INDIANAPOLIS – Bobby Unser, a three-time Indianapolis 500 winner, has died at the age of 87.
The racing legend died in his New Mexico home on Sunday, according to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Unser, an outspoken and popular driver, took the checkered flag in 1968, 1975 and 1981. He’s one of 10 drivers to win the Greatest Spectacle in Racing at least three times. Unser is a member of numerous motorsports Halls of Fame, including induction into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame in 1990.
Unser and Rick Mears are the only drivers to win the 500 in three different decades.
Unser’s family legacy is undisputed. Six members of the family have raced in the Indianapolis 500. He and his brother Al, a four-time winner, are the only brothers to win the race.
Unser was born in Colorado Spring, Colorado, on Feb. 20, 1934, and was the third of four brothers. His family moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, when he was 1. The city became intertwined with the Unser family racing dynasty.
He started his racing career in 1949 at Roswell Speedway. After serving in the Air Force from 1953 to 1955, Unser and brothers Jerry and Al decided to pursue racing careers in United States Auto Club (USAC) competition.
He was successful in USAC Sprint Car, Midget and Stock Car competition, earning seven career USAC Sprint Car feature victories and placing third in the standings in 1965 and 1966. He also won six USAC Stock Car races and three USAC Midget features.
Unser started racing Indy cars at the end of the 1962 season. He qualified 16th and finished in last place as a rookie in the 1963 Indy 500. He completed just two laps due to a crash. He didn’t fare much better in his second Indy 500, completing one lap and finishing 32nd following a multi-car crash that killed drivers Dave MacDonald and Eddie Sachs.
In 1966, Unser had his first top-10 finish at Indy, finishing eighth after starting 28th. He changed racing teams in 1967 and earned his first Indianapolis 500 win in 1968 behind the wheel of the iconic No. 3 Rislone Eagle/Offy.
Unser led 118 of the first 191 laps but was running second to Joe Leonard when he caught a break—Leonard’s fuel shaft broke on Lap 192, opening the door for Unser’s win.
Unser won the Indianapolis 500 for the second time in 1975. He led only 11 laps but took the lead from Johnny Rutherford on Lap 165 and held on through a rain-shortened race.
His 1981 win came after one of the most contentious and controversial outcomes in Indy 500 history. Unser beat Mario Andretti by 5.18 seconds, but officials ruled that Unser passed cars illegally while exiting the pits during a caution. He was penalized one position, making Andretti the winner.
It stayed that way until Oct. 9, 1981, when Unser’s penalty was rescinded after a long protest and appeals process. He was then recognized as winner of the 1981 race.
Unser finished his career with 35 career IndyCar victories and two championships among his eight top-three finishes in the season points.
Unser also had a keen engineering mind that always searched for a technical advantage over his rivals. He sometimes would call his crew chief well after midnight with an idea for chassis setup or another technical issue, and his prowess as a test driver was highly regarded because he turned every lap at the car’s limit.
Every angle was pursued by Unser when it came to trying to find the edge against his foes. Team owner Jim Hall’s famous Chaparral chassis – the first Indy car with ground-effects aerodynamics underneath the car – got upside-down when Rutherford crashed in 1980 in the CART season finale at Phoenix. Unser learned of a photographer who took pictures of the closely guarded aero channels and tunnels beneath the car, and he obtained the photos, which were used in the development of Team Penske’s 1981 ground-effects chassis.
After his driving career ended, Unser combined his vast racing experience and considerable skills as an outspoken raconteur to become a popular broadcaster on ABC, NBC and ESPN INDYCAR telecasts and on IMS Radio Network race broadcasts. The booth trio of play-by-play announcer Paul Page and the opinionated Unser and the erudite Sam Posey – with Unser and Posey’s styles and comments almost always contrasting and often clashing — was one of the most entertaining and popular in INDYCAR television history.
Two of Unser’s proudest moments in the TV booth came when he called the finish in 1987 with play-by-play announcer Jim Lampley as his younger brother, Al Unser, earned his record-tying fourth “500” victory and again in 1992 when he and Paul Page called the race when his nephew, Al Unser Jr., won Indy for the first time in the closest “500” finish ever.
Unser also was part of the ABC Sports broadcast team that won an Emmy Award for “Outstanding Live Sports Special” for its coverage of the 1989 Indianapolis 500.
After his TV career ended, Unser continued to visit IMS every Month of May. In 1998 and 1999, he served as driver coach and assisted with race strategy on the radio for his son Robby Unser during his two starts in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” Robby finished fifth and eighth, respectively, in those two starts with his father’s help.
Fans always flocked to “Uncle Bobby” to get a picture or autograph, to share their memories or to hear one of Unser’s countless colorful stories about his career and fellow racers. He also savored spending time in the Media Center swapping tales with many veteran journalists every May, as Unser was a tireless ambassador for IMS and the Indianapolis 500 until the end of his life.
Unser is survived by his wife, Lisa; sons Bobby Jr. and Robby; and daughters Cindy and Jeri.
From Roger Penske, chairman of IMS and Team Penske:
“There simply was no one quite like Bobby Unser. Bobby was a ferocious competitor on the track, and his larger-than-life personality made him one of the most beloved and unique racers we have ever seen. Bobby brought so much to Team Penske during his time with our team, including a memorable victory in the 1981 Indianapolis 500. Beyond his many wins and accomplishments, Bobby was a true racer that raised the performance of everyone around him. He was also one of the most colorful characters in motorsports. Throughout his time as a driver, a commentator and an ambassador of our sport, Bobby’s stories and his passion for racing were legendary. Our thoughts and condolences are with Lisa, the Unser family and Bobby’s many friends and fans during this difficult time.”
From J. Douglas Boles, president of IMS:
“When you mention icons in racing, and particularly the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Bobby Unser was a legend. He could drive, and win, in any type of car and on any type of track. And he was magical at Indy. But driving was just a piece of what made Bobby so iconic.
“Over the last several years, I have seen the true Bobby Unser – the man who loved our sport, loved the Indianapolis 500 and loved to be with the fans. He would go out of his way to do whatever he could to be here in May to help us keep motorsports growing. He was always available to give speeches, to sign autographs or to just tell stories. His driving record speaks for itself. His lifelong passion for promoting auto racing and his enthusiastic, no sugar-coated opinions that continued after he hung up his helmet had such a meaningful impact.
“Everyone at IMS extends our deepest sympathies to Bobby’s family, friends and fans. He was one of a kind and will be deeply missed, but always cherished in the heart of every race fan.”