Bobby Unser, a three-time Indianapolis 500 winner, a Pikes Peak International Hill Climb record holder and a household name in a racing family that dates back to the 1920s, died Sunday at his home in Albuquerque, NM He was 87 years.
His wife, Lisa Unser, confirmed the death.
Bobby, his younger brother Al and Al Jr., known as Little Al, have nine Indy 500 wins, and Bobby has won it in three different decades. He won the points race for the United States Auto Club Championship in 1968 and 1974.
Unser overcame the fear of heights to capture the ascent of Pikes Peak 13 times, racing against the clock on a gravel road traversing more than 150 guardrail-less turns overlooking drops of up to 1,000 feet. Pikes Peak’s previous record of nine wins had been held by his uncle Louis.
While continuing a family tradition, Bobby and Al Sr. have driven for different teams.
“It was difficult being a family and yet doing what we did because we became kind of a celebrity together,” Bobby told the Henry Ford Collecting Innovation Today Center in Dearborn, Michigan, in 2009. But “Al and I didn’t. fight, ”he said. “We were the closest friends.”
Bobby Unser was a heavily loaded racer whose memories at his ranch in Chama, NM included a crooked steering wheel of the moment his car slipped under a guardrail during a Phoenix race, nearly beheading him. His legs were broken so many times he lost count.
He developed many innovations in racing cars, dating back to the 1950s, when he joined his father, Jerry, an occasional racer and car builder, to mix nut shells with rubber to make tires that would follow the road of Pikes Peak.
Over a dozen Unsers have been part of the American auto scene. Al Unser has won the Indy 500 four times and Al Jr. has won it twice. Bobby’s son, Robby, equaled Uncle Louis in winning nine times at Pikes Peak.
But the Indy 500 caused tragedy for the Unser family. Bobby’s uncle, Joe, was killed in a freeway practice race before the 1929 race. His older brother Jerry Jr., who survived a multiple car crash that knocked his car into the sky. over a wall in the 1958 Indy 500, was killed in a fire accident while training for the 1959 race.
Born in the shadow of Pikes Peak, Bobby Unser grew up in Albuquerque, where his father owned a garage and gas station along Route 66. In his youth, he joined the older Unser twins, Jerry Jr. and Louis, and younger brother, Al, rebuilding a rusty Model A pickup.
Bobby became determined to race professionally and set his sights on Pikes Peak.
“My uncle didn’t help me get to Pikes Peak,” he once told the Miami Herald. “He tried to keep the four boys away because he was the king of the mountain. I swore when I was 16 or 17 that one day I would be the king of the mountains.
“I had no natural talent when I was young,” he told Sports Illustrated. “But I did it out of sheer stubbornness.”
Unser won at Pikes Peak for the first time in 1956 and won the race every year from 1958 to 1963, driving in the open wheel category. He last won in 1986, driving an Audi rally car.
He made his Indianapolis 500 debut in 1963, but crashed in the third round. The following year, it only completed one lap before being engulfed in a multicar wreck.
Unser won for the first time in 1968, driving a turbocharged piston-engine Eagle-Offenhauser while three turbine-engine cars owned by Andy Granatelli failed to finish. He won the 500 again in 1975, when rain shortened the race to 435 miles.
Unser beat Mario Andretti by 5.3 seconds in the 1981 race, but the next day officials gave the victory to Andretti after penalizing Unser by one lap for illegally passing several cars on bail. Had they imposed the penalty during the race, Unser might have caught the lap and won anyway, since he had the fastest car this season. An appeals committee reinstated Unser as the winner more than four months later, but fined his team as part of the winning scholarship.
Robert William Unser was born in Colorado Springs on February 20, 1934. He began his racing career at Speedway Park in Albuquerque as a teenager, driving modified stock cars. He took the climb to the 14,110-foot-high summit of Pikes Peak, although, as he told Center Henry Ford, “the biggest fear I’ve ever had, since I was really young ”was the heights.
He gained confidence by driving passenger cars along the road, and “then I trained my eyes never to look down, to always look at the road, to look at the mountain.”
Perhaps the closest Unser disaster came in December 1996 while a friend was on a snowmobile outing in the Rockies, on the New Mexico-Colorado border, when they nearly died of cold in a snowstorm. Unser was found guilty in federal court of illegally operating a snowmobile in a national wilderness and fined $ 75.
Besides his wife, he is survived by his son Bobby Jr. and his daughter Cindy on his marriage to his first wife, Barbara; his son Robby and his daughter Jeri from his marriage to his second wife, Norma; his brother Al Sr .; and four grandchildren.
Unser was a color TV commentator for auto racing during and after his racing career, broadcasting for CBS, NBC and ABC.
In the mid-1970s, reflecting on his envisioned legacy, Unser said that “people will know that Bobby Unser represents desire.”
He added: “If I could get my body to catch up with my head, I would still be running today.”