American race car driver
Bobby Unser came from a family of racecar drivers. He made a name for himself as a driver who pushed himself and his cars to the limit. He drove fast and hard all of the time, and has won numerous racing championships throughout his career, including three Indianapolis 500 titles. Unser has been the center of controversy because of his sharp opinions about what is fair and just, both on and off the track.
Born to Race
Robert William Unser was born on February 20, 1934 in Colorado Springs, Colorado to a family destined to race. His grandfather, Louis Unser, was a mechanic whose three sons were the first to ride up Pike's Peak, a 14,110 foot high mountain on the edge of the Great Plains, in the 1920s. This was the first race of what
would become an annual tradition. Of the 40 competitors, only the Unser boys made it to the top. The Unsers dominated both Pike's Peak and the racing profession in the years to come.
One of the Pike's Peak pioneers, Jerry Unser, married schoolteacher Mary Craven and had four sons—fraternal twins Jerry, Jr. and Louie, Robert (known as Bobby), and Al Unser, Sr. In 1956 Jerry Unser moved his family to Albuquerque, New Mexico where he opened a garage and gas station called Jerry Unser Motors on Route 66. His four boys helped him in the garage. The boys bought an old Model A Ford from their father, fixed it up, and began driving. When the boys were teenagers they began driving racecars on the short tracks in New Mexico, Colorado, and Arizona.
Jerry, Jr., Bobby Unser's older brother, became the first Unser racecar champion, winning the 1957 United States Auto Club (USAC) stock car championship. Tragically he died in 1959 from a crash during a practice run for the Indianapolis 500. Louie Unser, Bobby's other older brother, started a racing career but was later diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and was unable to continue racing. This left racing open to the two younger Unser boys. At age 16, Bobby Unser won his first race at the Southwest Modified Stock Car Championship, which he won again the following year.
In 1953 Unser enlisted in the United States Air Force, a decision he later regretted because he had wanted to spend more time racing. He trained at Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming where he studied automotives. He continued racing during his free time and his brother Louie served as his manager. After basic training Unser pulled some strings to get stationed in Albuquerque so that he could pursue his racing career. In 1954 he married his first wife, Barbara Schumaker, and the couple had two children together. Unser finished his military service in 1955 and then focused solely on racing.
|1934||Born on February 20 in Colorado Springs, Colorado|
|1949||Begins racing stock cars|
|1950||Wins first championship, Southwest Modified Stock Car Championship|
|1952||Starts racing midget and sprint cars|
|1953-55||Serves in the United States Air Force|
|1954||Marries Barbara Schumaker|
|1955||Debuts at Pike's Peak Hill Climb and places fifth|
|1956||Wins first of 13 Pike's Peak Hill Climbs|
|1959||Brother Jerry Unser, Jr. dies of injuries from crash during Indianapolis 500 practice|
|1963||Races in first Indianapolis 500 and places thirty-third|
|1966||Divorces Barbara Schumaker|
|1967||Marries Norma Davis|
|1967||Wins first Indy-car race at Mosport, Ontario|
|1968||Wins first Indianapolis 500 and sets fastest track record|
|1969||Becomes United States Auto Club National Driving Champion|
|1970||Divorces Norma Davis|
|1972||Sets fastest qualifying run at Indianapolis at 195.94 miles per hour|
|1976||Marries Marsha Sale|
|1979||Wins six races for the Championship Auto Racing Teams|
|1980||First driver to win four times at the California 500|
|1981||Wins controversial third Indianapolis 500|
|1982||Announces retirement from Indy car racing|
|1983||Owns and manages car that wins Pike's Peak Hill Climb, driven by Al Unser, Jr.|
|1987||Becomes television commentator for ABC Sports|
|1990||Patents new radar detector for cars|
|1990||Inducted into Auto Racing Hall of Fame|
|1991||Races in 24 Hours of Daytona with brother Al, nephew Al, Jr., and son Bobby|
|1993||Sets new land speed record of 223.709 miles per hour in a gas-modified roadster|
|1994||Inducted into International Motorsports Hall of Fame|
|1994||Arrested for misdemeanor battery, resisting arrest, and careless driving|
|1996||Gets lost for two days in Rio Grande National Forest after snowmobile breaks down|
|1997||Convicted of driving snowmobile in federally protected wildlife area and fined $75|
|2000||Inducted into Colorado Springs Sports Hall of Fame|
|2001||Writes column for Sports Afield magazine|
Became a Racing Champion
In 1955 Bobby Unser debuted at Pike's Peak, dubbed "Unser's Peak" because of his family's history of success at the hill climb. He finished fifth that year, behind his two brothers. A year later he won his first of a record 13 championships at Pike's Peak. He won six straight titles from 1958 to 1963. His streak ended in 1964 when his younger brother Al won the race. However, his sweetest victory at "Unser's Peak" came ten years later when he tied his uncle's record of nine wins. "The Unser brothers raced at Pike's Peak to beat each other and most of all to beat Uncle Louis," Unser told Karen Bentley in The Unsers.
Unser's professional racing career took off in 1963 when he raced in his first Indianapolis 500. He crashed early and placed thirty-third. His first Indy-car win came in 1967 at Mosport, Ontario. A year later he not only won his first Indianapolis 500, but also set the record as the first driver to race over 170 miles per hour at Indianapolis. In 1969 Unser won his first USAC National Driving Championship.
Bobby Unser earned a reputation as a driver who not only liked to drive fast, but who also pushed himself and his cars to the limit. On the contrary, younger brother Al Unser was a much more patient driver with a more laid-back personality than Bobby. Al Unser kept the competition tight within the family. Two years after Bobby's first Indianapolis 500 win, Al won the prestigious race and followed up with a second consecutive win in 1971. "It would get tense between me and Al about who would win," Bobby Unser told Karen Bentley, "but it never stayed. We were able to separate business and family — we never really got in a fight."
However, Bobby Unser was not going to let his little brother have all of the glory. In 1972 Unser set another Indianapolis 500 record for the fastest qualifying time at 195.94 miles per hour. In 1974 he won his second USAC National Driving Championship and a year later he won his second Indianapolis 500. In the late 1970s Unser also won several races for Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART). In 1980 he became the first driver to win the California 500 four times.
Indy Controversy Led to Retirement
Unser's biggest and most controversial win came at the 1981 Indianapolis 500. Unser had started the race in the pole position. Three and a half hours later he won the race, beating Mario Andretti by only 5.3 seconds. This was Unser's third Indianapolis 500 win and at the age of 47 he was the oldest driver to win the race. However, when the race was over, Andretti complained that Unser had passed illegally during the race. On lap 149 Unser was coming out of the pits during a yellow flag and had passed seven cars, even though passing is not allowed during a yellow flag. Upon reviewing the videotapes, race officials decided that Unser should be penalized one lap for this infraction, which meant that Andretti was the new winner of the race. This was the first time in Indy history that a winner had been stripped of a victory. Unser and car owner Roger Penske were furious and they filed protests. "We weren't cheating," Sports Illustrated quoted Unser from a press conference following the incident, "We had the fast car, no matter what the decision." Eventually a USAC appeals panel overruled the decision. Unser was reinstated as the 1981 champion, but he was fined $40,000 for the passing infraction. Despite the victory, Unser was bitter about the whole experience and no longer desired to race Indy cars.
In 1982 Unser decided to retire from Indy racing. "For the first time I realized that I had been thinking only of Bobby Unser, and perhaps it was time to think about my family," the New York Times quoted Unser. By this time Unser had been married three times. He had two children, Bobby Jr. and Cindy, with his first wife Barbara Schumaker. He also had two children, Robby and Jeri, with his second wife Norma Davis.
Being a professional racecar driver meant that Unser was not home most of the time. "Successful as my racing has been, my family life, in a lot of ways, has been a failure," wrote Unser in The Bobby Unser Story. "You're not successful unless you spend part of every day with your kids." By the time Unser decided to retire, his son Bobby, Jr. and his nephew Al, Jr. had already begun their racing careers and his younger son Robby was also showing an interest in the sport. Unser wanted to be available to help the next generation of Unser drivers.
More Controversy Off the Tracks
Although Unser retired from Indy cars, he did not stop racing altogether. In 1983 Unser was the owner and manager of the car that won Pike's Peak, driven by his nephew, Al, Jr. Three years later Unser himself won the race, setting a record 13 wins at "Unser Peak." In 1991 Unser participated in the 24 Hours of Daytona Race with his brother Al, his nephew Al Jr., and his son Robby. In 1993 he set a new land speed record of 223.709 miles per hour racing a gas-modified roadster. The same year he also won the Fastmasters Championship for drivers over 50 years old.
Awards and Accomplishments
|1950-51||Southwest Modified Stock Car Championship|
|1956, 1958-63, 1965-66, 1968-69, 1974, 1986||Pike's Peak Hill Climb Winner|
|1968, 1975||Indianapolis 500 winner|
|1969, 1974||United States Auto Club National Champion|
|1974||Martini and Rossi Driver of the Year|
|1974, 1976, 1979-81||California 500 Champion|
|1975||International Race of Champions title|
|1979||Six Championship Auto Racing Teams wins|
|1980||Pocono 500 Champion|
|1990||Inducted into Auto Racing Hall of Fame|
|1994||Inducted into International Motorsports Hall of Fame|
|2000||Inducted into Colorado Springs Sports Hall of Fame|
Unser also did not leave the public spotlight when he retired. In 1987 he began working as a commentator for ABC Sports Television. Unser's commentary was very blunt and he did not always agree with his coworkers on the air. Unser later found another media outlet for his expertise; in 2001 he began writing a column about off-road vehicles for Sports Afield magazine.
This was not the only public attention Unser received after his retirement. In 1994 Unser made national news for assaulting a police officer at the Albuquerque International Airport. He was stopped by the police officer for speeding, began arguing with the officer, and then pushed her. He was charged with misdemeanor assault, resisting arrest, and careless driving.
Two years later Unser had another encounter with the law. In December of 1996 he and a friend, Robert Gayton, were snowmobiling in the mountains near Unser's ranch in Chama, New Mexico. Both snowmobiles broke down and the pair spent two days trying to find their way home on foot. They had no food or water and they had to endure temperatures as low as minus 20 degrees Celsius, as well as 70 mile per hour winds. Luckily Unser and his friend survived the experience without injury. However, it was later discovered that Unser had been driving in the San Juan Wilderness of the Rio Grande National Forest near the Colorado and New Mexico border. Unser had violated the Wilderness Act of 1964 by riding his snowmobile in a federally protected area. Unser was convicted of the misdemeanor on June 12, 1997. The maximum penalty was $5,000 and six months in jail, but Unser was only fined $75 because of his harrowing ordeal in the mountains. Despite the small fine, Unser was outraged by the conviction and as a matter of principle he filed an appeal. The conviction was upheld by the Tenth United States Circuit Court of Appeals on January 5, 1999.
Whether on or off the track Unser was never afraid to speak his mind, particularly when he felt he had been treated unjustly. Bobby Unser has helped build the legacy of the Unser family in racing through his own prestigious career as well as by mentoring the next generation of Unser racers.
Address: 7700 Central Ave. SW, Albuquerque, NM 87105. Phone: (505) 831-1500.
Related Biography: Racecar Driver Bobby Unser, Jr.
Bobby Unser, Jr. was the first son of Bobby Unser and Barbara Schumaker. Although he grew up in a racing family, Bobby, Jr. was not immediately interested in the sport. As a teenager he was more interested in drums than cars. He enjoyed racing motorcycles and snowmobiles and then eventually started racing go-karts. In 1976 Bobby, Jr. made his debut at the Pike's Peak Hill Climb with his father coaching him. Bobby, Jr. did not have the same kind of success as his father at Pike's Peak and in 1978 he even ran off the road. While Unser was supportive of his son, it was difficult for him to watch someone other than an Unser win that particular race.
Bobby Unser, Jr. was very conscious of his family's history at Pike's Peak and on the racing world in general. "I used to have these weird complexes that I had to do well because of the name," Bobby, Jr. wrote in The Bobby Unser Story. "My dad and uncle have won so much it makes it hard on me. It's a good name for a race driver to have but by the same token I don't want to ride on it." Bobby, Jr. won the Western World Sprint Car Championship in Arizona and also won the Toyota Father Son Championship twice with his father. However, Bobby, Jr. did not make a career of racing. In 1989 he started a stunt driving company called Unser Driving. He has also worked in real estate development and has done some commentating for ESPN. Bobby, Jr. resides in Albuquerque, New Mexico with his wife, two daughters, and son, Bobby Unser, III.
SELECTED WRITINGS BY UNSER:
(With Joe Scalzo) The Bobby Unser Story. Doubleday, 1979.
Almanac of Famous People. Detroit: Gale, 1998.
Bentley, Karen. The Unsers. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1996.
Scalzo, Joe, and Bobby Unser. The Bobby Unser Story. New York: Doubleday, 1979.
St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000.
World Almanac and Book of Facts. Primedia Reference, 2000.
Anderson, Dave. "Sports of the Times: Con Is In and Conscience Is Out." New York Times (May 28, 1981).
Andrews, Edmund L. "Patents: A Device to Foil Radar." New York Times (January 27, 1990): 37.
Axthelm, Pete, and Jon Lowell. "Indy Downshifts Unser." Newsweek (June 8, 1981): 107.
"A Bitter Bobby Unser." New York Times (September 4, 1981).
"Bobby Unser and Friend Are Alive and Well." Calgary Herald (December 23, 1996).
"Bobby Unser Grabs Pole for the Indy 500. " New York Times (May 17, 1981).
"Bobby Unser Jr. Arrested After Flunking Sobriety Test." Associated Press (March 11, 1997).
"Bobby Unser Seeks Trial; Son Is Arrested." Washington Post (March 12, 1997): C02.
"Bobby Unser, Son in Legal Wrangles." USA Today (March 12, 1997).
"Bobby Unser to Enter Racing Hall of Fame." United Press International (April 27, 1990).
"Bobby Unser Win Didn't Come Easily." Dayton Daily News (May 11, 1997).
"Bobby Unser's Conviction of Snowmobiling in Wilderness Upheld." Associated Press (January 5, 1999).
"Bobby Unser's Son Wins at Pikes Peak." Charleston Daily Mail (July 5, 1994).
Carey, Jack. "Bobby Unser Accused." USA Today (May 19, 1994).
Dorsey, Chris. "Unser Drives You Wild." Sports Afield (March 2001): 10.
El-Bashir, Tarik. "Another Indy 500 Brings Another Unser to the Track." New York Times (May 20, 1998).
Jones, Robert F. "A Fierce and Fiery 500. " Sports Illustrated (June 1, 1981): 22-27.
Kindred, Dave. "Mears Victor at Indianapolis Second Try: Mears Backs Off, Wins as Bobby Unser Falters." Washington Post (May 28, 1979).
Kirshenbaum, Jerry. "Attention, Auto-Racing Fans, There's Been Another Lead Change at Indy." Sports Illustrated (October 19, 1981): 35.
Kohler, Judith. "Bobby Unser Convicted of Violating Federal Wilderness Act." Associated Press (June 12, 1997).
Kohler, Judith. "Race Car Champ Bobby Unser Convicted of Violating Federal Wilderness Act." Associated Press (June 13, 1997).
Korte, Tim. "Bobby Unser Says He Will Appeal Judge's Ruling." Associated Press (June 23, 1997).
Lefevre, Lori. "Spinning His Wheels." Mediaweek (February 26, 2001): 46.
Long, Gary. "Bobby Unser Behind Wheel Once Again." Toronto Star (January 14, 1991).
Mabin, Connie. "Federal Trial Begins for Race Car Champ Bobby Unser." Associated Press (June 11, 1997).
Massey, Barry. "Bobby Unser Takes 1994 Case to State's Highest Court." Associated Press (November 12, 1997).
May, Tim. "Bobby Unser: Without Stars, Indy a Shadow of Former Self." Columbus Dispatch (May 12, 1998).
Moran, Malcolm. "Bobby Unser Wins Indy 500 Marred by Crashes, Fires." New York Times (May 25, 1981).
Moran, Malcolm. "Reluctantly, Unser Bows Out." New York Times (December 23, 1982).
Moses, Sam. "I Will Go Fast Until the Day I Die." Sports Illustrated (January 11, 1982): 66-79.
"New Mexico Supreme Court Won't Rule in Bobby Unser Appeal." Associated Press (November 17, 1997).
"Race Driver Bobby Unser Reported Missing." Record (December 22, 1996).
Tuschak, Beth. "Bobby Unser Survives Two Days in Mountains." USA Today (December 23, 1996).
"2000 Colorado Springs Sports Hall of Fame Class of Inductees." Colorado Springs Sports Corporation. http://www.thesportscorp.org/events/09200hof_unser.htm (November 7, 2002).
About Bobby Unser Jr. http://unser.hypermart.net/AboutUs.html (November 7, 2002).
"Bobby Unser." CART World-Drivers. http://www.cartworld.free-online.co.uk/drivers/bunser (November 7, 2002).
"Bobby Unser Stays Busy In Life After Racing." Indianapolis 500. http://www.indy500.com/press/1998/bunser.html (November 7, 2002).
Indianapolis 500. http://www.indy500.com (November 7, 2002).
Statement of Bobby Unser on Wilderness. http://www.wildwilderness.org/wi/unser.htm (November 7, 2002).
Sketch by Janet P. Stamatel
Unser, Al, Sr.
Al Unser, Sr.
American race car driver
Al Unser Sr., a legend in the world of auto racing, is one of only three drivers to have won the Indianapolis 500 four times. Unser, a member of the second of three generations of Unsers to race cars, also shares the distinction of having won races on paved ovals, road courses, and dirt tracks in a single season with only two other Indy drivers. In fact, Unser managed that latter feat three years in a row—1968, 1969, and 1970. Retired since 1994 to his native New Mexico, Unser in recent years has been working to build an automobile museum on family land in Albuquerque. For this most recent venture, Unser has partnered with son, Al Jr., a racing star in his own right and sometime competitor with his father, to create a museum that will appeal to both adults and children. Before retiring, Unser Sr. compiled an enviable record on the Indy car circuit of thirty-nine wins, accumulating more than $6 million in winnings. Collectively, the Unsers are the winningest family at Indianapolis, having collected a total of nine checkered flags, or more than 10 percent of the races run at Indy.
Born in Albuquerque, New Mexico
He was born Alfred Unser in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on May 29, 1939. The youngest son of Jerry H. and Mary (Craven) Unser, he was born into a racing family. His paternal uncle, Louie Unser, had attempted to qualify at the Indianapolis 500 in 1940, and Al's older brother, Jerry, was national stock car champion in the mid-1950s but died of injuries suffered on a practice lap at Indianapolis in May 1959. Jerry's death left Al and older brothers Bobby Unser and Louie Unser—Jerry's twin—to carry on the racing tradition of the Unser family. Only a few years after Jerry's death at Indianapolis, Louie was stricken with multiple sclerosis. He has struggled against the disease, however, and in 1965 served as Al's mechanic at his first Indy 500. Al freely admits that a major motivation throughout his racing career was sibling rivalry. "I wanted to outrun Bobby," Unser told an interviewer for Indy 500.com. "Bobby always was the oldest, and he set the pace, and I wanted to outrun him."
Unser said that growing up as a member of a racing family, it was difficult not to want to be a race driver. He said as far back as he could remember he never had any doubt about what he would do in life. "My Lord, when I went to school I told my teachers you can't teach me what I want to do in life. They asked me what I wanted to do, and I said I wanted to be a race driver."
Unser wasted little time getting into racing. By the age of eighteen, he was driving modified roadsters in competitions in and around Albuquerque. He later progressed to midgets, sprints, stock cars, sports cars, Formula 5000, championship dirt cars, and Indy cars. He took time off from racing in 1958 to marry Wanda Jesperson, with whom he had three children, Alfred Jr., Mary Linda, and Debra Ann (deceased). In 1960, he competed in the Pike's Peak Hillclimb for the first time, finishing second to brother Bobby. Four years later, Unser made his Indy car debut at Milwaukee and later that year won the Pikes Peak race, putting an end to Bobby's six-year winning streak. In 1965 he repeated his win at the Pikes Peak Hillnd raced for the first time in the Indy 500.
Helping Unser to break into competition at Indianapolis was A.J. Foyt , one of the two other racers to have won four times at Indy. It looked as though Unser would have to race the Indy in a substandard car until Foyt came to the rescue and offered to let the rookie use his back-up car. In an interview with Indy 500.com, Unser recalled Foyt's generosity. "Still today, I say, why did A.J. do that? Bignotti [George, chief mechanic for Foyt] was against it. He threw a fit. He was with Foyt and didn't want that car to run. I took it over. Louie, my brother, came over [as a mechanic]." Foyt's faith in the rookie proved to be well-placed, for Unser finished his first race at Indy in ninth place, well ahead of Foyt, who came in 15th.
Finishes Second in Indy 500 of 1967
In 1967 Unser finished second to A.J. Foyt at the Indy 500. He also claimed his first pole at Langhorne. In addition to his Indy car racing, he also raced U.S. Auto Club (USAC) stock cars and was named Rookie of the Year in 1967. The following year, he really established himself, winning five races in a row and grabbing five poles.
Unser's big breakthrough at Indianapolis came in 1970 when he won, beating brother Bobby. For the year as a whole, he won ten races and a total of eight poles, including the pole at the Indy 500. For his impressive performance in 1970, which included wins on ovals, road courses, and dirt tracks, Unser was named Driver of the Year. He made it back-to-back wins at the Indy 500 when he took the checkered flag once again in 1971. After the glory days of the early 1970s, Unser went through a dry spell of about four years, during which time his only win was at Texas in 1973. He came back with a vengeance, however, in the late 1970s. In 1977, Unser won at Pocono, Milwaukee, and Phoenix, moving him to second place in Indy-car points and moving him into eighth place in the International Race of Champions (IROC) competition. That same year, Unser married Karen Barnes, his second wife. The following year he swept the Indy car events of Pocono, Ontario, and the Indy 500, his third win at the Brickyard, to become the first driver in history to win an "Indy Car Triple Crown." He also won the IROC championship for 1978.
Throughout the early years of his racing career, finding a free-spending sponsor was one of the major challenges faced by Unser. He told Indy 500.com that it was critical to find an owner who was willing to spend money because in a "nickel-and-dime" operation, some small part was almost certain to break. Particularly ironic is the alliance Unser built in the early 1970s with mechanic George Bignotti, with whom he had clashed in 1965 over the use of Foyt's back-up car. Forgetting their earlier differences, Bignotti and Unser forged one of auto racing's toughest teams ever. Unser, Bignotti, and the Johnny Lightning Special were the terrors of the Indy 500 in both 1970 and 1971. Unser won the race both years and in 1971 set a speed record of 157.735 miles per hour. In 1970 Unser won from the pole; in 1971 he won from fifth position.
Joins Penske Racing in 1983
In 1983, Unser joined Penske Racing. That year he posted ten finishes in the top five and claimed his second PPG championship. Two years later, he was pitted in a razor-thin race against his son, Al Jr., for the PPG Cup. In the end, father edged son by a single point, 151-150, to win the 1985 PPG Cup, earning for Al Sr. his second title in three years. Unser Sr. had only one victory and one pole, but his consistency saw him through, as it had in 1983. In his other thirteen starts, he placed in the top five nine times. However, he still needed a strong final run to take the cup. He closed the season with a runner-up finish at Laguna Seca, a victory from the pole at Phoenix, and a fourth-place showing at Phoenix. In the same three races, Al Jr. finished third, second, and third, respectively.
In 1987, at the age of 47, Unser won his fourth and final Indy 500 in a race he only got into at the last minute when Danny Ongais crashed during a practice run and wasn't healthy enough to race. He raced to victory 4.496 seconds ahead of runner-up Roberto Guerrero with an average speed of 162.175 miles per hour. Son Al Jr., who finished fourth, told ESPN: "It means everything to Dad. They called him retired and washed up and all that. He's far from that. I've got goose bumps. I'm ecstatic for Dad."
|1939||Born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on May 29|
|1957||Begins driving modified roadsters in competition around Albuquerque|
|1958||Marries Wanda Jesperson on April 22 (divorced in 1971)|
|1959||Older brother Jerry dies as a result of injuries suffered in practice run at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 2|
|1977||Marries Karen Barnes on November 22|
|1979||Breaks ankle in a motorcycle accident, forcing him to miss Indy 500|
|1983||Joins Penske Racing|
|1994||Retires from auto racing|
|2002||Invests $1.5 million, with son Al Jr, to build an auto museum in Albuquerque|
Related Biography: Racecar Driver Jerry Unser
More than any other family in auto racing history, the Unsers have dominated the Indianapolis 500. Unsers have competed in the Indy 500 about 70 times, and family members have won the race a total of nine times—four wins by Al Unser Sr., three wins by his older brother, Bobby, and two by his son, Al Jr. The first Unser to launch an assault on the legendary Brickyard in Indianapolis was Jerry Unser, older brother of both Bobby and Al Sr., and twin brother of Louie, who suffers from multiple sclerosis but works as an auto mechanic.
Jerry Unser was born on November 15, 1932, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Although Jerry was the first Unser to seek glory at the Indy, he never managed to complete a full lap. In his 1958 debut at the Brickyard, Jerry became extricated in a massive accident and was catapulted over the wall on his very first lap. The following year he returned but was severely injured in a practice run on May 2. Fifteen days later, Jerry succumbed to injuries sustained in that accident.
Before deciding to race at Indy, Jerry raced stock cars for a few years and in 1956 he was the national stock car champion. He and wife Jeanie had two sons, Jerry, who was born June 10, 1957, and Johnny, born October 22, 1958.
Unser retired to Albuquerque in 1994 but has not strayed far from racing. Unser, along with Johnny Rutherford, who also retired in 1994, offers his expertise to aspiring race car drivers as a staff member of the Indy Racing League as coach and consultant. Some of the new drivers see him as a dinosaur who couldn't possibly help them, Unser told Hank Kurz Jr. of the Associated Press. But "I tell them in 1992 and 1993, I was still running 230 miles an hour around the speedway. That wakes them up." Another passion of Unser's is shared with son, Al Jr. The two have committed $1.5 million of their own money to building an auto museum on family land in Albuquerque. Father and son have set up a non-profit foundation to raise more money for the planned 50,000-square-foot center on a twelve-acre site.
One of the greatest auto racers of all time, Unser stands as an inspiration for aspiring racers everywhere and especially for other members of the Unser clan who remain active in racing. This latter group includes his son, Al Jr., and nephews, Johnny and Robby Unser. Only Unser Sr., Foyt, and Rick Mears have managed to take four checkered flags at Indy, an incredible feat for a racer of any age, but made all the remarkable for Unser, who posted his final win at the Brickyard at the age of 47. Unser, who was active in racing across four decades, has been enshrined in both the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America (1991) and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame (1998) in honor of his unique contributions to the sport.
Awards and Accomplishments
|1960||Finished second to brother Bobby at Pike's Peak Hillclimb|
|1964||Made Indy car debut at Milwaukee and won Pikes Peak Hillclimb|
|1965||Finished ninth in first Indy 500 and won Pikes Peak Hillclimb|
|1967||Finished second at Indy 500 and named USAC Rookie of the Year|
|1968||Won five races in a row and grabbed five poles|
|1970||Won first Indy 500 and nine other races; named Driver of the Year|
|1971||Indy 500 win|
|1977||Won Indy car races at Pocono, Milwaukee, and Phoenix|
|1978||Took "Indy Car Triple Crown" with wins at Indy 500, Pocono, and Ontario; named Driver of the Year|
|1987||Fourth Indy 500 win|
|1991||Inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America|
|1998||Inducted into International Motorsports Hall of Fame|
Address: Al Unser Sr., c/o Indy Racing League, 4567 W. 16th St., Indianapolis, IN 46222-2513.
"Al Unser." St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, five volumes. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000.
Bentley, Karen. The Unsers. Broomall, PA: Chelsea House, 1996.
Dregni, Michael. The Indianapolis 500, Minneapolis: Capstone Press, 1994.
Kurz, Hank, Jr. "Unser Sr., Rutherford Use Status to Teach." Associated Press (July 3, 2002).
Latta, Dennis. "Unsers Rev Up Plans for Car Museum." Albuquerque Journal (March 14, 2002).
"Al Unser Sr." International Motorsports Hall of Fame. http://www.motorsportshalloffame.com/halloffame/1998/Al_Unser_Sr_main.htm (October 23, 2002).
"Al Unser Sr. Is Oldest Indy 500 Winner." ESPN Classic. http://espn.go.com/classic/s/add_unser_al.html (October 23, 2002).
"Champion Details: Al Unser." CART: Championship Auto Racing Teams. http://www.cart.com/FanResources/Champion.asp?ID=7 (October 23, 2002).
"Sibling Rivalry Pushed Al Unser to Indy Greatness." Indy. http://www.indypress/1998/champions/aunser.html (October 23, 2002).
"Unser Brothers Find Success on Different Life Paths." Indy. http://www.indypress/1999/unser-051 (October 23, 2002).
Sketch by Don Amerman