Bobby Unser Jr. never found the level of success in a race car so famously achieved by his father, his uncle Al Sr., cousin Al Jr. and brother Robby.
But, says Cody Unser, Al Jr.’s daughter and Bobby Jr.’s second cousin, “He found passion in other things in life. … He was a life enthusiast.”
Unser Jr. died on Sunday, six weeks after the death his father, Bobby Unser Sr., a three-time Indianapolis 500 winner. The younger Unser had undergone surgery for a broken hip, then developed blood clots, leading to his death at age 65.
Were his last name not Unser, Bobby Jr.’s auto racing résumé would be impressive enough. As a youth, he found success at Speedway Park in Albuquerque, winning three races in seven starts in 1979.
Two years earlier, at age 21, he won a sprint-car main event at Manzanita Speedway in Phoenix. His dad, who was part of his son’s race crew that day, called it “The happiest moment of my life.”
Bobby Jr. never won the Pikes Peak International Hill climb, which other members of the family won a remarkable 24 times. But he twice finished second, and as of 1986 held the open-wheel qualifying record of 5 minutes, 8.16 seconds.
In 1978, he survived a harrowing crash in Pikes Peak qualifying. Two days later, he climbed back in his car and finished as runner-up.
Still, Bobby Jr. never drove at Indy, where Bobby Sr., Al Sr. and Al Jr. won a total of nine times. He acknowledged the burden that the Unser name carried.
He did not, however, forsake fast cars, becoming a stunt-car driver and coordinator for movies and television.
“He found his niche,” Cody Unser said, “his talent in the car-commercial industry. He was still able to do something with an engine.”
Bobby Jr. had his struggles in life. In 1991, he filed for bankruptcy. In 2008, he was jailed briefly for delinquent child support and failure to appear in court.
He never, though, Cody Unser said, lost his optimism or his love for his family.
“He just had a big personality and a magnetic presence in every room he was in,” she said. “… He never made people feel small. He made you feel big and important and loved, and (that) you mattered.”
In 1999, at age 12, Cody Unser was stricken with transverse myelitis, a nerve disorder that has confined her to a wheelchair. Bobby Jr., her second cousin — he has always been “Uncle Bobby” to her — was then and remained among her strongest supporters.
“For me in particular, he was a big motivator,” she said. “Definitely someone in the family that helped motivate me to keep the foundation (her First Step Foundation) that my mom (Shelley) and I started.
“Especially after I lost my mom in 2018, he was definitely there. If we needed anything, he called frequently to check in. He really cared about all of us, everybody in the family. And he loved his kids (daughter Jesse, son Bobby III, daughter Ruby).”
Jesse Unser recently gave birth to a daughter. Bobby Jr. was able, Cody Unser said, to meet his granddaughter before his death.
Bobby Unser Jr. is the son of Bobby Unser Sr. and Barbara Schumaker, the famed driver’s first wife. They also had a daughter, Cindy, before divorcing in 1966. Unser Sr. had a son Robby and daughter Jeri from his second marriage to Norma Davis.