Jeremy Michael 'Jerry' Unser Jr (1932 - 1959) was an American racing driver and a member of the famous Unser racing dynasty. His younger brothers Bobby (born 1934) and Al (born 1939) became American racing legends after scoring numerous championship titles and seven Indianapolis 500 victories together.
Unfortunately, Jerry wasn't so lucky. He was the first of Unsers to participate at Indianapolis 500 in 1958, miraculously surviving a massive crash on the warm-up lap. A year later, he didn't survive, losing a life in a practice crash before the Indianapolis 500.
Jerry Unser Jr - second generation of Unser racing dynasty
Jerry Unser Sr was also active race car driver
Born in November 1932 in Colorado Springs, Jerry had a twin-brother Louie, who also had some racing attempts during his life. Their father, Jerry Unser Sr. (1899-1967), was also an accomplished racer who, together with his brothers, raced with motorcycles and sidecars to the summit of the Pikes Peak even before the famous Race to the Clouds had been established in 1916.
Jerry Unser learned to drive with father's Ford Model A as a teenager and started his racing career in the early 1950s, while he was in the Navy and he was stationed in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
Jerry gained his first success at Hawaii
Hawaiian stock car champion in 1953
Jerry Unser raced stock cars against Hawaiian drivers at Honolulu Stadium. In 1953, he beat them all and won the Hawaiian stock car racing title. He became a local hero and celebrity as the stock car racing was more popular than any other sport.
When he was discharged from Navy in 1954, the local community organized a great farewell party 'Jerry Unser Aloha Night'.
Jerry Unser Jr participated four times at the Pikes Peak Hill Climb race
Pikes Peak hill climb race debut in 1955
After returning to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where his father had a garage, Jerry was preparing for his debut at the Pikes Peak Hillclimb race, which was a part of the AAA Champ Car Series.
He made a debut in the famous race in September 1955. He was driving the #9 Coniff-Offy, finishing in the fourth place, one position behind his twin-brother Louie and one place ahead of brother Bobby.
During his short career, Jerry captured one national stock car racing championship title
USAC Stock Car Series champion in 1957
Jerry married Jeanne Lamberth in 1956 and soon they had two sons - Jerry was born in 1957 and Johnny was born in 1958. In 1956 and 1957, Jerry returned to Pikes Peak to score two consecutive wins in the stock car class.
In 1957, he was a dominant driver in the USAC Stock Car Series and he won the championship title. In 1958, he was fourth in the same competition.
Jerry Unser Jr was driving the #92 car at 1958 Indianapolis 500
Two big accidents in 1958
In May 1958, Jerry made a debut at Indianapolis 500, being the first of Unsers to participate in the greatest American race. His first attempt at Indianapolis Motor Speedway didn't finish well. Driving the #92 Kurtis-Offenhauser for Roy McKay, he was involved in multi-car accident during the warm-up lap. His car went over the wall but he survived with a dislocated shoulder.
A few weeks later he raced at Pikes Peak, shifting and turning with one hand. This race also didn’t end well for Jerry, as he rolled his car into a ditch and broke his nose.
In 1958, he also participated in one race of the USAC Road Racing Championship, driving a Kurtis Kraft-Cadillac for Mickey Thompson at Riverside Grand Prix. He retired after a collision.
Jerry went over the wall in his first Indy 500 attempt in 1958
Fatal crash during practice for 1959 Indianapolis 500
In 1959, he participated in one race of the USAC Road Racing Championship and one race of the USAC National Championship before went out to practice for Indianapolis 500 on May 1. He spun and hit the wall in Turn 4. The car caught fire and Jerry suffered bad burns. He died on Sunday, May 17.
After Unser's accident, fire-resistant driving suits became mandatory. Until then, some drivers were wearing just t-shirts.