Route 66, also known as the Mother Road, is in Bobby Unser’s front yard. The famous highway passes near “Unserville,” the name for Unser’s home, shop and other property in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
A three-time Indianapolis 500 champion and once one of open-wheel racing’s toughest, smartest drivers, Unser is now 83 years old, decades removed from his barnstorming days when the old highway was the starting point for relentless domination of Southwestern short tracks.
Bobby was a natural from the beginning. He raced hard as a teenager, quitting school when it became evident he could make cars talk. “All we did back in those days was drink whiskey, chase girls, fight and work in the shop,” he said.
When 83-year-old racing legend Bobby Unser talks racing, we listen.
The only thing that has slowed about Bobby Unser over the years is his stride. Saddled with back problems, he often uses a walker, but he remains as animated, opinionated and exuberant as in his driving days, when he was one of those guys who’d run over his grandmother—and perhaps, especially, a brother—to win a race. He and his wife, Lisa, are pilots and still fly the red, white and blue colors that have marked all Unser planes.
He survived a near-death experience while snowmobiling and once hit a speed of 223.709 mph at the Bonneville Salt Flats. He ruled the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb in obnoxious fashion, claiming 13 titles.
Unser’s request these days is for a time machine that would take him back 40-45 years, into the heart of his glory days.
Autoweek recently visited Unser on his home turf:
Q: You live on Route 66, one of the country’s most famous highways. That seems appropriate.
A: My dad started his garage and filling station near the house here. When he retired, I took it over. I had an engine-rebuilding plant next to it. Made a foreign car parts and service place out of it and did pretty well. I raced on the weekends. I did a lot of sprint-car and midget races. I shut the shop down in April 1968—I was too busy racing—and won the (Indy 500) in May.
Q: You’re recovering from recent surgery?
A: It was a urinary tract thing that’s kind of standard for men. But when they did it, it got infected. I went through hell with that for a while. But I’m OK. I get everything done that I want to. Everything is generally pretty good, although I have bad back problems.
Q: When did you start making money racing?
A: I ran midgets and sprints up and down California and in Arizona. That was a way of racing and keeping going. But there’s no money in it. If I made $300, it was a good night. That was a “yahoo” night. I won Pikes Peak (first time in 1956). I won enough money to buy an old junk plane (a Cessna). Paid $3,300 for it. Had no idea about flying airplanes. Had no license to fly. I’d get in it every weekend and head to California. I’d put oil in it, and by the time I got to California, it was pretty low. If the weather was bad, I’d just land on some dirt road. It was great. I had been driving 18 hours one way to California to race.
Unser’s home includes countless mementos from his racing career.
Q: How did Pikes Peak become so important to the Unsers?
A: It was more than a fantasy for me. We got our first car when I was 8 years old — a Model A Ford. There was no pavement out here. Route 66 was the only piece of pavement. We drove it around on the dirt. Pikes Peak was a serious, serious deal for me. I knew I would grow up one day and be there. I started racing out here when I was 15 years old — racing against men, not boys. At 16, I won the Southwest championship in Super Modifieds. I promptly quit school. I thought, what the hell would I go to school for, I’m going to be a race-car driver. We started Pikes Peak as early as I could. We eventually ransacked the place — won 13 times. We did simple stuff, but most people didn’t figure it out. Before you knew it, I won six in a row. I kept making the car lighter and lighter and faster and faster.
Q: Then you go on to success at Indy. Which of the three 500 wins means the most?
A: 1968. Some people say, well, you won the 1981 race twice (more on that later). That’s not the point. There’s nothing in this world like winning your first one at Indy. A lot of people got near the end ahead but didn’t win. I ran the first 170-mph lap at the Speedway that year. That was a big number. That news went all over the world.
I outran Joe Leonard (in an Andy Granatelli turbine) so easily it wasn’t funny. I was King Kong. But the gearshift broke. The guys had to push me out of the pits. But I’d catch Leonard and pass him every time. So then we get near the end of the race. Carl Williams has a wreck on the back straightaway. They get him off the track quickly, and the race is going green. Then the turbine (Leonard’s car) quits while I’m chasing him. I was hunkered down for a real battle.
Bobby Unser will always be known as one of the Indy 500’s fastest qualifiers.
Q: You win the race in 1981 after one of the most controversial race days in Indy 500 history. You finish first, but the win is taken away and handed to Mario Andretti because you passed cars under caution. Then the next day, the call is reversed and you regain the win. Does all that still stick out for you?
A: It stuck in me for a long time — really hard. Mario was one of my very closest friends. He was hard to beat. He went fast. But he cheated by saying I passed all those cars, which I damn sure did. He passed them all, too! It turns out I was totally right. It was legal. But Mario got excited seeing me get away like that. I was going to beat him. I had passed him three or four times in the race. My car was faster than any of the other cars. Jackie Stewart talked about it on TV and said what I did was illegal. That stirred it up. If Bobby was wrong, how could Mario be right? It was all on tape.
My recent hospital stay was bad for a while. It could have been really bad. For four or five days, it was pretty close. Guess who I got a phone call from? First time since those fights. From (Mario). He just wanted to talk. It went really good. I hate to say it, but I’m a hard person. I know that. I can be pretty ornery. But I got a tear in my eye. I really did. He knows I like him. He knows how close we used to be. We used to room together on the road. You can’t believe how much better it made me feel talking to him. I hadn’t talked to him in so many years, I didn’t recognize his voice. I asked who it was. He said, “Damn it, it’s me, (Mario).”
You know, I don’t need another car or another airplane. Talking to (Mario) did me good. It was good for my health. Got me over some of the grudge I had. When I see him again, I’ll go up and talk to him this time.
Bobby Unser welcomed Autoweek into his home recently, and it turned out to be quite a trip down memory lane.
Q: Who was the best Unser as a driver?
A: There’s no real way to say that because our personalities were all so different. Jerry Jr. was really good. He set the world on fire in a stock car. He had a lot of pluses. He didn’t live long enough (he died in a crash at Indy in 1959) to get to the right place. Louis had multiple sclerosis really bad. He tried driving, but his heart was in being a mechanic and an engine builder. Al — he didn’t make mistakes. He went through his whole career without hardly making any mistakes. If the car was right, he is going to be tough to beat. He couldn’t do well with a car that wasn’t right. I run the things until they break or win the race. If I could have a time machine and go back in time 40 or 45 years, I’d run them suckers until there was nothing left.
Q: What’s your thinking on IndyCar racing today?
A :I think they’ve made some horrible mistakes. Fans don’t like a spec series. IndyCar started copying NASCAR and that helped get them in the trouble they are in today. Making spec cars — they’re good cars and fast, but your car can’t be any different from mine. It gets down to the most ridiculous things. There are only two engine manufacturers. Spec-car engines. Then the aerodynamics. It’s ruining the racing. They’re all running the same speed. Racing is better when the cars aren’t all alike. You have to give the people some good, honest American racing. They’ve made it into slot-car racing. The bottom line is, fans simply don’t like it.
Bobby Unser has plenty of trophies to show for a career of championship racing.
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