Bobby Unser, a former American racing driver, is one of most successful Indy Car drivers of all time, along with his brother Al Unser and cousin Al Unser Jr. Bobby has won Indianapolis 500 three times (1968, 1975 and 1981) and became USAC National champion two times (1968 and 1974). In 258 races of the premium American open-wheel series, between 1955 and 1982, Bobby scored 35 wins. In 1968, Bobby also participated in one Formula One Grand Prix race.
The most famous racing family in America
The Unser family is the most famous and most successful family in the history of American motorsport, with three members (Bobby, Al Senior and Al Junior) scoring seven Indy Car titles and winning Indianapolis 500 nine times. Bobby Unser, born on February 20, 1934, in Colorado Springs, started racing following the footsteps of his father, uncles and older twin brothers Jerry and Louie (born 1932).
Bobby became a racer after US Air Force Service
Robert William Unser, which is Bobby's full name, gained first racing experience as a teenager but he started racing for real after he finished the US Air Force service in 1955. He debuted at 1955 Pikes Peak hill climb race, which was the part of the AAA Champ Car Series. Bobby finished fifth, behind his two brothers Louie and Jerry.
Brother Jerry lost his life before 1959 Indy 500
In the next few years, Jerry was the most successful of all brothers, winning the 1957 USAC Stock Car Series title. Unfortunately, Jerry was killed during the practice for 1959 Indianapolis 500. Since then, the racing heritage of Unser family was on Bobby and his younger brother Al (born 1939).
After his debut in 1955, Bobby he was gaining experience in various disciplines and cars, driving Jaguar D-Type at 1957 Sebring 12h or Caballo de Hiero MkII in the 1958 USAC Road Racing Championship. Bobby entered the USAC National Championship in 1962, failing to qualify for the race at California State Fairgrounds in Sacramento.
Indianapolis 500 debut in 1963
Bobby's debut at the USAC National Championship followed in 1963, at Indianapolis 500. He crashed very early, after only two laps, so he was classified last (33rd). He participated in three more races that year. In 1964, Bobby's schedule was expanded to 12 races at the USAC National Championship, mostly with Gordon Van Liew's car, but he also competed at the US Road Racing Championship with Lotus 23B and Lotus 19 Monte Carlo.
1966 - maiden USAC victory at Pikes Peak
In 1965, Bobby was racing in all 18 races of the USAC National Championship, but still without victories. His best result was 2nd place at Pikes Peak Hillclimb, behind his brother Al. In 1966 USAC National Championship, Bobby finally scored his first victory. It was at Pikes Peak Hillclimb on July 4. The Pikes Peak was commonly referred as Unser's Peak because Unser family members are the pioneers of the famous race and they had a great history of victories up there.
Later that season Bobby scored one pole position, at DuQuoin, but finished third in the race. In the 1966 championship, he was sixth in the points. Bobby's progress continued and he scored two wins in 1967, finishing third in the points, behind AJ Foyt and Mario Andretti. Bobby was the winner of both races at Mosport International Raceway.
1968 - first championship title for Bobby
In 1968, Bobby Unser finally clinched his first USAC title. Driving for Bob Wilke, he scored five wins and finished on the top of the standings, ahead of Mario Andretti and Al Unser. Bobby had a fantastic start of the season, winning four of five races, including his first victory at Indianapolis 500. He led for 127 of 200 laps to win ahead of Dan Gurney. Fifth win of the season was the victory at Pikes Peak.
Unsuccessful F1 attempt at Monza and debut at Watkins Glen
In September 1968, Bobby Unser was at Monza and he was prepared to debut at the Formula One Championship, as a replacement for Richard Attwood in the BRM team (Owen Racing Organisation). Bobby and his rival Mario Andretti participated in the qualifying, but they didn't start the race because of the rule which forbade two races within 24 hours. They planned to participate in the USAC race at Indiana State Fairgrounds on September 7 and then flew back to Italy. After organizers announced that they would be banned from racing, Unser and Andretti didn't return to Monza.
Bobby's second attempt was successful and he debuted in Formula One on October 6 in the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen. In the #9 BRM' car, Unser started 19th and retired after 35 laps due to engine problems. It was also the F1 debut for Mario Andretti, who retired three laps before Unser.
NASCAR debut in 1969
After a one-off appearance in Formula One, Bobby Unser focused again on racing in America. He was the winner once, at Langhorne Speedway, to finish third in the points, behind Mario Andretti and his younger brother Al. During 1969, Bobby also debuted in the NASCAR Grand National Series, participating in Daytona Qualifying race and then in Daytona 500. He crashed in the Smokey Yunick's Ford after 56 laps and he was classified 42nd.
1970 championship runner-up behind brother Al
In 1970, Al Unser took his first USAC National title, after a dominant performance with ten wins in 18 races. Bobby has won just once, at Langhorne, to finish second in the points. In 1971, Bobby won two times (Milwaukee and Trenton) but finished sixth in the points. In March 1971, Bobby participated in Formula One Questor Grand Prix at Ontario Motor Speedway, finishing 16th with Charlie Hayes Racing's Lola-Chevrolet.
In 1972 USAC National Championship season, Bobby managed to win four times but it was enough only for the 8th place in the final standings because his other results weren't good. In October, Bobby tried again in NASCAR, driving Chevrolet for Ray Nichels at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but the engine blew up after eight laps.
1974 - one more USAC National championship title
Bobby wasn't so successful in 1973, finishing 12th in the classification of the USAC National Championship. He won only at Milwaukee. In January 1973, Bobby was driving for the last time in NASCAR, finishing fourth at Riverside International Raceway. He was driving the Holman-Moody's #41, Ford.
After few disappointing years, Bobby took his second championship title in 1974, driving the #48 Eagle - Offy. Bobby won four times in 14 races, adding six more podiums, to take the title with a big advantage over Johnny Rutherford.
Race of Champions and Indianapolis 500 the same year
As the USAC champion, Bobby competed at the 1975 Race of Champions and became the winner, ahead of AJ Foyt and Cale Yarborough. In the 1975 USAC championship, he was victorious only one time,but it was in the most important race – Indianapolis 500. Driving the proven All American Racers' Eagle chassis, Bobby started third and won the race that was stopped after 174 laps due to huge downpour. In the championship standings, Bobby was third that year.
In 1976, he continued to drive Eagle, but for the Fletcher Racing. With two victories (Phoenix and Ontario), Bobby finished sixth in the points. In the next two seasons, Bobby was driving for two different teams and he missed to score any victory.
Bobby joined Team Penske in 1979
In 1979, Bobby joined Team Penske at the inaugural CART Indy Car Series season and he won six of 14 races. Champion was his teammate Rick Mears, Bobby finished second in the point. In 1980, Bobby Unser was the championship runner-up for the second year in a row, after he won four of eleven races. This time, the champion was Johny Rutherford.
Controversial victory at 1981 Indy 500
In May 1981, Bobby Unser won his third Indy 500. It was one of the most controversial races in more than 100 years long history of Indianapolis 500. Unser, who started from pole, won the race ahead of Mario Andretti. Next day, Bobby was stripped off from the first place because of the rule infraction. On Lap 149, during a caution period, both Unser and Andretti pitted and headed back to the race, passing few cars during the caution. After a 5-month lawsuit and protest by Penske, Unser got his victory back.
Indy Car retirement and Pikes Peak record
The controversy caused his decision to retire from racing at the end of season 1981. But, it was the retirement only from CART Indy Car, because in the next few years Bobby participated many times. In 1982, he joined Audi Sport as a development driver. It was the time when Audi Quattro was introduced. In 1986, after a 12-year absence from Pikes Peak race, Bobby returned to the mountain with Audi Quattro and scored his tenth overall victory, breaking the record he had before together with uncle Louis. In total, when counting class victories, Bobby had 13 wins at Pikes Peak.
Four family members in one car
In 1990, at the age 56, Bobby participated in one race of the World Sportscar Championship, sharing the Porsche 962C with Jochen Dauer. They raced at Dijon and finished 15th. Next year in February, the historic race happened when four Unsers (Al Senior, Al Junior, Bobby and Robby) competed together at 12 hours of Sebring, in the #0 Porsche 962C of Jochen Dauer Racing. They were 9th on the starting grid but didn't finish the race due to an accident.
The best racer among veterans
Bobby had many racing adventures. In 1993, he participated at the Fast Masters Championship, reserved for retired drivers, and he won the finals at Indianapolis Raceway Park. The car which was used by many was TWR's Jaguar XJ220. The same year, Bobby also participated in the speed record breaking attempt at Bonneville Salt Flats, setting the new record in one of the classes.
TV commentator and book writer
After the retirement, Unser was also working as TV commentator for Indy Car and NASCAR races for different stations. He was even awarded for Outstanding Live Sports special after commenting 1989 Indianapolis 500. Some of Bobby's sports awards and honors are International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1990, National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 1997, Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1994. In 2003, Bobby Unser published a book 'Winners are Driven: A Champion's Guide to Success in Business and Life'.
Photos: onmilwaukee.com, sports.usatoday.com, roadandtrack.com