The Unsers- Racing’s First Family

Photo above: Bobby Unser’s 1968 500 winning Eagle Mark 4, the first of nine wins by an Unser at Indianapolis. All Photos: Mike Silver

 

Unsers began racing nearly as soon as racing  began. Brothers Jerry, Louis Jr., and Joe first competed at Pike’s Peak in 1926. Louis Unser won the race for the first time in 1934, the first of nine wins for him, and the start of a family tradition that would result in 39 total victories by an Unser. The original Unser brothers- Joe, Louis Jr., and Jerry, planned to enter the 1929 Indianapolis 500.  The plan ended when Joe died from injuries while he was testing the car in Colorado.

The Indianapolis Speedway Museum celebrates the racing history of the Unser family with a special exhibit. The display opened April 9 and continues through October 28. I had a chance to visit in early May. The exhibit chronicles the entire family history, not just the 500. All the cars that won the 500 are on display, as well as dirt cars, a Pike’s Peak racer, and IROC cars.

It would be the second generation of Unsers that would eventually enter the 500 and go on to unprecedented success after a rocky start. The sons of Jerry Unser, Jerry Jr., Bobby, and Al drove in the 500. Bobby won three times and Al won four 500s. Al’s son Al, Jr. would also drive and win twice.

Jerry, Jr. drove in just one race, 1958. He was caught in the first lap accident in which Pat O’Connor was killed. Unser’s car went over the wall in the north short chute, but he escaped injury. He was not so fortunate the next year. On May 2, he was seriously injured in a practice crash and died May 17.

Bobby debuted in 1963 driving the famed Novi. He crashed on lap 3 and finished 33rd. the following year he was involved in the fiery crash on lap 2 and finished 32nd. He would go on to win in 1968 in a Dan Gurney Eagle, above, and also visited Victory Lane in the rain shortened 1975 race and the controversial 1981 500. Bobby also added two poles to his resume in 1972 and 1981.

Al’s rookie year was 1965. He started 32nd and finished 9th. He had a second in 1967, his third start.After missing the 1969 race due to a non racing motorcycle accident, Al came back to win back to back in 1970 and 1971. He also sat on the pole in 1970. Other victories came in 1978 and 1987, making him the second four time 500 winner. His last race was 1993.

Al, Jr. began his 500 career in 1983. he raised the ire of some fans with his blocking of eventual winner Tom Sneva late in the race as his father was leading. He did not complete the 500 miles until 1992, his tenth race, which he won, edging Scott Goodyear. The winning margin was the closest 500 finish at that point. Jr. won again in 1994, driving the powerful Mercedes/Ilmor engine. He did not qualify in 1995 in one of the biggest Bump Day shocks ever.

Link to my May story- https://wordpress.com/post/thefirstfiftyracesarethehardest.wordpress.com/8144

Because of the open wheel split the next year, Unser did not compete in the 500 again until 2000. He was mostly uncompetitve situations, managing a best finish of 9th in 2003. His final 500 was 2007.

The museum display contains a lot of memorabilia in the back room, including some great paintings. The Unser exhibit is included in regular museum admission. Here are some photos of the winning Unser 500 entries.

Indy 500 2018 007

Al Unser, Jr.’s 1994 500 winning car.

Indy 500 2018 009

Al Unser’s 1970 winner. He won in 1971 in a nearly identical car.

Indy 500 2018 001

One of Bobby Unser’s Pike’s Peak cars. Of the Unser family’s 39 wins, Bobby won 13 times.

I have different feelings about each Unser. Bobby was always my favorite of the family.  I loved his aggressive style. Al, Sr. was always steady and calculating. I have come to appreciate how great a driver he was. Al, Jr was never really a favorite of mine, although like his dad, I appreciate him more as I look back on his career.

It was a treat to see Bobby at the track this May. We need to treasure every appearance of these aging legends.

 

 

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