you a nice number.” And that’s what He did. The one that was probably the best out of the two would be the first Eagle that I drove, the Gurney car (in 1968). He built it; we bought it.

Q: What was so special about that car?

BU: We had some doubts in the beginning. None of them (Eagle chassis) were super-fast in the beginning. Had me worried. (Teammate Roger) McCluskey, he was a really good driver, and he never was able to get his going really quick. There were some that (Dan) Gurney just sold like that. He sold people nice race cars, but you had to make the thing work. It didn’t work when we got it. We broke the 170-mph barrier with that car. It really wasn’t going to be a really fast car in the beginning, and then I found some little secrets to it that I obviously didn’t tell anybody else. Those little secrets made that car so damn fast, you wouldn’t believe it. I had that, and I guarded it practically with my life because there were some good race drivers who had the same thing I did. They just didn’t know how to develop it.

Q: What are the secrets?

BU: It was so, so nice when I made that discovery, and I did it right in the middle of one day, and it all had to do with the sway bar. That seems a little bit crazy to some people, but that’s what it did. From then, I jumped that sucker right to 170 mph, which was the all-time record at the time. The car was just so easy to drive with that discovery, and I didn’t share it with anybody.

Q: Did you have to find a secret like that because the turbine-powered cars were so fast in 1968?

BU: Yes. 1,000 percent, yes. I was the guy that the press, that everybody at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, picked to be able to set on the pole, to do something good, against the turbine because we were all whupped by the turbines. What are you supposed to do? Without any doubt, they were faster. And then all of the sudden, I figured out a way faster. (Andy) Granatelli helped me on that car. He made my race car look faster because he put gasoline in the turbines. A turbine usually runs jet fuel. Granatelli, Standard Oil paid him $100,000 to run gasoline in there. A jet engine will burn any kind of fuel. It doesn’t care. It doesn’t know. That’s what a lot of people didn’t realize. Those dang things were murdering us. We put a little nitromethane in my car. We had to pick up a little gain on the speed. This all started with our car way back in the winter. The cars went to California for the winter. We started trying to figure what we were going to do. Jud Phillips was kind of a conservative mechanic. He called me one day and said we got a whole bunch more power. I couldn’t believe it. I think we put in 10 percent nitro. It wasn’t much. The turbocharger is what does it. It just makes the engine a King Kong engine. Lots and lots of power. That nitro in it was just amazing. Had the Speedway known we were going to put some nitro in it, they would have figured out a way to stop us. I figured they would try to do the same thing with me, so the best thing to do is don’t tell them.

Q: There had to be a lot of satisfaction that you took a piston-powered car and with a lot of hard work and a little bit of dancing around the rules, you beat a turbine car, right?

BU: Oh, there was so much satisfaction to that. It was Vince Granatelli and Andy Granatelli, that offered me that (a chance to switch from Leader Card Racers to the turbine-powered car that May). They screamed at me, telling me how stupid I was for not taking that amount of money. I told them it makes no difference. I wouldn’t drive the turbine car. We could have done this (joined forces) a long time ago, but you guys didn’t do that. I told them the way it is now, I have a really good job. I’d be foolish if I told you I wasn’t having fun (with Granatelli’s offer). I was not going to change teams. That couldn’t have happened. When I give my word, my word is my bond, no matter what happens. I kept telling them, “You guys are offering me a lot of money, but I’m not doing bad right now.” They didn’t know what to say. I’ve got a car that’s running 170 mph whenever I want to. They didn’t like it. They were all shook up. I did the 170, and nobody knew that it would be possible. Jud knew we were going to do it (try to run 170 mph), and we had to call (team owner Bob) Wilke. I didn’t even know his telephone number. He called Wilke, and Wilke showed up, and Jud came up to me and said: “What do you think? Do you want to run 170 today?” I said, “Get that sucker ready.” Wilke was standing there, and I go out there and run 170, and they just can’t believe it. I thought it was a pretty big deal myself. I was hauling ass. Everybody was so excited, and now they start the offers (from other teams). It was all under the old scoring tower. They offered me a whole lot of money. My crew said, “What did you tell them?” I said, “I told them I have a good race car, and I’ve got good people.”

Q: Do you think the turbines led to overconfidence for those drivers and teams?

BU: Those days, when they came with that turbine, that knocked us for a wallop. We didn’t have the horsepower to counteract that, but we damned sure had a lot of good ideas. But they just couldn’t do it. It would have been so easy for them to have made that sucker where it would have outrun my piston engine. They thought they had it made so much. They didn’t pay attention to us.

Q: So the sway bar adjustment made the difference with that 1968 Eagle/Offy?

BU: Our car was sitting outside one day in our garage, and this other mechanic from some other car came by. The guy puts his foot up on the front tire, and that tire started spinning. The guy said: “That’s your problem, Bobby. You get that fixed, and you’re really going to murder them.” The guy puts his foot on the front tire, and it starts spinning. The ace mechanic said, “That’s bad.” And I said, “Yeah, I’m going to get it fixed.” I told Jud, “You’ve got to remember to fix this front tire.” Jud didn’t say anything. He just kept working. The guy (other mechanic) had discovered what I knew, which is you put a lot of front sway bar in it. But they still don’t know what we’ve got. The guy comes up to talk to Jud, puts his foot up there on the tire and almost fell down. That Roger (McCluskey), he was a good race driver. We were on the same side of the garages. All he had to do was walk down a little bit, check on me occasionally, and they would have had it figured out. Hiding in plain sight – that’s exactly it. I was so afraid people were going to discover us. It’s gone on to today – they still haven’t figured it out. It wasn’t a big thing, but boy, did it make that race car go fast. When I went into Turn 1, it would pick up the left front tire all the way around Turn 1. Across the short chute, it would settle down. I would go into Turn 2, and the left front tire would come up again. I had it just like a sprint car.

Facts about Bobby Unser’s 1968 Indianapolis 500 car:
Car name: Rislone Eagle/Offy
Car number: 3
Team: Leader Card Racers
Qualified: Third
Finished: First
Laps Completed: 200
Laps Led: 127
Status: Running
Bobby Unser career ‘500” starts: 19 (1963-81)

Visit IMS.com for tickets to the 104th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, GMR Grand Prix and all other Month of May activities at IMS.

 
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