Rest In Speed: BOBBY UNSER, Feb 20, 1934 – May 2, 2021

Bobby U. on left at Daytona IROC final in 1974, doing TV with Peter Revson (middle) and Chris Economaki, on right with headphones and mic

The call came early this morning. It was more bad news in a year that produced more than its share of ugliness.
Most racing drivers that came of age in the 1950s didn’t really expect to live into their 80s. Despite walking on motor racing’s biggest stage in the benighted year 1955, that’s exactly what Bobby Unser did. He once joked he was lucky and hasn’t racked-up too much of what racers called “sheet time.” It was more than luck. He had the Unser “gift”, part mechanical sympathy and a seventh sense that manifested itself more spectacularly at speeds in the 200 mph-neighborhood.
2004 poster art by Chuck Queener
Robert William “Bobby” Unser was the brother of Al Unser, Jerry Unser, and Louis Unser, the father of Robby Unser and the uncle of Al Unser Jr. and Johnny Unser.
Photo courtesy of Bill Warner
He was the first Unser to win the Indy 500 and the first racer to win the “500” across three decades. His victories in 1968, 1975 and 1981 delivered Dan Gurney’s Eagles their first 500 victory (and their third). In 1975 he even won the IROC title and in 1993 the made-for-TV Fast Masters Championship. He was selected as one of Sports Illustrated’s “Top Five Athletes” in the magazine’s first twenty years, along with the Martini & Rossi and Olsonite “Driver of the Year” awards in 1974.
The controversy regarding his final “500” win (1981) opened the door for his retirement. His disgust for what he saw as ugly politics kept him out of the cockpit but he ended up in the broadcast booth for NBC, ABC and ESPN. He brought the same sort of ferocious competitiveness to the announcer’s booth as he did in Indy Cars.
Unser became a television commentator for Indy Car races after his retirement, working for ESPN, NBC and ABC. Unser also worked as the analyst for the Radio Network in 1986. In 1989 and 1990, the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences awarded ABC’s Indy 500 telecast the Sports Emmy Award for Outstanding Live Sports Special with Unser receiving announcer honors with Paul Page and Sam Posey: his on-air verbal jousting with ABC co-commentator (and 2013 Amelia Honoree) Posey is still the stuff of legend. Much was theater as both Sam and Bobby were very good friends.
Bobby Unser honoree of the 2004 Amelia Concours
Bobby Unser is still the grand master of Pikes Peak. In 1986, after a 12-year absence from “the Mountain”, he broke the tie for nine Pikes Peak wins he shared with his uncle Louis. His 13th and final Pikes Peak victory came in an Audi Quattro.
A decade later he and a friend became lost in a blizzard during a snowmobiling adventure near his New Mexico home but were found just before Christmas. He was fined for “unlawful operation of a snowmobile within a National Forest Wilderness Area” and received a $75 fine, which he appealed to the Supreme Court. (They found against him.)
George Barris and Bobby Unser at the 2004 event
“Uncle Bobby” as he was known affectionately by his large and accomplished family, was our Amelia Honoree in 2004 and our first time Indy 500 winner.
It’s no surprise he went into the Unser “family business.” The Unser family has won the Indy 500 a record nine times. He is one of ten drivers to have won the “500” three or more times and the first of only two to have won the 500 in three decades (1968, 1975, 1981) making the transition to ground effects seamlessly.
He was a giant personality, an accomplished communicator, outspoken, opinionated and accomplished. He could back up his opinions in every circumstance and environment.
When I think of Bobby, he’s always smiling.
Bill Warner