Bobby Unser – Paying tribute to one of IndyCar's greatest

One of the greatest drivers in Indy car history, Bobby Unser, will be sorely missed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this month. David Malsher-Lopez pays tribute.

Bobby Unser – Paying tribute to one of IndyCar's greatest

This morning at Calvary Chapel, Albuquerque, NM, there was a live-streamed celebration of life for Bobby Unser. It was a life worth celebrating. Bobby, who died Sunday, May 2, aged 87, was a highly charismatic man, and a wonderful driver.

Even now, 40 years since his retirement from Indy car racing, his stats put him in the pantheon. Bearing in mind he raced in an era where reliability could not be taken for granted, the fact that he amassed 35 wins – still eighth in the all-time list – is impressive.

But it’s his 49 pole positions (fifth best of all-time) and 4863 laps led (seventh-best) that highlight his pace, his bravery, and sheer chutzpah. Whether it was wringing everything out of one 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, Robert William Unser always gave 101 percent.

Bobby Unser in the 1968 Leader Card Eagle, his first Indy 500 winner.

Bobby Unser in the 1968 Leader Card Eagle, his first Indy 500 winner.

Photo by: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

“Bobby was like Mario [Andretti] – wanted to lead every lap,” his brother Al told me 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 – six years his junior – sounded naturally quarrelsome even when agreeing on matters… including Bobby’s racing ethos. Al was all about the Juan Manuel Fangio philosophy – win at the slowest possible speed or, if saddled with a fourth-place car, try for third but at least bring it home fourth.

Bobby was fundamentally different. In fact, his approach was different from any other I’ve ever heard. Don’t get me wrong, I – and probably the majority of race fans – love the chargers, the drivers who put it all on the line, time after time. But such an approach to racing had its drawbacks in the era where manually selected gears could be missed, rev limits could be breached, crossplies could be bent off their rims and rivets could tear aluminum.

I remarked to Bobby that for four straight years, 1971 through ’74, he led more laps than any of his rivals, yet only in the latter season did that translate into a second championship to back up the one he'd earned in 1968. Didn’t that perhaps suggest that his hard-charge philosophy was costly?

“The most important thing for a driver to do to turn from a pay driver to a paid driver is practice fast, qualify fast, lead the race,” he explained. “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 racecar lined up… I think if drivers race like that, they don’t need to worry about sponsor deals.”

Bobby Unser and his Eagle, after carving 17mph out of the qualifying lap record at Indy in 1972.

Bobby Unser and his Eagle, after carving 17mph out of the qualifying lap record at Indy in 1972.

Photo by: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

That was Bobby. Not only did he have a very different-sounding philosophy to that of most champions, he was also never afraid to express it and explain it. 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 Indy car commentary booth in the ’80s and ’90s. And he didn’t change after he vacated the booth.

“That was just terrible!” Bobby said when I spoke to him a couple of days after IndyCar’s infamous final race at Fontana in 2015, when the series’ pre-event calculations had gone awry, leaving the cars smothered in downforce and producing pack racing up to four-cars wide. The great drivers were unable to pull away from their mediocre colleagues, and I knew this would raise the ire of someone with such a pure view of how racing should be, someone who could teeter an overpowered under-tired car on the edge of disaster.

“They’re ruining oval racing all over again. I didn’t see any talent on show there,” said Bobby. “Just because you have a record number of lead changes shared between more than half the drivers, so what? That just means it’s too easy.… All those passes – they were because the driver had to pull out of the slipstream to stop himself running into the car in front! That does not prove a damn thing about the driver or his skills at working the car to make it better.

“That kind of racing is no longer a contest between drivers. It’s no longer a contest between which drivers and crews can prepare their cars best. All of that goes away; it doesn’t matter. It’s not about champions; there’s no talent required.

“I’m not trying to run young Graham Rahal [the winner] down; he’s done a tremendous job all season… But was it talent that put him ahead of the others at Fontana? No. It was like throwing a handful of pebbles in the air and seeing which one dropped first. Another lap and it would have been someone else. One more lap it would have been someone else again. That’s just silly and much too dangerous…

“I believe this sport is about heroes. They earn their reputations by being consistent winners, and it’s up to other drivers to knock them down, and up to the spectators to cheer for them or against them. Having a formula where you could have 15 drivers winning one race each in a season… that doesn’t do anything for the sport. It doesn’t give the fans an idea of who’s best, who’s second, who’s third. These top teams and drivers have to be given a chance to show who’s best.”

Flying his Eagle at Pocono in 1975.

Flying his Eagle at Pocono in 1975.

Photo by: Motorsport Images

As you can see then, Unser was not a man to keep his opinions to himself, and his insistence that racing be a meritocracy is one of the reasons he was so loved. As you can imagine, he was also a great raconteur. Bobby 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 urge him to regale us with more stories. To be honest, it didn’t take much urging.

Then, should you need to formally interview him, he was golden; he’d listen carefully to the questions, deliver his viewpoint, and then go off on some mightily entertaining tangents. As a writer, you might only use about five percent of what he gave you but that was because he had overdelivered and left you spoilt for choice.

For those working for specialist websites and magazines, such tales were fascinating; for others, the details Bobby recalled could be… somewhat overwhelming, let’s say. A few years back at Indy, a junior reporter from a non-specialist sports website was interviewing Unser ostensibly about his Indy 500 triumphs. “She doesn’t know what she’s let herself in for,” said Shunck with a giggle… and his prediction wasn’t wrong.

Bobby and the interviewer were sitting nearby in Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s media center, and as I embarked on my latest quest for coffee some 30mins (!) into their interview, I passed nearby to hear Bobby in full flow. He wasn’t regaling the journo with how he’d taken the fight to the Lotus turbines in ’68 and prevailed, how he’d splashed through the rain to win the ’75 500, nor how his exit from the pits in ’81 was entirely legitimate and how he didn’t need to cheat because he’d had the field handled all day. No, the shellshocked writer was unwillingly learning from the master about wickers, Gurney flaps and underbody venturi tunnels.

Some people used to snort with derision when Unser claimed he came up with the modification that transformed Dan Gurney’s Eagles into world beaters at Indy – Unser shattered the IMS track record by a goosebump-inducing 17mph in 1972 – or that he spearheaded Penske’s move into the ground effect era. But if he didn’t exactly edge Roman Slobodunskyj (the aerodynamicist at Gurney’s All American Racers) nor Geoff Ferris (Penske designer) out of a job, he most certainly understood the principles behind what each designer was trying to achieve – and then maximized the potential of their cars.

The late great Gurney recalled: “We were at Phoenix in ’71, testing an Offy-powered Eagle and after three days we were still far short of what we expected of ourselves. We were slow. At one point, I was sitting in our little trailer thinking about things and Bobby walked over and said, ‘Boss, you’re supposed to be able to come up with solutions at times like this.’

“Well, often necessity is the mother of invention and we’d done quite a bit of work on spoilers for the back of cars, so I thought to myself, ‘I wonder if something like that could work on a wing’. So we had some scrap material and pop rivets and in less than an hour, we’d fitted it on the car and Bobby went out again – but we saw from the stopwatch that he wasn’t any quicker. When he came into the pits again, he calls me over and says, ‘Is there anyone watching us on the hill up there?’ I say, ‘No, no, we’re alone. What are you talking about?’ He replies: ‘The back of the car is sucked down so tight that I have huge push now.’ So we balanced it out with the front and suddenly we were in business – seriously quick.”

Winning Indy for the third time in 1981 was not without its controversy...

Winning Indy for the third time in 1981 was not without its controversy...

Photo by: IndyCar Series

Regarding ground effect, everyone was struggling in 1980 against the John Barnard-designed Chaparral 2K, with which Johnny Rutherford dominated the Indy 500 and took the Indy car championship. Rutherford then had a collision in the season finale at Phoenix which saw his car flip upside down and, according to some – including Bobby, sometimes – he grabbed a camera from a nearby photographer, ran to the wreck and took pictures of the car’s underside, which were sent on to Ferris to help him design the ground-effect PC9B of 1981. Others suggest Unser merely obtained the photos from the photographer and sent them on.

The truth? That seems to have been lost in the mists of time. Rutherford relayed a slightly different version, some 30 years later. “Bobby told me that when I got upside down, he had a Penske guy run over and take pictures of the undertray and tunnels,” said Lone Star J.R.. “Then he went and duplicated it in his little home-made windtunnel! He says that’s how Penske started development for the 1981 season… But you can believe or not believe that story!”

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.

I was never in the happy position of taking one of those rides, but like to believe I'd have remained calm, not only because I knew the ‘joke’ was coming but also because I was being driven by one of the greatest drivers this country has ever produced.

Strange to think that Unser needed to be persuaded by arguably the Speedway’s greatest of all, Parnelli Jones, that he had what it to took to succeed in Indy… then bravely wrestled Novi-powered monsters and realized it was the cars, not he, that were lacking race-winning potential.

The Leader Card-run Eagle of ’68 was a fundamentally good car, run by renowned engineer Jud Phillips, and Unser would clinch the championship in it… but it probably shouldn’t have been able to lead 127 laps of the 500 in 1968 against the super-sleek Lotus 56 turbine cars, despite USAC’s harsh reduction in their power output. Bobby was the difference maker in the conventionally engined cars, and fully deserved the win when Joe Leonard’s Lotus fell (even more) silent in the closing laps.

It was driving Eagles that earned Unser renown through most of the 1970s, be it Gurney’s works All American Racers or the Fletcher Racing entries, but the latter’s switch to the Lightning Mk1 in 1977 was not a good move. Bobby being the gutsy performer he is, landed a couple of poles, at Milwaukee and Phoenix, but never seemed to have a fully healthy car by the checkered flag on race days. Even a return to AAR for ’78 failed to yield much in the way of results – just one podium finish, in fact.

By now 44, had Unser chosen to quit the sport at season’s end, he’d have been held in high esteem – super fast, technically adept, a two-time champ and two-time Indy winner… Instead, Roger Penske came calling and gave Unser a career reboot. The Captain needed an experienced veteran to replace departing two-time and reigning Indy car champion Tom Sneva, and to partner his new ‘discovery’, Rick Mears, who even as a part-timer in 1978 had scored three wins for the squad. Unser leapt at the opportunity and proved more than worthy of such a good ride. Over the next three years he scored 11 wins and 14 pole positions.

“Rick didn’t need my help as a driver,” was Bobby’s charming point-dodging and disingenuous response when I asked him about rumors that he didn’t pool information with his rising star teammate. “He was very good already; he just didn’t have the experience. Rick learned a lot about the cars and how to set them up from watching how I worked at Penske, so I think I did help him. The cars got better and better.”

Mears is too polite to go into specifics – about the occasion that Roger Penske found Bobby and a mechanic late at night in a garage making spring changes that somehow didn’t show up on the setup sheets the next day. Truth or fable?

“Mmm, probably some truth to it,” grinned Mears when I broached the subject several years ago. “And remember, that’s just the time he got caught!

Speaking with much respected and loved team owner Dan Gurney at Ontario Motor Speedway in 1974.

Speaking with much respected and loved team owner Dan Gurney at Ontario Motor Speedway in 1974.

Photo by: Motorsport Images

“It was strange though, because I don’t know why Bobby always felt he needed an edge. Some of his experimenting was, to my mind, unnecessary. Penske already gave us really strong cars, and Bobby was still very quick, obviously. But I’d choose to run the tried and proven stuff, and he’d be trying out things that might make him fast over one lap or a couple of laps, but could cost him the race.

“But he’s right: I did learn plenty from him. Bobby did understand cars – that wasn’t all hot air – and if we ran different setups in practice, I could tell if his was better; I’d see it in his lap times because, like I said, he was still fast. I just needed to learn to read between the lines when we were talking, work out what was BS and what was useful.

“Funny thing is, he says he taught me a lot of what I know, as if he’d been my mentor. He definitely wasn’t that… but he taught me more than he realized he had!”

In 1981, Unser scored his 35th and final win and it came in the Indy 500. The controversy about how many cars he was allowed or not allowed to pass on the warm-up lane as he rejoined the track after his pitstop will forever blight the result. For a long time, it cost his friendship with the rival he probably respected most, Mario Andretti, who was declared winner after Bobby was penalized. Penske’s lawyers ultimately prevailed and had Unser reinstated as winner – in October!

Unser said then, and continued to say decades later, his Penske PC9B was the superior machine and he’d have had the measure of Andretti’s Pat Patrick Racing Wildcat even if they’d rejoined wheel-to-wheel. And 40 years later, it’s safe to say the result itself neither enhanced nor harmed the reputations of either protagonist, and can instead be seen as a rare flashpoint in an otherwise surprisingly harmonious friendship between two of the very best.

“I join the racing world mourning the passing of Bobby Unser,” wrote Andretti on Twitter last Monday when the sad news broke. “The best of times… When a fierce competitor can also be a very, very, very good friend. RIP my friend. Thanks for the memories.”

While I couldn’t possibly count Bobby as “a good friend”, he was a kinda friend to anyone and everyone who had the chance to meet him. Whenever fans recognized him and asked for his autograph, his eyes would light up, that big grin would crack his face and he’d treat them like their presence had added greatly to his day, rather than the other way around. The only thing that pleased B. Unser more was if someone asked his opinions about racing, past or present, and I truly consider myself very lucky to have had those opportunities.

So it’s desperately sad heading to Indy this week knowing that Bobby won’t be paying a visit. I’ll miss that crinkled face that looked so serious in repose yet glowed with happiness in the middle of a great story, that sing-song voice that added layers of humor but also verisimilitude to the wildest of tales, that wagging finger that called attention to what he was saying whenever he was making a serious point.

Roger Penske described Unser as “one of the most colorful characters in motorsports” and “a ferocious competitor.” But it was the opening sentence of his tribute that summed it up best. “There simply was no one quite like Bobby Unser.”

There never will be. RIP, legend: thanks for the insights, the laughs and for blessing this sport with your talents.

1968 Indy 500 winner Bobby Unser.

1968 Indy 500 winner Bobby Unser.

Photo by: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

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