1968: The Unser Family Legend Begins

In 1967 the turbine engine powered car driven by Parnelli Jones dominated the race, only to drop out while leading with four laps to go. A. J. Foyt went on to win his third Indianapolis 500 in six years. For 1968 the turbine engine cars were back in force,determined to flip the sport to a new breed of power. STP entered three cars, and five other turbine cars also came to try to make the race. It appeared a different kind of power was about to erase 70 years of internal combustion technology.

The front row featured two turbines in the first two spots and Bobby Unser in the third spot. Unser, entering his sixth race, began the 1968 race with a best finish of eighth in 1966, a race which saw only seven cars running at the end. Joe Leonard on the pole and 1966 winner Graham Hill next to him on the grid were expected to run away with the event.

Bobby Unser (L) prevented an all turbine front row.

While the power of the cars appeared poised for a transition, the 1968 race program reflected other transitions. The memorial page acknowledged the death of Ray Harroun, winner of the first 500 in 1911, on January 19. A more recent winner, Jim Clark , who ran away with the 1965 race, lost his life in a Formula 2 accident in Hockenheim, Germany, April 7. The deaths were almost bookends of the race’s history to that point.

STP bought a full page ad touting the turbine, calling it “A Quiet revolution.

A new product which would revolutionize consumer spending was in its infancy in 1968- the credit card. Most were specific to a product, and some were beginning to expand their use, like the Standard Oil card. Notice the 10 digit number.

1968 featured one of the hot air balloon races, honoring the first event held at IMS in 1909. The third day day of qualifying paused for two hours as the balloons launched. There was generally a lot of down time on Day 3 of qualifying, but in 1968 the constant rain put track time at a premium. The balloon races ended a couple years later when the basket of a competitor couldn’t launch in the wind and plowed into an infield restroom.

Back to the race:

Unser passed Leonard for the lead on lap 8. the race turned into a three way battle between Unser, Leonard, and Lloyd Ruby. Leonard took the lead on lap 175 and appeared headed for victory. As the race restarted on lap 191, Leonard’s car suddenly came to a halt in turn 1 with a fuekl shaft problem. Unser went on to claim the first of his three 500 mile race wins. it was also the first of nine wins for the Unser family.

In June USAC limited the air inlet of turbines to 12.5 square inches from the 15.9 they had been allowed. The smaller intake rendered them uncompetitive. Only one turbine entered the race the next year, and then the silent revolution disappeared.

Bobby Unser, 1934-2021; A Hero for Everyman

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.

Bobby Unser signing autographs at the IMS Museum, 2016. This where he signed the autograph above.

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.

Bobby Unser and crew at the 1968 500. This car is one of my all time favorites. The car was designed by Dan Gurney.

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.

My last photo of Bobby, with nephew Al, Jr. Taken at the SVRA event at IMS, June 2018

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.

Bobby Unser, Three Time 500 Champion, Dies at 87

Note: I am posting this statement from IMS now. I will have my own story up later today.

www.IMS.com Facebook             Indianapolis Motor Speedway Press ReleaseFor Immediate Release Three-Time Indianapolis 500 Winner Bobby Unser Dies at 87INDIANAPOLIS (Monday, May 3, 2021) – Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Unser, one of the most colorful, outspoken and popular drivers in the history of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” died Sunday, May 2 at his New Mexico home. He was 87. Unser won the Indianapolis 500 in 1968, 1975 and 1981. He is one of just 10 drivers to win the “500” at least three times and is a member of numerous motorsports Halls of Fame, including induction into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame in 1990. Unser and Rick Mears are the only drivers to win the “500” in three different decades. He was one of six members of the Unser family to race in the Indianapolis 500. Bobby and his brother Al, a four-time winner, are the only brothers to win the race. Bobby Unser also was renowned and admired for his work in and out of the cockpit before his Indianapolis 500 and INDYCAR driving career started and after it ended. He dominated the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb before he ever turned a lap at Indianapolis, and he was a popular INDYCAR color analyst on national telecasts in the 1980s and 1990s after retiring as a driver. Unser was born Feb. 20, 1934 in Colorado Springs, Colorado, the third of four brothers. When he was 1, his family moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico – the city forever associated with the Unser family racing dynasty. In 1949, Unser started racing at Roswell (New Mexico) Speedway. In 1950, he raced at Speedway Park in Albuquerque and won his first championship in Southwestern Modified Stock Cars. After serving in the U.S. Air Force from 1953-55, Unser and his brothers Jerry and Al decided to pursue racing careers in United States Auto Club (USAC) competition. Bobby Unser raced successfully in USAC Sprint Car, Midget and Stock Car competition. He earned seven career USAC Sprint Car feature victories and placed third in the standings in 1965 and 1966. He also won six USAC Stock Car races and three USAC Midget features. Unser’s career in Indy cars started in the end of the 1962 season. He spent three years driving Novi-engined cars for Andy Granatelli, including the No. 6 Hotel Tropicana, Las Vegas Kurtis/Novi roadster in which he qualified 16th and finished 33rd and last as an Indianapolis 500 rookie in 1963. Unser’s day ended after completing just two laps due to an accident. In fact, Unser’s first two career Indy starts gave no indication of his future success. After completing two laps and finishing last as a rookie in 1963, he completed just one lap in 1964 and was credited with 32nd place in the four-wheel-drive No. 9 Studebaker-STP Ferguson/Novi fielded by Granatelli, getting caught in the multi-car accident that claimed the lives of Dave MacDonald and Eddie Sachs. Unser earned his first career top-10 finish at Indy by placing eighth after starting 28th in 1966 for Gordon van Liew’s team. In 1967, he moved to Bob Wilke’s Leader Card team for a four-year stint, which resulted in even greater fortune at Indianapolis and on the USAC Championship Trail. Unser earned his first Indianapolis 500 victory in 1968 in the No. 3 Rislone Eagle/Offy, one of the most iconic and beautiful rear-engine cars in Indianapolis 500 history. His first spot on the Borg-Warner Trophy came after a spirited duel with Joe Leonard in one of Granatelli’s famous STP Lotus cars powered by a Pratt & Whitney helicopter turbine engine. Unser led 118 of the first 191 laps but was running second to Leonard when Leonard’s fuel shaft broke on Lap 192, with Unser powering past for his first “500” victory. Later that year, Unser won the first of his two USAC National Championships, ending the season with five victories and edging Mario Andretti by a scant 11 points. In 1972, Unser earned the first of his two Indianapolis 500 poles during his successful five-year partnership with Dan Gurney’s All American Racers. Speeds skyrocketed that year with the legalization of bolt-on wings to chassis, and no one took better advantage than Unser. His four-lap record qualifying average speed of 195.940 mph in the No. 6 Olsonite Eagle was more than 17 mph faster than Peter Revson’s pole speed from the previous year – the largest year-to-year increase in “500” history. Unser won his second and final USAC National Championship in 1974 after finishing runner-up to Johnny Rutherford in the Indy 500. In 1975, Unser won the Indianapolis 500 for the second time, driving the No. 48 Jorgensen Eagle fielded by Gurney’s team. Unser led only 11 laps, taking the top spot from Rutherford on Lap 165 and holding it until the race was ended by a downpour on Lap 174 of the 200 schedule laps. He drove for Fletcher Racing in 1976 and 1977, returning to Gurney’s All American Racers for one season in 1978. Unser joined Team Penske in 1979 for the start of a three-year stint in which he won 11 races and finished second in the CART standings in 1979 and 1980. But perhaps his most famous race during his Penske tenure was the 1981 Indianapolis 500, which he won from the pole in one of the most controversial and contentious outcomes in the event’s storied history. Unser beat Mario Andretti to the finish by 5.18 seconds in the No. 3 Norton Spirit, but USAC officials ruled Unser passed cars illegally while exiting the pit lane during a caution on Lap 149. Unser was penalized one position, with Andretti elevated to the winner. But after a lengthy protest and appeals process, Unser’s penalty was rescinded, and he was declared the winner of the race Oct. 9, 1981. That victory became the last of Unser’s storied INDYCAR career, as he skipped the 1982 CART season to serve as driver coach for Josele Garza and decided against a planned comeback in 1983 with Patrick Racing. He finished his career with 35 career INDYCAR victories and two championships among his eight top-three finishes in the season points. Unser ended his driving career as one of the greatest performers in the history of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” He produced 10 top-10 finishes in 19 career “500” starts. Unser led in 10 races for a total of 440 laps, still 10th on the all-time list. Unser’s nine front-row starts included poles in 1972 and 1981. His speed in qualifying at the Speedway was exceptional, as he was one of the 12 fastest drivers in 18 of his 19 starts. Fourteen of his 19 starts came from the first three rows. While those statistics are among the greatest in Indy history, Unser produced even more eye-popping numbers at the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, nicknamed “Unser Mountain” due to his family’s success in the longtime race in Colorado Springs. Unser won 13 class titles at Pikes Peak and earned “King of the Mountain” honors 10 times during his career as the fastest driver overall up the famed mountain, tops among the racing Unser family that dominated this event. Unser also had a keen engineering mind that always searched for a technical advantage over his rivals. He sometimes would call his crew chief well after midnight with an idea for chassis setup or another technical issue, and his prowess as a test driver was highly regarded because he turned every lap at the car’s limit. Every angle was pursued by Unser when it came to trying to find the edge against his foes. Team owner Jim Hall’s famous Chaparral chassis – the first Indy car with ground-effects aerodynamics underneath the car – got upside-down when Rutherford crashed in 1980 in the CART season finale at Phoenix. Unser learned of a photographer who took pictures of the closely guarded aero channels and tunnels beneath the car, and he obtained the photos, which were used in the development of Team Penske’s 1981 ground-effects chassis. After his driving career ended, Unser combined his vast racing experience and considerable skills as an outspoken raconteur to become a popular broadcaster on ABC, NBC and ESPN INDYCAR telecasts and on IMS Radio Network race broadcasts. The booth trio of play-by-play announcer Paul Page and the opinionated Unser and the erudite Sam Posey – with Unser and Posey’s styles and comments almost always contrasting and often clashing — was one of the most entertaining and popular in INDYCAR television history. Two of Unser’s proudest moments in the TV booth came when he called the finish in 1987 with play-by-play announcer Jim Lampley as his younger brother, Al Unser, earned his record-tying fourth “500” victory and again in 1992 when he and Paul Page called the race when his nephew, Al Unser Jr., won Indy for the first time in the closest “500” finish ever. Unser also was part of the ABC Sports broadcast team that won an Emmy Award for “Outstanding Live Sports Special” for its coverage of the 1989 Indianapolis 500. After his TV career ended, Unser continued to visit IMS every Month of May. In 1998 and 1999, he served as driver coach and assisted with race strategy on the radio for his son Robby Unser during his two starts in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” Robby finished fifth and eighth, respectively, in those two starts with his father’s help. Fans always flocked to “Uncle Bobby” to get a picture or autograph, to share their memories or to hear one of Unser’s countless colorful stories about his career and fellow racers. He also savored spending time in the Media Center swapping tales with many veteran journalists every May, as Unser was a tireless ambassador for IMS and the Indianapolis 500 until the end of his life. Unser is survived by his wife, Lisa; sons Bobby Jr. and Robby; and daughters Cindy and Jeri.

1976: New Buildings, a Very Short Race, and an End to a Rainy Era

The modern face of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway began to take shape in America’s Bicentennial year. The current IMS Museum building opened, allowing for more old cars to be displayed. The building at the corner of 16th and Georgetown would become office space for IMS administration. The Speedway honored the new building with a rendition on the cover of the program.  A photo (below) in the program shows a much different space than we see now.

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Also new in the infield just west of the new Museum is the Louis Chevrolet memorial. The project had an estimated cost of $40,000. It would cost at least five times that today.

I believe this program was one of the last to have a memorial page, honoring drivers and others associated with the track and the race who had died since the last race. Three former winners grace the page, two who died early. Rene Thomas, winner of the 1914 500, died the previous September and at age 89. Other winners on the page are  1966 champion Graham Hill, killed in a plane crash in November 1975; and 1972 winner Mark Donohue, who died of injuries suffered in a testing crash in Austria.

USAC has what seems like a larger than usual presence in the program. There is an ad inviting fans to join the club and a feature by Donald Davidson recognizing the USAC’s 21st year. The article  includes the 1976 schedule:

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Other stories are a nice tribute to Mary “Mom” Unser, mother of Bobby, Al,  Louis, and Jerry, Jr., who died of a heart attack the previous December.  Mary was popular for her famous chili, which she cooked every May for the paddock.

I always enjoy looking through the old programs for the ads for products no longer in use. Champion spark plugs, Monroe shock absorbers, CAM2 racing oil, and Standard oil are immortalized in print.

The score sheet insert is one I had never seen before. It is a pamphlet which includes thumbnail biographies of the drivers, a brief history of IMS, and the current USAC Championship point standings, plus a brief explanation of the points system. Going into Memorial Day, Gordon Johncock led the standings with 530 points. Johnny Rutherford was second with 400 points.

The winner of the 500 received 1,000 points and the 12th place finisher took home 50. Points were not awarded outside the top 12.

 

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The race itself turned out to be the shortest in history. Rain stopped the event after 102 laps, 255 miles. The field completed just one lap more than the required distance to make it an official race. Johnny Rutherford won from the pole, leading 48 laps. It was Rutherford’s second win in three years. It was the last race won by a four cylinder engine.

1976 was the third rain shortened race in a four year period. The 1973 race was postponed two days and ran only 133 laps, and in 1975, rain halted the race after 174 circuits.  An odd statistic- the back to back rain curtailments  gave each winner- Bobby Unser won in 1975-  their second 500 title. There have been just two rain shortened races since then, in 2004 and 2007.

Some races have had starts delayed because of weather and then run to completion the same day.   Others have had postponements of a day or two. The longest postponement was in 1986, when the race ran the Saturday following its original Sunday date.

Later this week, my season previews will be on Wildfire Sports. The Pit Window will share news and commentary on the week’s Indycar happenings as well.

 

Cheating, Lineup Shuffles, Controversial Finish, Who Won? The 1981 Indianapolis 500

Rain, controversy, and an arrest highlighted the crazy month of May 1981. The starting lineup wasn’t finalized until the Thursday before the race. The winner of the race was in doubt for several months. The last row of the lineup in the program was not the last row that lined up on Race Day. Oh- and it rained a lot too.

The 1981 program for the 65th Running had an unusual cover with a black back ground featuring the Borg -Warner Trophy and some strategically placed lettering. The center of the program has a foldout photo of the trophy with some facts about the piece. This was before the base was added. The most interesting bit was that the trophy was stolen from a hotel room in 1938 then returned to the same room two days later.

The Race Day schedule has the opening ceremonies beginning at 10:00, with the National Anthem at 10:44 and the race starting at 11:00. A nice, compact hour with no interruptions. Great idea, NBC?

The program lists 109 entries, 10 without assigned numbers. 90 cars made qualification attempts and 12 were bumped. The first weekend was a virtual washout, which made the last two days rather hectic. The delay in qualifying may have contributed to the chaos.

Seven feature stories include one on the last living participant of the 1911 race. Colonel Ed Towers was a riding mechanic for the Amplex car which finished eighth in the first 500. Towers was 93 years old at the time the article appears in May 1981. Bill Turner drove the car.

The Crazy Month of May

The key word for 1981 was rain. practices got washed out and the forecast for Pole weekend was not promising. Only nine drivers qualified the first Saturday, and not everyone who drew for a qualifying spot had a chance. Pole Day was rescheduled for the next day. Only those who had drawn numbers would be eligible to make a pole run. A. J. Foyt was the fastest of the nine, but would have to wait a week to find out if he would be on the pole again. Rain washed out all track action Sunday.

The rainout created a problem for Mario Andretti, who was committed to race in the Belgian Grand Prix the next weekend. Wally Dallenbach agreed to qualify the car for Andretti, who would start last in the race.

With so many cars and only two days to make the race, tension was high. The following Saturday saw a record 53 qualifying attempts. Bobby Unser won the pole and Mike Mosley also bettered Foyt’s time for the middle of the front row. Tom Sneva had a speed quicker than Unser, but he was not in the original line and was not able to run for the pole. Dallenbach qualified Andretti’s car in 8th place. The field had 33 qualifiers at the end of the day with one full day left for bumping.

Bump Day again featured lots of drama. 37 drivers took the green and 9 were bumped. Jerry Sneva got in the race with about 30 minutes to spare, knocking Jerry Karl out of the field. A protest was lodged against Sneva that a bolt had kept the pop-off valve from opening allowing his car to gain speed. The stewards disqualified Sneva the next day, and Karl was back in the race. Karl’s difficult week was just beginning. He was arrested the following Thursday on contempt of court charges from a case the previous year.

The starting lineup insert in the program was printed very soon after the last day of qualifying. A note on the bottom of the score card portion reads, “At press time USAC advised that a protest involving the starting eligibility of Car No. 17 (J. Sneva) was not resolved, and that an announced driver change and subsequent starting position for Car No. 40 (Dallenbach/Andretti) was unofficial.”

The last row lineup looks this way in the insert:

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On Race Day the last row was:

Jerry Karl, Mario Andretti, and Tim Richmond

Brayton and Klausler moved to row 10, and Sneva was not in the field. Richmond had been bumped, but his team rented A. J. Foyt’s number 84 that George Snider had qualified and Richmond took the seat. Race Day would seem relaxing after all the craziness surrounding setting the grid.

Like many days that May, Race Day held a chance of rain. Fortunately it held off until well after the race ended. There was confusion at the start as starter Duane Sweeney misunderstood a signal from a steward and reached for the yellow flag as the field approached for the start. He quickly switched to the green flag as the first two rows passed. The race became a typical 500 of the time with yellows and lead changes on pit stops. The caution flag waved 11 times for 69 laps. The worst accident happened on lap 64 when Danny Ongais slammed the wall in turn 3. The car caught fire. I remember seeing the plume of black smoke from my spot on the front stretch.

During a yellow flag period on 149 leader Bobby Unser and second place Mario Andretti were leaving the pits. The rule is you blend into traffic wherever you return to the track. Unser passed several cars as he reentered the race. Andretti blended in and reported to his pit what he saw.

Unser won the race by 12 seconds, becoming the sixth three time winner. At that time the official results weren’t posted until 8 am the next morning. The posted finish showed Andretti as the winner and Unser second. He received a one lap penalty for passing cars under yellow. Mario was honored at the Victory Banquet that night.

Roger Penske, Unser’s team owner, appealed the decision. Prize money for Unser and Andretti was held until a hearing took place later in the summer. Unser was reinstated as the winner, but received a five figure fine for his actions..

As for the last row starters, they did quite well. In addition to Andretti , Richmond finished 14th and Karl 15th. It was the last 500 for both Karl and Richmond.

It was the first time in 500 history that two drivers became three time winners consecutive races. Johnny Rutherford won his third in 1980.