Indianapolis, IN — Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Unser, one of the most colorful, outspoken and popular drivers in the history of the iconic race, died Sunday (May 2) at his New Mexico home. He was 87.
With victories in 1968, 1975 and 1981, Unser was one of just 10 drivers to win the 500 at least three times and is a member of numerous motorsports Halls of Fame, including induction into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame in 1990. Vintage Motorsport featured Unser’s 1975 win in a July/August 2020 story by David Linden, and also showcased his winning 1981 Penske PC9B car on the cover of the May/June 2020 issue and in a story by Ted West. Racer’s Robin Miller also paid tribute to Unser in this story today.
He got his start in racing in 1949 at Roswell (New Mexico) Speedway. He next raced at Speedway Park in Albuquerque in 1950 and won his first championship in Southwestern Modified Stock Cars. After serving in the U.S. Air Force from 1953-55, Unser and his brothers Jerry and Al decided to pursue racing careers in United States Auto Club (USAC) competition.
Bobby Unser raced successfully in USAC Sprint Car, Midget and Stock Car competition. He earned seven career USAC Sprint Car feature victories and placed third in the standings in 1965 and 1966. He also won six USAC Stock Car races and three USAC Midget features.
Unser’s career in Indy cars started in the end of the 1962 season. He spent three years driving Novi-engined cars for Andy Granatelli, including the No. 6 Hotel Tropicana, Las Vegas Kurtis/Novi roadster in which he qualified 16th and finished last as an Indianapolis 500 rookie in 1963. Unser’s day ended after completing just two laps due to an accident.
In fact, Unser’s first two career Indy starts gave no indication of his future success. After completing two laps and finishing last as a rookie in 1963, he completed just one lap in 1964 and was credited with 32nd place in the four-wheel-drive No. 9 Studebaker-STP Ferguson/Novi fielded by Granatelli, getting caught in the multi-car accident that claimed the lives of Dave MacDonald and Eddie Sachs.
Unser earned his first career top-10 finish at Indy by placing eighth after starting 28th in 1966 for Gordon van Liew’s team. In 1967, he moved to Bob Wilke’s Leader Card team for a four-year stint, which resulted in even greater fortune at Indianapolis and on the USAC Championship Trail.
When Unser earned his first Indianapolis 500 victory in 1968, it was in the No. 3 Rislone Eagle/Offy, one of the most iconic and beautiful rear-engine cars in Indianapolis 500 history. His first spot on the Borg-Warner Trophy came after a spirited duel with Joe Leonard in one of Granatelli’s famous STP Lotus cars powered by a Pratt & Whitney helicopter turbine engine.
Later that year, Unser won the first of his two USAC National Championships, ending the season with five victories and edging Mario Andretti by a scant 11 points.
In 1972, Unser earned the first of his two Indianapolis 500 poles during his successful five-year partnership with Dan Gurney’s All American Racers. Speeds skyrocketed that year with the legalization of bolt-on wings to chassis, and no one took better advantage than Unser. His four-lap record qualifying average speed of 195.940 mph in the No. 6 Olsonite Eagle was more than 17 mph faster than Peter Revson’s pole speed from the previous year — the largest year-to-year increase in 500 history.
Unser won his second and final USAC National Championship in 1974 after finishing runner-up to Johnny Rutherford in the Indy 500.
Unser’s second Indianapolis 500 win in 1975 was at the wheel of the No. 48 Jorgensen Eagle fielded by Gurney’s team. Unser led only 11 laps, taking the top spot from Rutherford on Lap 165 and holding it until the race was ended by a downpour on Lap 174 of the 200 schedule laps.
He drove for Fletcher Racing in 1976 and 1977, returning to Gurney’s All American Racers for one season in 1978.
Unser joined Team Penske in 1979 for the start of a three-year stint in which he won 11 races and finished second in the CART standings in 1979 and 1980.
But perhaps his most famous race during his Penske tenure was the 1981 Indianapolis 500, which he won from the pole in one of the most controversial and contentious outcomes in the event’s storied history.
Unser beat Mario Andretti to the finish by 5.18 seconds in the No. 3 Norton Spirit, but USAC officials ruled Unser passed cars illegally while exiting the pit lane during a caution on Lap 149. Unser was penalized one position, with Andretti elevated to the winner.
But after a lengthy protest and appeals process, Unser’s penalty was rescinded, and he was declared the race winner on Oct. 9, 1981. That victory became the last of Unser’s storied Indy Car career, as he skipped the 1982 CART season to serve as driver coach for Josele Garza and decided against a planned comeback in 1983 with Patrick Racing.
He finished his career with 35 career Indy Car victories and two championships among his eight top-three finishes in the season points.
After closing out his driving career, Unser combined his vast racing experience and considerable skills as an outspoken raconteur to become a popular broadcaster on ABC, NBC and ESPN Indy Car telecasts and on IMS Radio Network race broadcasts.
Unser continued to visit the Indianapolis Motor Speedway every May, even after his broadcast commitments ended. 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 500 races.
Unser is survived by his wife, Lisa; sons Bobby Jr. and Robby; and daughters Cindy and Jeri.