We’re chronicling 100 days of Indy 500 history on #SpeedRead leading up to the historic 100th Running. With four days to go, correspondent Phillip B. Wilson spent a few minutes in the IMS Media Center with three-time “500” champion Bobby Unser, one of the more opinionated and entertaining drivers in history.
Phillip B. Wilson: Welcome back.
Bobby Unser: It’s good to be back!
PW: What are your thoughts as you come back for the 100th Indy 500?
BU: It’s really neat to be here, the real 100th, and this is the real one. That to me, really means a lot. I would have come back even if I was mad at everybody. This is the place to be in the whole world. Just so many memories here.
PW: Where does Bobby Unser fit into the history of this race?
BU: Oh, I don’t know. Obviously a pretty big lick. I won it three times. I broke a lot of records here over my lifetime. I’ve had a lot of good things here. I did lose a brother here, which wasn’t good, but it didn’t stop me from coming back again. Look at Al, he had four wins, and his same brother was killed. We didn’t like it, but Jerry never would have thought for us not to race because he got killed.
PW: Jerry would be proud of both of you. He would have wanted you to do what you did.
BU: Oh, absolutely. You know when he was on his deathbed, which we didn’t know at the time, he was saying, “I’m going to get out of here in a day or two and I’ve got you a car to drive.”
PW: It was a dangerous time, huh?
BU: Yeah, it was a dangerous time but it was a good time, see? I think it was better than now. American folks who are here who really knew Bobby Unser, some of them really liked me. They knew where I was, where I came from, what I was doing, and they saw me all over the United States. And sometimes I’d see a lot of those people around the country. It’s a different form of racing.
PW: You’ve always had a large personality, always confident, always speaking your mind?
BU: I’ve always spoke my mind. If I think something, that’s probably why I say it. It wasn’t always to my betterment, I’m sure.
PW: When the “500” legends get together and talk, what goes through your mind?
BU: It’s like a family affair. Most of the guys, near as I can tell, we really get along well. And year round, we get along. (Johnny) Rutherford and I, we’re good friends. Sometimes I’ve gotten mad at him and I bet sometimes he’s really gotten mad at me, but our friendship never changes. I can’t think of any of ‘em who isn’t a good sport or likes to get around and rant about things except Foyt. He’s grouchy all the time.
PW: Because he’s 81?
BU: Nah, he was that way when he was driving. It’s just the way he is.
PW: How would you describe yourself?
BU: I don’t know. I wouldn’t describe myself. Other people do it enough, you know? I damn sure knew how to drive a race car. That’s enough.
PW: Do you have a favorite Indy 500 memory?
BU: Probably that would be my first “500” win. There’s nothing like a first for anybody. There isn’t a driver out here on his first go-around that really down deep, if you gave them a little truth serum, he wouldn’t think he couldn’t win it. I knew I had a good car. I knew we had done everything right. Also, we had refused the Andy Granatelli deal.
PW: What year was this?
BU: It was ’68. I stood right out there next to that little pole that goes up straight in the air and argued for probably an hour with the Granatellis, with both Goodyear and Firestone sitting in their rooms looking at me. They were just screaming. They kept raising the money up. They kept raising it up because they wanted me to run one of the turbines. But of course I was the fastest piston car, so that would have broke Goodyear’s back. They wouldn’t have had enough good cars left.
PW: You weren’t sold on the turbine?
BU: No, that wasn’t the case. My word is gold. If I say something, it’s that way. Nobody can ever change it. So I told Goodyear, which was the company paying the money, Bob Wilke and my mechanics, “I’m your driver.” That started a long time before that. I damn sure wasn’t going to change just for money. Some people would say I was crazy because (the dollar amount) went up kind of high and I turned it down. That doesn’t worry me now. I worked right past that. Maybe I did better than that. You keep your word. If you have your team, you give your word. If your word is no good, then you’re no good period.
PW: What else stands out about the ’68 race?
BU: One of the things that was really neat was that (Speedway owner) Tony Hulman said afterward it was the best race he’d ever seen. That really turned me on. That was a big lick. The world thought the turbines were going to blow us off, and I thought that, too. They could have, but Granatelli switched from jet fuel to gasoline. A turbine engine will burn about anything except straight water. Standard Oil paid him $100,000 to switch over to gasoline. Well, $100,000 then was a lot of money. He thought he had such a lead, such an advantage on us, so he would gamble on it. He knows he’s going to lose a little speed, but he thinks he has more than he needs. Drivers can drive a little harder. He needs the $100,000. Well, it didn’t work. When he did that, I had him.
PW: Were you worried about anybody out there?
BU: Lloyd Ruby. I thought Joe Leonard was a piece of cake, but Ruby, oh, he was so good. He was just a fast race driver. He was really good here. He wasn’t a mechanic, but he knew how to get that throttle down to the floorboard and where to be in the turns.
PW: When did you know you had it?
BU: Well, I lost three gears in my transmission, otherwise I would have lapped everybody. Try to get out of the pits with 75 gallons of fuel and just fourth gear. The chances of that clutch lasting further than straight across the racetrack to the back straightaway were null and none. But I’m a mechanic. The clutches weren’t as good as they are now. I just kept slipping it but enough to get it too hot. I almost put a lap on Leonard and then I had to come in and pit. I passed him easy. It was Ruby, that’s the one I knew, he had four gears coming out of the pits.
PW: The last lap, you figured you were OK?
BU: I still didn’t believe it. I ran an extra lap wide open. I wasn’t going to take any chances on this. If one of them scorers doesn’t do right, I’m going to lose another one. This is the Indy 500. You ain’t gonna gamble on that.
PW: Even after Tony Hulman waved the checkered flag at you?
BU: I don’t care if they’d had 10 checkers. For sure, I saw the checkers. I don’t care. I’m going to go an extra lap in case someone didn’t know how to count. In those days, we didn’t have computers. They had 33 people scoring it.
PW: After you did almost 503 miles, you knew?
BU: After I did the extra lap, the back straightaway had thousands of people who had jumped the fences. They blocked the racetrack. I just had to limp it in. I had to get through a lot of people.
PW: And what do you remember about Victory Lane?
BU: The first person I saw that I knew was my brother. Al was standing there, “Yippee, we won.” That was the first Unser win, see? I didn’t even know where Victory Circle was. I had no idea where to go. And it wasn’t just Al there. It was a bunch of people. All they cared about was putting hats on your head. They’d put ‘em on and I’d take ‘em off. They’d put ‘em on and I’d take ‘em off.
PW: And they make you drink some milk.
BU: Yeah, it’s good for the kids. But at the end of a 500-mile race, if you had beer, soda pop, Gatorade and milk, they wouldn’t reach for the milk. That’s for night time and that’s for breakfast.
PW: You partied hard that night?
BU: No, absolutely not.
PW: Tired, worn out?
BU: Oh, for sure.
PW: Woke up the next morning and you thought …
BU: Sore as hell. You’d better be sore those days. You worked.
PW: And you’re an Indy 500 champion.
BU: Yeah, I knew I was, but you can bet I turned the television on to see if they still thought so. (Laughs.)