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Bobby Unser, three-time Indy 500 champion, dies at 87: 'There was nobody like him'

USA TODAY SPORTS logo USA TODAY SPORTS 5/5/2021 Nathan Brown, Christopher DeHarde and Dana Hunsinger Benbow
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Bobby Unser, three-time Indianapolis 500 winner and a larger-than-life, colorful character in racing who would talk to anyone anywhere about "the greatest sport in the world," passed away at his home in Albuquerque, N.M., Sunday at the age of 87.

Unser was best known in racing for being the first driver to win the Indy 500 in three different decades, 1968, 1975 and 1981. Only four-time-winner Rick Mears has surpassed Unser in number of wins. 

Unser is one of just 10 drivers to have won the Greatest Spectacle in Racing more than twice, a list which also includes his brother Al Unser Sr. (1970, 1971, 1978 and 1987). He was also the uncle of two-time Indy 500 winner Al Unser Jr.

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Unser was born Feb. 20, 1934, in Colorado Springs, Colo., the third of four brothers, and when he was a year old, the Unser clan moved to Albuquerque. As his racing career blossomed into legendary status, including becoming the first of the Unser family to win the Indy 500, the city quickly became forever tied to the racing dynasty.

Unser began his racing career as a teenager in 1949 at Roswell Speedway, and he won his first championship of any sort in Southwestern Modified Stock Cars in 1950. Following a three-year stint in the Air Force (1953-55), he and brothers Al and Jerry shifted into USAC racing. By 1962, Unser was driving Indy cars.

His first Indy 500 came in 1963, where he started last and jumped up to 16th by the end -- a fitting start to a career that saw him run and win his final Indy 500 in 1981, where he started and finished on top with Team Penske.

"There simply was no one quite like Bobby Unser," Roger Penske said Monday. "Bobby was a ferocious competitor on the track and his larger-than-life personality made him one of the most beloved and unique racers we have ever seen."

Mario Andretti: 'Still in shock'

Mario Andretti said Monday he knew Unser wasn't doing well. He'd been talking to Unser and people in their tightknit racing circles.

"I wasn’t ready for this news. You know, you can never prepare for that," he said. "When you here it, you're still in shock."

Andretti said he's been reminiscing on all the days he and Unser spent together.

"Just working...trying to kill each other on the track and having a beer later," he said. "The rivalry we had, there was a lot of comradery with that for sure."

One of the most notable rivalries between the two ended in the most controversial Indy 500 finish ever in 1981.

It was the last pit stop for Unser and Andretti and the race was under caution on Lap 149. When the two pulled out of the pits together, Andretti said he watched Unser pull off an illegal move.

By the rule book, which has the same rule today, if the field is alongside a driver coming out of the pits, that driver is supposed to look at the end of the wall and, whichever car he or she sees, blend in behind that car at Turn 2.

"I watched Bobby (pull out of the pits) and just accelerate to the front, right in front of the pace car," Andretti told IndyStar in 2019. "I'm screaming to my guy on the radio, 'What the hell is going on?' Bobby went right up with the pace car."

The driver Andretti saw at the end of the wall as he pulled out of the pits was A.J. Foyt. Andretti passed a couple of cars, but then fell back. That left 11 cars between Unser and Andretti.  

At race's end, Andretti crossed the finish line in second place. Unser was the winner.

Unser denies having done anything illegal.  

"Everybody would like for me to say that the whole thing was Mario (should have won)," he said. "The truth of the matter is it is not."  

Unser crossed the finish line first and was the unofficial winner but the next morning, Andretti was declared the victor. Five months later, after court proceedings, Unser was given the win back.

Andretti wouldn't give the ring back. It was a feud like none other. Two of the biggest names in auto racing —  the international star Andretti and America's racing prom king Unser — in a battle.

Bobby Unser in the Coke lot

Never short on speed or opinions, Unser spoke his mind and didn’t care whether those around agreed with what he was saying. Whether it was another driver, a national television audience, podcasters or even federal authorities, Unser spared nobody, having never found a microphone he didn't like.

That was partly why so many loved him.

About six years ago, IndyCar turn announcer Jake Query was walking up and down Georgetown Road the night before the Indy 500 soaking in the ambiance when somebody yelled out, "Hey, Bobby Unser’s in the Coke lot.”

“And I thought, 'Well that’s obviously not accurate,'” Query said. “And I walk through the Coke lot and there is Bobby Unser sitting in a lawn chair with people all around him taking selfies and he’s high fiving, saying, ‘Well I got to tell you it’s just the greatest event in the world.’ And he was there soaking it all up. There was nobody like him.”

Unser would talk to anyone about racing, anywhere, no matter who they were. His phone number was still listed in the Albuquerque phone book and directory assistance when Query called him 20 years ago. He’d never met Unser but had always been fascinated by him; 1981 was the first race Query attended. Steve Shunck, longtime friend and public relations guru for Unser, had encouraged Query to make the call.

“So I called and he answered the phone and I kind of dropped Shunck’s name and that mattered none to him. All that mattered to Bobby Unser was that I was from Indianapolis and was calling to talk racing,” Query said. “He didn’t care whether I was a media person, radio personality, TV personality nothing. He said, ‘Sweetie, I got to tell you I just love when people call to talk about the great sport of racing.’”

Unser talked to Query for two and a half hours that day.

Victories and defeat

His six decade motorsports career brought worldwide fame to Unser, the first in the family to win the Indy 500, but getting to that point took a lot of hard work.

Unser’s first Indy 500 in 1963 ended with a crash in Turn 1 on Lap 3. His second 500 race ended about a half mile sooner in the crash that claimed the lives of Dave MacDonald and Eddie Sachs. Over the next few years, Unser started to find victory lane, winning one race in 1966 and two in 1967 while younger brother Al started his racing career on the USAC national circuit.

Unser was triumphant in the 1968 Indianapolis 500, winning after Joe Leonard’s Lotus-designed turbine car slowed from the lead with mechanical failure within the final 15 laps of the finish.

That year would mark not only Unser’s first USAC National Championship, but also one of the more legendary stories in Unser’s career. Unser and Mario Andretti were entered in the 1968 Italian Grand Prix at Monza and qualified for the race. Immediately after qualifying, both Unser and Andretti flew back to Indianapolis to race in that year’s Hoosier Hundred.

 After Andretti finished second and Unser fell out on Lap 8, both drivers flew back to Italy and rushed to get back to Monza to race, with Unser driving the rental car in Italy.

“If we’re lucky, we’re going to get to the race track with 15 minutes to spare, that’s it,” said Unser at an IMS Museum speaker event. “Now Mario’s telling me to go faster and go to the curb, so I’d get up on the curb and honk the horn. People are jumping out of the way and the cops can’t chase us because they don’t have cars. The (police officer)’s standing on a little wooden stool, so I’m not worried about getting caught there.”

Despite getting to the track, both drivers could not race due to an Automobile Club of Italy rule stating that drivers were forbidden from racing in another race within 24 hours of the start of the Grand Prix.

Over the next few years, Unser’s fortunes in racing seemed to turn south, with only four wins from the next three years as brother Al’s racing stock rose. However, Unser's next big moment in Indianapolis 500 history would come soon after.

Al Unser, Bobby Unser are posing for a picture: Al, left, and brother Bobby Unser prepare for the Indiana Classic 100-mile USAC stock car race at the Indiana StateFairgrounds in 1972. © IMS photo Al, left, and brother Bobby Unser prepare for the Indiana Classic 100-mile USAC stock car race at the Indiana StateFairgrounds in 1972.

Unser drove for Dan Gurney’s All American Racers starting in 1972, and with USAC allowing bolt-on wings to the cars, speeds skyrocketed. Unser qualified for that year’s Indianapolis 500 at an average speed of 195.940 mph, becoming the first driver to officially break the 190 mph barrier at Indianapolis and shattering the previous year’s track record (178.696 mph). Unser would win the pole that year but would finish 30th with a broken distributor.

Two years later, Unser would be USAC national champion again with four wins, four seconds and only one finish out of the top five in 13 races. In 1975, Unser would be an Indianapolis 500 champion again.

A torrential thunderstorm drenched the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the final 100 miles and the race was declared official at 174 laps completed. Two wins followed in 1976 before an unlucky streak in 1977-1978 where Unser fell out of all but two races in that span.

Enter: Roger Penske

Roger Penske came calling in 1979. Unser answered.

Penske jettisoned Tom Sneva after being crowned the 1978 USAC national champion without winning a race all season. With Penske now competing in the inaugural CART season in 1979, The Captain wanted a proven winner alongside his new young charger, Rick Mears.

Unser would win six races in 1979 to Mears’ three, but Mears would win the title. Cruelly, Unser was denied a win in the 1979 Indianapolis 500 after leading 89 laps when the top gear in the transmission broke in the final 50 miles of the race, handing the lead and victory to Mears.

Unser would win four times in 1980 to finish second in CART points to Johnny Rutherford and scored his final open-wheel victory in the 1981 Indianapolis 500 that still fosters discussion to this day.

Beyond his racing accolades, "he was also one of the most colorful characters in motorsports," Penske said of Unser. "Throughout his time as a driver, a commentator and an ambassador of our sport, Bobby's stories and his passion for racing were legendary. Our thoughts and condolences are with Lisa, the Unser family and Bobby's many friends and fans during this difficult time."

After retiring from racing in the early 1980s, Unser started to do more television work covering IndyCar races on NBC and then ABC. Unser’s television career continued until he left ABC at the end of 1997. Bobby’s tenure in the broadcast booth included covering his brother Al’s last national championship in 1985 while fighting against his son Al Unser Jr., Al’s fourth Indianapolis 500 win in 1987, and both of Unser Jr.’s wins at Indianapolis in 1992 and 1994.

Unser’s adventures didn’t stop there, however. While snowmobiling in late 1996, Unser got lost with a friend and they were charged with a misdemeanor offense of unlawful operation of a motor vehicle in a federal wilderness area and faced a nominal fine of $75. Unser appealed the charges, going all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States but the Court did not hear his appeal.

Through the years, Unser remained a popular figure with fans, drivers and the racing community, having never lost his sense of humor or adventure as time marched forward.

A fan favorite

 Doug Boles, president of IMS commented on Twitter: "When you mention icons in racing, and particularly the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Bobby Unser was a legend. He could drive, and win, in any time of car and on any type of track. And he was magical at Indy. But driving was just a piece of what made Bobby so iconic.

"Over the last several years, I have seen the true Bobby Unser -- the man who loved our sport, loved the Indianapolis 500 and love to be with the fans. He would go out of his way to do whatever he could to be here in May to help us keep the sport growing. He was always available to give speeches, to sign autographs or to just tell stories. His driving record speaks for itself. His lifelong passion for promoting our sport and his enthusiastic, no sugar-coated opinions that continued after he hung up his helmet had such a meaningful impact on our sport."

Governor Eric J. Holcomb released a statement on the passing of Unser:

“The Unser name is synonymous with racing, and Bobby Unser carried that legacy proudly. Indiana loved watching him race and be a part of the largest single-day sporting event. He gave us some special moments at the Indianapolis 500. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Unser family today as they grieve the loss of an incredible man.”

Unser is survived by his wife, Lisa; sons Bobby Jr. and Robby; and daughters Cindy and Jeri. Services are pending.

Email IndyStar motor sports reporter Nathan Brown at nlbrown@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter: @By_NathanBrown.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Bobby Unser, three-time Indy 500 champion, dies at 87: 'There was nobody like him'

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