Bobby Unser (b. 1934)
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Bobby Unser

Bobby Unser
Al and Bobby Unser were both double Indianapolis winners. And both were winners at Pike's Peak hill-climb, a venue which was almost considered the property of two generations of the Unser family. Both tried road-racing in addition to their forte, the USAC National Championship trail. And both were deadly rivals.

Louis 'Old Man Mountain' Unser



The Unser family, with origins in Switzerland, is legendary in American motor racing circles. Their father, Jerry, raced from time to time before retiring in 1934. So did their two uncles. One, Louis - nicknamed 'Old Man Mountain' - competed at Pike's Peak and won nine times. He last raced there in 1967 at the age of 71.

The other uncle, Joe, was killed there in 1929. There were four Unser brothers. The eldest were twins, Jerry and Louis. Jerry's Kuzma-Offenhauser hit the wall in the 1959 Indianopolis 500 and caught fire, the 26-year-old driver succumbed to serious burns two weeks later. As a result of the accident drivers were made to wear fire-resistant clothing.

Louis won the stock car category at Pike's Peak in 1960 and 1961, but subsequently fell victim to multiple sclerosis and became involved with building competition boat engines. Bobby was born on February 10, 1934, and Al on May 29, 1939. Both were affected by Jerry's accident. Bobby's trademark since was a flat-out driving style, one that resulted in engine blow-ups and crashes as well as victories. Al, who was taught to race by Bobby, developed a more analytical approach.

Bobby Unser, Pike's Peak and the Indianapolis 500



Bobby Unser began racing modified stock cars in 1949 at the age of 15. He won the New Mexico modified stock car championship in both 1950 and 1951 and then graduated to midgets and sprint cars. In 1956 he won the championship car division of the demanding 12½-mile Pike's Peak hill-climb, a demanding dirt road in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. In 1957 he was fifth and from 1958 won it six times in succession. Brother Al broke his string of victories in 1964. Bobby won again in 1966, 1968 and 1974. In all he had twelve wins at Pike's Peak, nine times in championship cars, once in a sports car and twice in stock cars.

In 1963 Bobby had his first taste of the Indianapolis 500, driving one of Andy Granatelli's fabulous 837 bhp supercharged Novis, extremely quick but unlucky machines. He qualified at sixteenth fastest and had rocketed to tenth before crashing into the wall on lap 3. For 1964 Unser handled a specially-commissioned four-wheel-drive Novi with a Ferguson P104 chassis, but retired early again after suffering minor burns running through a wall of blazing fuel on the track.

The Eagle-Offenhauser



The next year Unser was handily-placed until an oil line broke on the 69th of the 200 laps. A move was made to a turbocharged Offenhauser-engined Huffaker for the 1966 race, but Bobby only managed eighth. For 1967 he raced an Offy-engined Eagle for Bob Wilke, finishing ninth at Indianapolis following a six-minute pit-stop. The 1968 season was Bobby Unser's greatest, highlighted with victory in the Indianapolis 500 in the Wilke-entered Eagle-Offenhauser. It was a surprise win, Joe Leonard's leading Lotus 56 Pratt & Witney turbine failing with a mere nine of the 200 laps to run.

In practice, however, Unser had become the first person to lap the 2½ mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway at over 170 mph, registering 170.778 mph. Earlier in the year he had placed fifth at Hanford, first at Las Vegas, Phoenix and Trenton; after Indy he suffered occasional sour luck and the outcome of the USAC National Championship depended on the final round at Riverside. Bobby was a safe second to Dan Gurney and won the title by the narrow margin of 6.8 points - 4326 - to Mario Andretti's 4319.2.

In 1969 Unser raced the four-wheel-drive Lola T152-0ffenhauser at Indianapolis, finishing third in the difficult-to-handle car. Back in an Eagle, he won the Langhorne 150, but in the latter part of the season he had to give best to his brother AI. It was the same story in 1970, except for Langhorne where Bobby beat AI by a second after charging to the front in the closing minutes. Al won at Phoenix and in the Trenton 300 and Ted Horn 100. Eleventh was his Indianapolis placing in an Eagle-Ford.

Robbed by Mechanical Failure



The following season, racing a works Olsonite Eagle-Offenhauser, Bobby led almost every USAC National Championship race only for mechanical failure to intervene. His only bright spot was victory in the Trenton 200 where he beat Mario Andretti by no less than two laps at a record average of 140.771 mph. It was the same story in 1972. Unser had the fastest car in his works Eagle-Offenhauser. He had seven pole positions in succession to prove it. But again his car flattered only to deceive. He registered only four wins, two at Phoenix, one at Trenton and one at Wisconsin.

In 1973 Unser's luck was again down, with only a repeat win in the Rex Mays 150 at Wisconsin to show for Bobby's efforts. But next season his luck turned. He appeared to play more of a waiting game, coming into the competition in the closing stages of a race. He won the Californian 500 at Ontario Motor Speedway and continued with victories in the Trentonian 200, the Michigan 200 and the Trenton Times 300 to clinch the USAC National Championship for the second time in his career.

Bobby Unser won the Indianapolis 500 for the second time in 1975. He also ran in some Formula 5000 races in the turbocharged Eagle-Offenhauser and underlined the fact he could be competitive on road courses as well as oval tracks. After Bobby's 1975 Indianapolis win, in the Jorgensen Eagle at a 149.2 mph average, he was somewhat overshadowed by brother AI. This was due in part to Bobby Unser's choice of car; his Lightning Offenhauser of 1977, for example, failed to finish a single USAC round. An outing in the final round in a Lightning with the Offenhauser engine replaced by a Cosworth prompted him to switch his allegiance to Dan Gurney's Eagle team which used the increasingly popular Cosworth DFX.

Retirement in Controversy



1978's Indianapolis, won by AI Unser, featured a very creditable fifth place for Bobby in a new Eagle hampered by a broken rear anti-roll bar. After an eighth place at Silverstone and a failure to finish at Brands Hatch in the two British USAC rounds which were introduced in 1978, Bobby Unser's season finished on a low note. Three years later came one of the most controversial finishes in Indy 500 history - at the 1981 Indianapolis 500. On lap 149, during a caution period, Bobby and Mario Andretti made their pit stop and headed back to the race.

Bobby passed eight cars during the caution, while Mario passed two cars. Their conduct was debated on ESPN Classic's Big Ticket episode in 2000. Unser won the race, but was stripped of it the following morning in favor of second place finisher Mario Andretti. Unser was awarded the win in October 1981, but the controversy and financial impact (Unser once estimated that the commercial endorsements he lost because of the delayed result cost him $1 million) caused him to retire from racing at the end of the year.
Bobby Unser in the Eagle Offenhauser at the 1976 Indianapolis
Bobby Unser in the Eagle Offenhauser at the 1976 Indianapolis - he finished 10th.

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