Bobby Unser, three-time Indianapolis 500 winner, dies at the age of 87


There wasn’t much Bobby Unser wouldn’t do to promote the Indianapolis 500. A few years ago he found himself doing a show and tell at an elementary school in Indiana.

He carried the famous Borg Warner Indy 500 winners trophy and proudly showed the students the legacy of ours. He pointed to the nine places their faces were carved in sterling silver – four places for his little brother Al; three for yourself; two for nephew Al Jr.

One girl had a question: if his brother has been there four times and he only three, was his brother the better racer?

It was one of the few times anyone had seen our speechless.

Ours, who started jalopies in New Mexico and later became a popular figure in racing and was part of the only pair of brothers to win The Greatest Spectacle in Racing, died Sunday at the age of 87. He died at his home in Albuquerque. New Mexico, for natural reasons, said Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“There was just no one like Bobby Unser,” said Roger Penske, now the Speedway owner. “In addition to his many victories and successes, Bobby was a true racing driver who increased the performance of everyone around him. He was also one of the most colorful characters in motorsport. ”

Ours was a member of one of America’s most famous racing families and one of the greatest drivers in speedway history. He won the race in 1968, 1975 and 1981.

“It’s part of the Mount Rushmore of Indy,” said Dario Franchitti, another three-time Indy 500 winner.

Our last Indy 500 win in a Penske post was one of the most controversial outcomes and remains controversial to this day.

Unser won from pole position, beating Mario Andretti by 5.18 seconds, but officials decided that when we were exiting the pit lane, we were careful to drive past cars illegally.

Penske and Unser appealed, and after a long process, the sentence was overturned in October of that year.

“Bobby was never exempt from the violation and the USAC, which at the time was only Indianapolis’ s sanctions agency, was a very weak organization,” Andretti said on Monday. “Roger Penske’s attorneys were much smarter than USAC attorneys. And that’s a fact: Bobby committed the offense. But under these circumstances the punishment was too severe. ”

Ours was fined $ 40,000 in the end and declared the winner for the 35th and final win of his career.

Andretti, who has only won once at Indy, told The Associated Press on Monday that he still wears the 1981 winning ring that he presented at the banquet the day after the race, rather than the one from his 1969 win.

“Every time I saw Bobby I would flash my 81 ring, which I am wearing. I never gave it back. I would just rub it on his ear, ”said Andretti, who added that he last spoke to Unser about three weeks ago.

Ours was one of six members of the Unser family who have ridden in the Indianapolis 500. An older brother, Jerry, died in an accident while preparing for the 1959 Indy 500.

Al Unser is one of only three drivers to have won the Indy 500 four times – 1970, 1971, 1978 and 1987. The Unser family tradition extends to Al Unser’s son, Al Unser Jr., who won Indy in 1992 and 1994.

Bobby Unser was born in Colorado Springs, Colorado on February 20, 1934, and moved to New Mexico with his family as a child. His father owned a garage along Route 66 and he, his three brothers, grew up in old jalopies before dropping out of high school at 15 and starting his racing career at Roswell New Mexico Speedway.

After two years in the US Air Force from 1953 to 1955 – a time he was proud of – Unser turned to racing in a mighty career. His family was legendary at Pikes Peak International in Colorado – dubbed “Unsers’ Peak” for their annual mountaineering skills – but it was “Uncle Bobby” who was the best. He dominated with 13 championships, six of them directly from 1958 to 1963.

In Indy, one of the most difficult and challenging racetracks in the world, ours was magical.

He was one of only 10 drivers to have won the 500 at least three times, and Unser and Rick Mears are the only drivers to have won the 500 in three different decades. Our achieved 10 top 10 placements in 19 career starts. He led in 10 races with a total of 440 laps, which is still in 10th place on the all-time list. He won two poles in 1972 and 1981 and had nine front row starts.

Franchitti spent time on the speedway or over dinner with other previous winners each year, saying ours was “always the greatest personality in pretty much any room.”

“He showed up on the speedway and regardless of when he last raced, he still understood the race and the prerequisites for victory and was still very insightful,” said Franchitti. “He loved the Indy 500 so much. He loved coming back. ”

The exclusive former winners club gathers annually in Indy – the pandemic cut the tradition last year – to remember their speedway days. Ours always held court to the giants of motorsport, nobody took the deadly dangers of Indianapolis for granted.

“He was a fun guy and he liked to talk and make things easy and always have good conversations, especially at dinner in Indy where everyone meets. We’d meet for a steak downtown, ”said Andretti. “The fact that we survived at all. We lost so many. We dodged a bullet. ”

After his driving career, Unser switched to a 20 year broadcast career and won an Emmy Award as part of the ABC Sports broadcast team for Outstanding Live Sports Special for reporting on the 1989 Indianapolis 500.

He was at the booth in 1987 when he named Brother Al the fourth record-breaking 500 win, and in 1992 when nephew Al Unser Jr. won Indy for the first time in the next 500 victory. When his television career ended, Unser continued to visit the Speedway every May. He was a driver-trainer who assisted with racing strategy in 1998 and 1999 when son Robby Our finished fifth and eighth.

Ours is survived by his wife Lisa; Sons Bobby Jr. and Robby; and daughters Cindy and Jeri.