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The Unsers of Albuquerque are speed personified, with nine Indianapolis 500 titles, 26 at the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb and countless other auto-racing victories to their credit.
Whether Bobby Unser was the fastest driver in the family is open to debate. Without question, though, he was the fastest talker.
Unser, charming, accessible, loquacious and a three-time Indy winner, died on Sunday. He was 87.
“He is part of the Mount Rushmore of Indy,” Dario Franchitti, another three-time Indy winner, told the Associated Press.
Such status more than applies at Pikes Peak, where Unser won 13 times – half of the family’s total – despite a lifelong fear of heights.
“I knew Bobby for 44 years. He was a mythical legend to me who became a good friend,” said Bob Gillis, former chairman of the board for the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, in a statement. “Not only did he win on Pikes Peak again and again, but he was perhaps one of the greatest ambassadors for this race. He brought such drivers as Parnelli Jones and Mario Andretti to Pikes Peak. When he returned to the mountain with Audi in 1986 to recapture the King of the Mountain crown, he proved he was never better behind the wheel.”
Born in Colorado Springs, Unser came to Albuquerque with his family when he was barely a year old. His father, Jerry, ran a garage on West Central and young Bobby got his start racing jalopies before following his uncle Louie and older brother Jerry Jr. into open-wheel racing.
Charlie Fegan, owner/operator of Sandia Speedway, said that, though he never got to meet Unser, “Growing up and seeing Bobby Unser from Albuquerque winning at Indy, for me, that was just fabulous. It was a motivating thing for all us kids.”
Mayor Tim Keller said, “Like most kids growing up in Albuquerque, I’ll never forget pretending to be Bobby Unser on my bike, racing through city streets with my neighborhood friends. The name Unser is synonymous with the Duke City and with racing throughout the world.”
As a driver, Bobby wasn’t quite the lead-foot that was his brother Al, who would win at Indy four times. His brother Jerry had been killed at Indy during a practice run in 1959, and his close proximity to a fatal crash in 1964, wrote Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray, imbued the then-30-year-old with a certain amount of caution on the track.
Even so, he told Murray, fear was never a component; the dangers were simply understood.
“Is it bravery? No, I don’t think so,” he said. “That’s like saying a fish is brave to swim or asking a bird, ‘Don’t you get scared flying around way up there?’ ”
Unser first won at Indy in 1968 and again in 1975.
His final win at The Brickyard, in 1981, remains a controversial outcome to this day. Unser crossed the finish line 5.18 seconds ahead of Mario Andretti, but initially was docked one position for having passed cars illegally under a caution flag. Later, his victory was reinstated, in part because Andretti had also passed cars under caution.
Unser retired the following year, partly, he said, because of the sour taste left by the 1981 controversy. But his racing knowledge, combined with his gift of the gab, led to a 20-year career as a TV analyst. He won an Emmy Award in 1989 as part of ABC’s Indianapolis 500 coverage.
Unser maintained a presence at Indy for years after his retirement as a driver.
“He showed up at the speedway and, regardless of when he last raced, he still understood the race and what it took to win … and he was still so very insightful,” Franchitti said. “He loved the Indy 500 so much. He loved coming back.”
Unser could be as pugnacious as he was loquacious.
In December 1996, he and a friend had a harrowing experience north of his ranch in Chama when one snowmobile became stuck in snow and another stopped working. After the two were finally rescued, Unser was fined $75 by the U.S. Forest Service for entering a designated wilderness area without a permit.
Labeling the Forest Service “worse than the KGB,” Unser took his appeal, unsuccessfully, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Unser is survived by his brother Al Sr.; his nephew Al Jr., who won at Indy twice; his wife Lisa, sons Bobby Jr. and Robby, and daughters Cindy and Jeri.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a statement, “I am saddened to learn of the passing of Albuquerque’s own Bobby Unser. (He was) a racing legend across the nation and throughout the sports world (and) New Mexicans were proud to call him one of our own. The Unser family has left an undeniable footprint on the New Mexico community, and I offer my condolences to Bobby Unser’s loved ones and all those who knew him.”
Journal staff writer Bob Christ contributed to this story