Bobby Unser, Three-Time Indy 500 Champion And Pikes Peak Legend, Dies At 87

 Bobby Unser in action during the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, 1998.
Bobby Unser in action during the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, 1998.
Photo: Brian Bahr / Allsport (Getty Images)

The Unser family is loaded with automotive talent, and few epitomized that quite as deeply as Bobby Unser. In his decades-long career, the Colorado native crushed stunning records at the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb (dubbed “Unser’s Peak” due to the family’s massive success there), won three Indianapolis 500 events, secured two Champ Car Championships, entered two Formula One races and tried his hand at NASCAR racing. And that only skims the surface. Unser has sadly died at age 87.

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The Unser family confirmed that Bobby Unser died of natural causes at his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico on May 2, 2021, as per Associated Press reporter Jenna Fryer.

Unser’s story is one of larger-than-life proportions. His first championship came in 1950, at the age of 15, when he took home victory in the Southwest Modified Stock Cars series. After a brief stint in the Air Force, Unser debuted again at Pikes Peak, where he finished fifth overall. The following year, he took victory at the Peak.

Despite suffering the loss of his brother Jerry Unser in a crash at the 1959 Indianapolis 500, Bobby Unser set out to show the world what he was made of. His resume soon swelled:

  • 13 championships at Pikes Peak, including six straight titles from 1958 to 1963
  • USAC National Champion in 1968 and 1974
  • Indy 500 winner, 1968, 1975, 1981
  • The first driver to race at over 170 mph at the Indy 500
  • Fastest Indy 500 qualifying time in 1972 at 195.95 mph
  • International Race of Champions winner, 1975
  • Inductees into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame, the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame, the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame, and the Motorsport Hall of Fame of America

The key to the family’s success at Pikes Peak? It was simple, Unser told Speed Sport Magazine:

The Albuquerque Unsers looked at technology in a different way, and we invented ways that were different than anything the Hill Climb had seen before. We did it with handmade ways instead of money. We figured out ways to drive mountain roads and engineer cars to get more traction, and tires that would work better at Pikes Peak that ended up being part of history as far as engineering went.

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One of the more illustrative engineering examples was the Unser family mixing walnut shells into their tire compounds. As they sped up the mountain, the shells would fly out, leaving a tire surface that looked like a sponge and better retained grip on the course’s unpredictable terrain. That’s just one of the reasons why The Henry Ford Museum pegged Unser as a “visionary on innovation.”

His racing achievements aside, Unser was beloved in the racing community for his freewheeling personality and incredible stories. He was at the helm of the controversial Indy 500 finish, in which he was stripped of and then re-awarded his victory after passing eight cars during a caution a controversy so potent that he opted to retire. In 1986, he came out of retirement with the explicit desire to crush Michèle Mouton’s Pikes Peak victory because he couldn’t allow a foreign woman in a foreign car to take that title from the Unsers. And more recently, his wild stories that included wheeling a turkey around grocery stores looking for women to cook it for him as a means of seduction have entertained many fans via the Dinner with Racers podcast.

Weekends at Jalopnik. Managing editor at A Girl's Guide to Cars. Lead IndyCar writer and assistant editor at Frontstretch. Novelist. Motorsport fanatic.

DISCUSSION

zdave87
Dave

Outside of AJ Foyt, Bobby Unser was my favorite racer. I have a picture of him holding me back in the 70's at the Trenton Speedway.

He and AJ alway remembered my grandmother’s birthday and always sent her cards, even sympathy cards when she passed away 6 years ago.