IRL: Indy 500 Parade of Champions: Bobby Unser feature

BOBBY UNSER STAYS BUSY IN LIFE AFTER RACING INDIANAPOLIS, May 10, 1998 -- As April swung in May, it was a typical couple of weeks for three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Unser. Flying to Mexico, his plane lost one of its...

BOBBY UNSER STAYS BUSY IN LIFE AFTER RACING

INDIANAPOLIS, May 10, 1998 -- As April swung in May, it was a typical couple of weeks for three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Unser.

Flying to Mexico, his plane lost one of its engines, and he had to make an emergency landing. He cut five commercials for a line of vitamins for the elderly that he is promoting and scheduled some tests for his aching back. He testified in Washington, D.C., before a congressional committee looking into overzealous prosecutions by the government.

And younger son Robby passed his rookie test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Eddie Cheever's second car.

Father Bobby missed that latest milestone in the Unser family racing lore. He plans on being at the Speedway most of this first week and hopefully see his son qualify for the May 24 race. But the tests on his back are slated for next week, so he may not see Robby's 500 debut in person.

"I want him to be successful," said Bobby, who will be honored at the Speedway on Monday, May 11 as part of the weeklong Parade of Champions salute to past winners. Unser will be honored for his 1968 victory - exactly 30 years ago -- and will drive two laps Monday at the Speedway in the Rislone Special that he wheeled to victory that year.

"I know he is not going to win the race," Unser said of his son. "I just hope he has a good race. I just hope he can finish."

The elder Unser said a top-10 finish will assure Robby of an opportunity to step up as a professional driver.

"I'm glad he's getting a shot (with Team Cheever)," Bobby said. "I don't want to talk about his driving. It's up to him."

The senior Unser admits he didn't learn much in his first two races. He completed just three total laps, crashing in 1963 and driving right through the flames engulfing Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald at the end of Lap 2 in 1964. The third year, 1965, wasn't much better as he fell out after 69 laps with a mechanical problem.

From there, Unser went on to win Indy in 1968, 1975 and 1981, one of two drivers to win the race in three different decades.

Reflecting on his youthful days, Unser says he raced anything on wheels anywhere there was a buck to be made. Even the death of older brother Jerry from injuries incurred during a Turn 4 crash at Indy in 1959 didn't deter him.

"In my way of thinking in motor racing, life and death had nothing to do with it," he said. "When you're young, you think you are bulletproof. You think you'll never get hurt. I was a professional race driver working hard."

Bobby sat in an Indianapolis hospital and talked to his brother the day before he died. The conversation wasn't about Jerry's recovery, but that Jerry thought he might have a ride for Bobby. Jerry thought Bobby, then 25, was ready for Indy, Bobby wasn't sure he was.

"That's the way the Unser family was in those days," Bobby said.

When Unser finally made it into the race he was 29, only a year younger than his son is now.

"The first race (crash) was entirely my fault," Bobby said. "I spun to miss Jim Rathmann. I learned a lesson. The second year, I had no choice in that matter. God controlled everything. I had a good car (the famed Novi owned by colorful Andy Granatelli).

"It was hard to drive. I had hands like shoe leather. I would have bandages on my hands on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday after a race. For all practical purposes, I was the last one to drive the Novi though technically Greg Weld drove the last one. It was so good for my career."

Unser finished eighth and ninth in 1966-67 and was finally ready to win a race. He started second in 1968 in the Rislone Special and blazed to victory in the then record speed of 152.882 mph. During the month, Andy and brother Vince Granatelli tried to hire him to drive one of the turbine cars, continually upping the ante to the point the money being offered was making his knees knock, but he stay true to car owner Bob Wilke and won the race. It changed his life.

"I went from a guy who had all the freedom in the world, driving for anybody I wanted to, to having that freedom go away," he said.

"I couldn't run sprint cars anymore. You'd win a sprint-car race, get $800 and the government would take 70 percent. I couldn't afford the risk. It made me famous. It made me a lot of money, because I worked at it."

Unser drove his final sprint car race at Terre Haute, Ind., and remembers all the drivers from his era he had competed so fiercely with -- Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Roger McCluskey, etc. -- no longer were driving those cars. He decided it was time to leave, too.

Unser won again in the rain-shortened 1975 race driving for Dan Gurney. He moved on to the Roger Penske stable and added a third victory in the controversial 1981 race. That's the one where he was the winner on race day, but overnight USAC penalized him a lap for a violation of the blending rule then in effect and gave the race to Andretti the next morning.

After months of legal wrangling, the win was returned to Unser in October on a 2-1 vote by a special appeals panel.

"It was just a political thing," Unser said today. "The guy I was disappointed with out of the whole thing was Andretti for wanting something out of nothing. He was the best athlete I ever knew, and I don't know why he would want something for nothing."

That was Unser's final race as a driver. He returned the next year with young Mexican Josele Garza as possible protege. Bobby says it was the worse year he ever had in racing because Garza never had his heart in the sport.

Unser then moved to the television booth, first with CBS, next with NBC and eventually with ABC doing the "500." He hated the taped races where he would record voiceovers while watching a television screen. He brought Paul Page into the Indy booth and was paired with Sam Posey, who drove in the 1972 race. Bobby spent most of the race correcting Sam.

"Probably we were like oil and water," Unser said. "It wasn't hard to make Sam look bad. I would apologize during commercials. But Sam was a nice person, and we got along real well. But I just don't fit on TV."

Unser still broadcasts the two CART races in Canada for CBC.

Bobby today is an aching 63 and peddling herbal pills for the senior set that, he says, help soothe arthritic pain, cure sleeplessness, provide energy and give the sagging memory a jolt. He takes all of them himself.

Looking back on his career, he concludes:

"If I had a time machine, I would race more. As I look at that Tony Stewart, he's as good as any that has come down the road. I've got to admire a guy like that." ***

Source: IRL/IMS

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Tony Stewart , Eddie Cheever , Mario Andretti , Bobby Unser , Parnelli Jones , Sam Posey , Roger Penske , Josele Garza , A.J. Foyt