By: Spencer Neff
May 3, 2021
On Sunday night, the racing world lost one of its greatest competitors and biggest personalities. Bobby Unser passed away from natural causes in his Albuquerque, New Mexico home at the age of 87.
The second son of a family that had already begun its racing legacy, Unser was born in Colorado Springs, Colorado but his family moved to Albuquerque less than two years later. The second-generation racer showcased the talent his Uncle Louis Unser Jr. had possessed, winning the Southwest Modified Stock Car Series title in 1950.
Following a brief stint in the U.S. Air Force, Unser joined his brothers Jerry jr. and Al on the USAC Champ Car circuit.
In 1955, the brothers debuted at Colorado Springs’ famed Pikes Peak Hill Climb, where Louis had won a record nine times. Bobby would earn a fifth-place finish, behind his brothers. A year later, he won the event for the first time. By 1958, he began a six-year winning streak in the event, which brother Al stopped with two consecutive wins in 1964 and 1965.
1963 would also prove significant for Bobby Unser as he made his Indianapolis 500 debut, the first USAC race he qualified for on pavement. After starting 16th, he would finish 33rd after a Lap 4 crash.
The next year, Unser broke through for his first win on pavement, scoring two consecutive victories at the Mosport Park road course (now known as Canadian Tire Motorsports Park) in Canada.
By 1968, Unser had begun to solidify his place among racing’s best. Capping off a stretch of four victories, he earned his first Indianapolis 500 win the Leader Card team of Bob Wilke. After a season that included another win at Pikes Peak, Unser claimed his first USAC championship.
During qualifying for the 1972 Indianapolis 500, he was one of four drivers to break the track record, ultimately setting a new one- and four-lap record (196.678 and 195.940 mph). Unser became the first driver to eclipse the 190 miles per hour mark at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
After winning his second USAC Championship in 1974 with Oscar Olson’s Olsonite team, Unser moved on to Dan Gurney’s All-American Racers Team.
Gurney had finished second to Unser at Indianapolis in 1968. At the 1975 Indianapolis 500, Unser was able to get past Johnny Rutherford and clinched his second “500” win as the race was called early when rain hit with 174 of 200 laps completed.
Over the next six years, Unser won 15 more times across USAC and CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams), the latter of which was formed in 1979.
In 1981, he started on the pole for the second time at the Indianapolis 500. After the race, months of controversy over allegations of improper passing under the caution between he and Patrick Racing’s Mario Andretti.
By October, Unser’s third victory in the race was upheld as he previously earned with Roger Penske. Unser is the only driver to win three Indianapolis 500s with three different car owners. The victory was the 35th and final of his career. Unser’s 49 career IndyCar pole positions ranks him fifth all-time, the last of his 49 came in his final start at Phoenix Raceway.
Although he dabbled in racing (mostly as a test driver) in the years following the unofficial end to his career, Unser began to focus on the next chapter of his life.
Along with his decorated IndyCar career, Unser holds the record with 10 championships and 13 overall wins at the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, as well as the 1975 International Race of Champions (IROC) title.
During the 1980s, Unser began working at NBC and ABC as a color analyst for the networks’ motorsports coverage. In 1987, he worked his first Indianapolis 500 for ABC as brother Al won his record-tying fourth race in what became an emotional moment for the brothers.
Along with his broadcasting career, he drove the pace car for the race in 1989 and 1992. During the 1992 race, nephew Al Jr. became the first second-generation winner of the race. While Unser stepped away from the broadcast booth in 1997, the Unser name continued to make history at IMS.
In 1998, his son Robby qualified for his first Indianapolis 500. After starting 21st, the third-generation driver worked his way to fifth and earned Rookie of the Year honors. Robby was joined in his two starts (1998 and 1999) by cousin Johnny, whose father Jerry Jr. was fatally injured during practice for the 1959 Indianapolis 500.
Bobby Unser remained a popular figure around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway when he’d make appearances.
Competitors, fans and others throughout the racing community admired not only his on-track legacy but his outgoing, no-nonsense attitude off of it. IndyCar1909 thanks Bobby Unser for his contributions to the racing world and we offer condolences to the Unser family.
Header Image By Ron McQueeney/INDYCAR