Photo from my 1968 program, autographed by Unser at a 100th running event at the IMS Museum
I loved Bobby Unser. Yes, I am an unabashed A. J. Foyt fan. After Foyt, Bobby was my man. He was like A. J. in many ways- bold, brash, not caring what people thought, but with a genteel edge and charm. His biography is well documented in the IMS press release I posted earlier. I probably have more photos of Booby Unser’s cars than i have of Foyt’s cars. What follows are some personal thoughts on my second racing hero.
My first memory of Unser was at Indianapolis 1963. He was a 29 year old rookie driving the famed Novi. I thought a driver had to pay his dues to drive that car, and here was this newcomer in it. I was skeptical. He did well, qualifying 16th. Unfortunately, he slid into the fourth turn wall after just two laps.
The next year, 1964, Unser fared even worse, as he was caught up in the tragic first lap accident involving Eddie Sachs and Dave McDonald. With his car on fire, Unser accelerated to put out the flames, but his day was done.
In 1966 Unser began to hit his stride with his first of four straight top 10 finishes in the 500.
In 1968, he seemed to have the best chance against the powerful turbine Lotuses. I picked him to win the race. Unser started third and looked good early. He faltered a bit when he lost sixth gear. On a late restart, Unser regained the lead when Joe Leonard’s car stopped in the first turn. Booby Unser had conquered the turbines.
Unser would win the 500 two more times, in 1975 and 1981. He is one of two drivers to win the 500 in three different decades.
I also loved his mastery of the Pike’s Peak Hill Climb. He won 13 times in an event his family dominated. It was a race I wish I had been able to attend.
After Unser retired from racing, he did race commentary on television. I loved his folksy manner, and his subtle way of disagreeing with Sam Posey. Bobby did not pull many punches when asked about what was going on.
In he broadcast booth and when he gave talks, Unser just seemed like a regular race fan. He connected with people on a personal level.
In his later years, he gave talks and interviews reflecting on his career. I loved listening to his stories. I’m sure they were embellished some, but they were always unfiltered and never boring.
We now have one less living legend. Many are close to Unser’s age. Only Paul Goldsmith, in his 90s, I believe is older than Bobby was.
Today I celebrate the life of one of my heroes. This May I will make an extra effort to talk to A. J., Mario,and any other divers of that era I happen to see, just to say thanks.