Bobby Unser obituary: Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner remembered

Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner and one-time Formula 1 racer Bobby Unser, who died last Sunday aged 87, was a highly charismatic man and a wonderful driver.

Bobby Unser obituary: Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner remembered

Forty years since his retirement from Indycar racing, his stats put him in the pantheon. He raced in an era when reliability could not be taken for granted, so the fact that he amassed 35 wins – still eighth in the all-time list – is impressive enough.

Yet it’s his 49 pole positions (fifth best of all time) and 4863 laps led (seventh) that highlight his pace, bravery and sheer chutzpah. Whether it was wringing everything out of Dan Gurney’s gorgeous Eagles – with which he scored his first two Indy 500 victories – or learning to master ground-effect Penskes in his amazing career twilight that included a third Indy triumph, he always gave 101%.

Podcast: Choosing the greatest IndyCars of all-time

“Bobby was like Mario [Andretti] – wanted to lead every lap,” his brother Al told this writer several years ago. “I only had to lead one, the last one. No one remembers who led lap 1, or 25 or 50… The crowd loved Bobby, because he’d just unscrew his brain and go after it from the green flag.”

Although respectful of each other’s talents, Bobby and Al – five years his junior – sounded naturally quarrelsome even when agreeing on matters, including Bobby’s racing ethos. When this author asked Bobby if his hard-charge was philosophy was costly (bearing in mind that through the early 1970s he traditionally led more laps in a season than any of his rivals, yet only in 1974 did that translate into a second championship to back up the one he earned in 1968) he explained: “The most important thing for a driver to do to turn from a pay driver to a paid driver is practise fast, qualify fast, lead the race. Then everyone takes notice – media, team owners, sponsors. So even if he never wins, that driver will always have a job. That was always my theory and I always had a job for the following season. I was never without a race car lined up… I think if drivers race like that, they don’t need to worry about sponsor deals.”

That was Bobby – he had a very different-sounding philosophy to that of most champions (win at the slowest possible speed) and was never afraid to express it or explain it.

Bobby Unser speaks at the 2015 PRI Show

Bobby Unser speaks at the 2015 PRI Show

Photo by: IndyCar Series

Expressing and explaining his theories is what made him such a delightful foil to the more measured Sam Posey and the straight-down-the-middle Paul Page when they worked together in the commentary booth in the 1980s and 1990s.

Unser was a great raconteur. He and his effervescent wife Lisa were always popular visitors to Indianapolis Motor Speedway each May, when his dear friends – legendary journalist Robin Miller and BorgWarner’s Steve Shunck – would prod him to regale us with more stories.

Then, should you need to formally interview him, he was golden; he’d listen carefully to the question, deliver his opinion, and then go off on some mightily entertaining tangents. You might only use about 5% of what he gave you, but that was because he had overdelivered and left you spoilt for choice.

While he would take jokes against himself with ease, so too Unser enjoyed being the one doing the teasing. Long after he scored his 13 wins in the notoriously scary Pikes Peak Hill Climb, he’d get a kick out of driving newcomers up the course at high speed in a road car. Then, at one of those turns where the lip of the track meets Colorado skyscape, and in the passenger’s imagination all that lies in between is oblivion, he’d pretend the car’s brakes were failing or that he’d lost control – and giggle at his companion’s overreaction as they crossed the edge to hit previously invisible flat terra firma.

Roger Penske said it right on Monday: “There simply was no one quite like Bobby Unser. 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.”

shares
comments
From the archive: The confusing aftermath of Unser's 1981 Indy win
Previous article

From the archive: The confusing aftermath of Unser's 1981 Indy win

Next article

Andretti adds sixth Indy 500 entry, Wilson to drive

Andretti adds sixth Indy 500 entry, Wilson to drive
How Ericsson achieved Indy immortality as Ganassi's main man stumbled Plus

How Ericsson achieved Indy immortality as Ganassi's main man stumbled

Chip Ganassi Racing team was strong again in the Indianapolis 500, with poleman Scott Dixon and reigning champion Alex Palou leading almost three quarters of the race between them. But when dominator Dixon was penalised for pitlane speeding, ex-Formula 1 driver Marcus Ericsson stepped up to score the biggest win of his career and seize the IndyCar points lead

IndyCar
May 30, 2022
Ranking the top 10 IndyCar drivers of 2021 Plus

Ranking the top 10 IndyCar drivers of 2021

In an enthralling 2021 IndyCar campaign, the series bounced back from its COVID-19 truncated year prior and Alex Palou defeated both the established order and his fellow young guns to clinch a maiden title. It capped a remarkable season with plenty of standout performers

IndyCar
Nov 21, 2021
How F1's other IndyCar exile finally unlocked his potential Plus

How F1's other IndyCar exile finally unlocked his potential

Romain Grosjean's swashbuckling rookie year in IndyCar captured the imagination of many in 2021. But another ex-Formula 1 driver whose potential was masked by five years of toil in, at best, middling machinery also enjoyed a breakout year in 2021 - winning twice and finishing sixth in points. Here's how Marcus Ericsson finally delivered on his promise

IndyCar
Nov 16, 2021
How Ganassi's relentless new champion outfoxed IndyCar's best Plus

How Ganassi's relentless new champion outfoxed IndyCar's best

IndyCar sophomore Alex Palou stunned by overcoming team-mate Scott Dixon and the rest of a white-hot field in 2021. He was consistently fast and crucially showed a level head, rebounding well from setbacks to put himself in a near unassailable position entering the final round

IndyCar
Nov 4, 2021
Have Harvey and RLL formed IndyCar’s next winning match-up? Plus

Have Harvey and RLL formed IndyCar’s next winning match-up?

Despite appearing to have an IndyCar job for life with Meyer Shank Racing, Jack Harvey’s departure and move to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing sparked plenty of debate. However, Harvey's and RLL's combined strengths could prove to be a winning combination - if they get the balance right

IndyCar
Oct 17, 2021
Remembering Dan Wheldon and his last and most amazing IndyCar win Plus

Remembering Dan Wheldon and his last and most amazing IndyCar win

Saturday 16 October marks the 10th anniversary of Dan Wheldon’s death. David Malsher-Lopez pays tribute, then asks Wheldon’s race engineer from 2011, Todd Malloy, to recall that magical second victory at the Indianapolis 500

IndyCar
Oct 16, 2021
Why Kyle Kirkwood is America's new IndyCar ace-in-waiting Plus

Why Kyle Kirkwood is America's new IndyCar ace-in-waiting

Kyle Kirkwood, the record-setting junior formula driver, sealed the Indy Lights championship last weekend. But despite an absurdly strong junior career and scholarship money, his next move is far from clear

IndyCar
Oct 6, 2021
Why IndyCar title glory is just the start for Ganassi's new star Plus

Why IndyCar title glory is just the start for Ganassi's new star

Newly-crowned IndyCar champion Alex Palou has been lauded as a complete driver and veteran-like in only his second season. The 24-year-old is still in the early days of his career, but the parallels are there for all to see with his six-time champion Chip Ganassi Racing team-mate who has been CGR's team leader since 2014

IndyCar
Sep 28, 2021