Robert William Unser. Bobby Unser. Uncle Bobby. Whatever name Bobby Unser goes by in the world of racing, it is definitely synonymous with unparalleled success in motorsports. As the largest part of that success, his name is one that will forever be etched in the history books at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Most certainly success was not immediate when he came to the Speedway in his early days … no, far from it. Unser, a rookie in 1963, driving a powerful supercharged V-8 Novi for legendary owner Andy Granatelli, completed just two laps before crashing in his initial outing at IMS to finish 33rd and last.
Unser returned in 1964, only to be caught-up in the sadly historic Dave McDonald/Eddie Sachs accident. He finished only one lap and was credited with 32nd place in the race results.
In two races, Unser had completed merely three laps, and finished last and second-to-last in consecutive Indy 500s. And by the way, long before Bobby strapped into a car at Indy, Bobby’s older brother Jerry was severely burned in a practice accident at Indianapolis and lost his life there in 1959.
Yet, Unser would push forward. In 1965, Bobby would qualify eighth in the Novi – the best starting position in the field for a front-engine car – and would run as high as fifth before dropping out on Lap 69 with a mechanical problems. Steady improvement in 1966 and ’67 led to eighth- and ninth-place finishes at the Brickyard.
Call 1968 his ‘breakout’ year. In practice Unser became the first driver to break the 170 mph barrier, and on race day, he started on the outside of the front row. After an amazing duel with Joe Leonard and Lloyd Ruby AND in spite of having lost low gear, making getting up to speed after yellow-flag periods and pits tops a lengthy, agonizing process, Unser would prevail and lead 127 laps to capture his first Indianapolis 500!
With 1968 being a turning point for Unser, he would amass career statistics at the Speedway that few, if any, other drivers would match. In 19 starts, at IMS Unser would go in the record books with three wins – 1968, ’75 and ’81 – and become one of only two drivers to win the “500″ in three different decades.
Unser won for three of the most iconic owners in Indy history – Ralph Wilkie, Dan Gurney and Roger Penske. He would start on the front row nine times and capture the pole twice – 1972 and ’81.
In 1972, he would shatter the track record in qualifying by over 17 mph to win the pole! To put that in perspective, a driver would have to run 254+ mph today to accomplish what Uncle Bobby did! In his 19 starts, he led 10 races and 440 laps, and completed 6,527.5 miles around the famed 2.5-mile oval.
Unser is also in the Speedway record book because he is one of a very limited number of drivers who drove both front- and rear-engine cars at the track, as the transition from front- to rear-engine cars took place in the mid-1960′s. After his retirement in 1981, following his third Indy win, Unser went on to have a brief stint as a team manager before become a successful TV commentator.
Unser is perhaps most remembered for his always-colorful banter with booth partner Sam Posey, when both were a part of the Emmy Award-winning ABC Sports broadcast team. The always-outspoken, never shy, opinionated Unser was a cornerstone of the broadcast team for nearly 10 years. In 1989 and ’92, Unser paced the Indy starting field, driving the Pace Car on race day.
Of course, following family tradition, brother Al won the Indianapolis 500 four times and nephew Al Unser Jr. won the race twice – both building on the legacy that Bobby began in 1963.
Both Al and Al Jr.’s names also comprise page after page of the record books at Indy, but it will always be Bobby who gave the family its initial success and paved the way for them at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
One last Bobby Unser record that will be very tough for anyone to match shows his never-ending perseverance and ability to climb to the top at Indy. He is the only driver in IMS history to finish last in his first race and first in his last. Unser is without a doubt living, breathing Indianapolis Motor Speedway history!