Bobby Unser always has time for racing fans

Bobby Unser (Photo by Bill Ficht)

By Bernie Biernacki

Presented with a 10-foot long print out of all the races he participated in during his long career, racing great Bobby Unser was speechless.

“I didn’t know I did so much?” Unser said. “I must have raced for 100 years to do all that.” But Unser was assured that the facts were facts.

Unser was guest of honor Feb. 25 at the 3rd annual Meadowdale, Motorsports & Memories Winter Banquet, sponsored by the Meadowdale International Raceway Preservation Society, at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Schaumburg, IL. 

Celebrating his 78th birthday on Feb. 20, Unser began racing back in his native New Mexico when only 15 years of age. “I was too lazy to work, so I went racing instead,” he said.

Without a doubt, Unser came from a family that lived and breathed racing. His father, Jerry Sr., could “fix things nobody else could.” Bobby’s uncles, Louis Jr. and Joe, honed their skills at Pikes Peak. Bobby’s older twin brothers, Jerry Jr. and Louie, continued the family’s dominance at Pikes Peak. Then Bobby and his younger brother Al added wins at Pikes Peak and even more victories on the U.S. racing circuits. In total, the Unser family won almost 30 times at Pikes Peak.

But the price of success took its toll. Uncle Joe, while testing a race car on the highway between Denver and Colorado Springs, died when he lost control of his car. In 1959, while practicing at Indianapolis, Jerry Jr. died in a fiery wreck.

Early in his career, Bobby barnstormed throughout the west and midwest racing on the CRA and IMCA circuits.

Unser said he became a skilled racing engineer out of necessity. “We didn’t have the best equipment, because we didn’t have the money,” Bobby said. “So we did with what we had and made the best of it. I didn’t finish high school, but I was able to learn from my dad, my uncles and every mechanic there after. “I became an engineer without a college degree.”

It was in the 1960s that he started his USAC career, first in midgets, then in sprints, then dirt Champ cars and eventually taking on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the USAC/CART Indy Car circuits. Unser had 19 Indy 500 starts, dating back to 1963, and won the classic three times - 1968, 1975 and 1981. 

Along the way he took several turns in NASCAR, Formula One and in sports cars, He piloted Frank Arciero’s Lotus 19 in the early 1960s at Meadowdale, located west of Chicago, in Carpentersville, IL. “I was cruising along, then something broke

 and I wrecked it,” he said with a shrug.

An easy going communicator, Unser charmed the banquet crowd and took the time to speak with all who wanted his autograph.

“Fans are important to the sport,” Unser said. “Without them filling the stands week in and week out, there wouldn’t be auto racing. Fans need to make a connection with the drivers,  and drivers, even today, must be able to connect with the fans. I always have and always will!”

In the audience was Ralph Wilke, son of Bob Wilke who led Leader Card Racers, who Bobby drove for after leaving Andy Granatelli’s STP team.  “Your Dad was a good man. He knew how to turn a wrench and always paid his bills,” Unser told Ralph lph Wilkie

As for his other car owners, Unser spoke fondly of Dan Gurney, whose team gave him his first two Indy 500 wins and his first driver’s title. His time with Roger Penske was even more productive, winning not only Indianapolis, but four other 500 mile races and another driving title. His last 500 victory in 1981 took several months, finally winning on appeal over Mario Andretti.

But Unser was more than a good racer, he was an innovator. Early on he sought an advantage at Pikes Peak. Using recapped tires, he had walnut shells blended into the new rubber casing to give his tires extra grip. The next year Firestone said recapped tire were dangerous and got the sanctioning body to ban them. So, Unser went to Goodyear convinced them to add walnut shells to their tires and won again.

Unser he had a long and successful connection with Goodyear, and credited that tire maker with coming up with numerous safety techniques, from better tire, to fuel safety bladders and much more. “It was the tires that fueled the speed increases,” Unser said. 

He laughed when he told the crowd he and his brother Al played both sides of the then “tire wars” as Bobby was in the Goodyear camp and Al was in the Firestone camp.

After retiring from Indy racing at the end of 1981, Unser said he became antsy just sitting at home in New Mexico. He said he needed something to do.

In 1986 his phone rang, and on the other side was Jo Hoppen, Audi’s racing chief. Hoppen asked Unser if he would come down to Talledaga. At first Unser wasn’t certain what Hoppen wanted him to do. Once he got to the Alabama track, Unser knew the game plan.

Audi was attempting to set a speed record for stock passenger vehicles. “They may have been stock, but the engines weren’t,” Unser said. Hoppen told Unser they wanted to go 200 mph, but as yet Audi’s two German drivers couldn’t get them up to 190 mph. Even the late Neil Bonnett couldn’t crack 200 in the cars.

Unser told Hoppen he needed an English-speaking mechanic, who could translate for him and tell the other mechanics what to do. At first, the Audi crew was taken aback and rejected Unser’s wishes.

But Unser got his way and crawled under the cars with his new mechanics.

A couple days later, Unser got into the cars - “which were stock four-door sedans” - and cut several laps at 206 mph. “I guess, we must have tested 350 different tires. I knew what they were shooting for - Pikes Peak.”

Unser said he lobbied long and hard to drive one of the cars at Pikes Peak. He wore Audi down and he got his chance.

In 1986 Unser “Raced to the Clouds for the last time. After finishing his run, he climbed out of the Audi with a new record, his 13th “on the hill.” With tears in his eyes, he knew it would be his last time racing up Pikes Peak.

But it wouldn’t be the last record he would set.

In 1993, another phone call sent him to the Bonneville Salt Flats where he set a record of 223.7 mph in a Ford-powered roadster.

Unser has been honored with induction into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1990, into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1994 and into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 1997.

But with all of his victories and honors, Unser told the night’s crowd what he really enjoys getting together with racing fans.

“The guys I raced with - Parnelli, A.J. Mario, my brother All and those of our generation - were true personalities,” Unser said. “Not like the “corporate racers” now out there. Racing needs and must have its own personalities.”

Bernie Bernacki

Involved with Journalism since 1969. Through the years, weorked at several daily and weekly newspapers in northeast Illinois and northwest Indiana. During 1976 was editor of NSSN in Ridgewood, NJ. I have done features on racers from Gary Gabelich to Cale Yarborough, Bobby Rahal to Leon "Jigger" Sirois, Bay Darnell to Jack Bowsher, and Ed Rachanski to Arnie Beswick. I am a personal friend of Fred Lorenzen and frequently visit him at his nursing home. During the 1980s I covered the Indy 500 for different daily newspapers. As I am considered a senior citizen, my racing tastes favor vintage/historics - stock, sports car, Indy, drag racing, old race tracks. I try to focus on individuals  

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Volume 2011, Issue 10, Posted 8:22 AM, 03.01.2012