The First Unser

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The IMS Museum is currently featuring an exhibit on The Amazing Unsers. All nine of the cars driven to Victory Lane by one of the Unsers at IMS are on hand. Bobby Unser won the Indianapolis 500 three times, his little brother Al is one of three four-time winners and Al’s son Al Unser, Jr. won the race twice. No family in Indianapolis 500 history comes close to the domination that the Unsers have had at Indianapolis.

Some might suggest the Andrettis. After all, every Andretti that has ever raced at Indianapolis, except for Aldo’s son John, has won Rookie of the Year for the Indianapolis 500. None of the Unsers have ever won Rookie of the Year. But the Unsers lead the Andrettis in Indianapolis 500 wins by a score of nine to one.

It’s also tempting to mention the Vukovich family. Bill Vukovich could possibly be considered the greatest driver to ever turn a wheel at Indianapolis. Had his steering not failed on Lap 192 while leading in 1952, he most likely would have three wins in a row. He won the 1953 and 1954 race and was leading in 1955 on Lap 57 when he was fatally injured in a multi-car pileup on the backstretch. His son Billy Vukovich II won Rookie of the Year in 1968 and had a nice career, finishing second in 1974 and third in 1975 along with four other Top-Ten finishes among twelve starts. His son, Bill Vukovich III, won Rookie of the Year in 1988 and had a best finish of twelfth in three starts before he was also fatally injured in a sprint car accident in 1990.

All three families are considered Indianapolis royalty, but when it comes to Indianapolis 500 victories, no family can touch the Unsers.

But while everyone celebrates Bobby Unser, Al Unser and Al Unser, Jr. along with Robby Unser and Johnny Unser – people tend to forget that it all started with Jerry Unser. He was the first Unser at Indianapolis.

Actually, if you want to get technical – Jerry Unser was the first Unser to qualify for the race. The brother’s uncle, “Uncle Louie”, took a rookie test in 1940 but never made the race, so we won’t count him as the first.

Jerry Unser was fifteen months older than his brother Bobby. He had a twin brother named Louie, but they were not identical. Jerry was the larger and more aggressive of the twins. But Jerry, Louie and Bobby quickly earned a reputation for being great short-track racers in the Southwest.

I’ve heard an interview with Bobby Unser, where he said that Jerry was the most natural racer of them all. Like his uncles and brothers, Jerry earned his stripes in the Pike’s Peak Hill Climb. As early as 1955, Jerry Unser had some Championship rides on dirt with the Federal Engineering team. He tried and failed to qualify for the Hoosier Hundred in 1955. In 1956, he did nothing in Champ car racing but ran USAC Stock cars.

In 1957, Jerry Unser won the USAC Stock Car championship. That helped him to get back into USAC Champ cars. His rookie test at The Speedway was in 1958 in a car with a radical stock block engine that turned out to be too slow to make the race. He caught the eye of car owner Roy McKay, who put him in the car that had been driven by Don Edmunds to a nineteenth place finish in 1957. He made the 1958 race with his twin brother Louie as the Chief Mechanic and his younger brother Bobby as a crew member.

Unfortunately, Jerry’s race was short-lived. He started twenty-fourth in the 1958 Indianapolis 500, but got caught up in the infamous crash on the opening lap that involved fifteen cars and put ten cars out of the race. Jerry Unser went over the rear of fellow rookie Paul Goldsmith’s car and flew over the retaining wall and out of the track. Miraculously, Jerry Unser did not suffer any serious injuries. Unfortunately, popular driver Pat O’Connor lost his life in the accident.

After his Indianapolis debut in which he was credited with thirty-first and zero laps completed, Jerry Unser did not have much luck for the remainder of 1958 in Champ cars. However, he did finish fourth in defense of his 1957 championship in USAC Stock Cars.

In 1959, Unser was at Daytona for the one and only USAC Champ car race there, but crashed in practice. He drove for Leader Card Racing at Trenton as teammate to Rodger Ward and finished eighth.

When the Month of May rolled around, it was very early in the month when Jerry Unser was driving the Helse Special in practice. He was coming out of Turn Four when he lost control and hit the inside wall. The car caught fire and he was wearing only a short-sleeve T-shirt. He was badly burned and hospitalized. In his interview over fifty years later, Bobby Unser recounts that he nor anyone thought Jerry Unser was in bad shape. He recalls how Jerry was making plans in the hospital on when he would return to the car. But not a whole lot was known about burn victims in those days. Unser developed a blood infection and passed away on May 17, 1959 at the age of twenty-six.

Five years after Jerry’s death, his twin brother Louie was diagnosed with MS and had to give up his modest racing career.

At the time of his death, Jerry Unser had a seven-month old son named Johnny, who eventually drove in the Indianapolis 500 himself and is now one of the stewards in Race Control for the Verizon IndyCar Series. Like his father, Johnny Unser had a rough debut in the Indianapolis 500. His gearbox failed on the Parade Lap and he coasted into the pits before the green flag flew. At that point, both father and son had driven in one Indianapolis 500 each, and neither had a single lap to their credit. Johnny Unser would go on to drive in four more “500s” and have a best finish of eighteenth in 1997. I’ve never met Johnny Unser, but I have heard that you will not meet a nicer person associated with racing. Not only is he considered a great guy, but he leads his life in a very exemplary fashion.

So when you go to the IMS Museum this May and take in The Amazing Unsers exhibit, just remember that before Bobby, Al and Little Al – there was Jerry Unser, who lost his life in pursuit of his dream to be the first Unser to win the Indianapolis 500.

George Phillips

8 Responses to “The First Unser”

  1. BrandonWright77 Says:

    Nice story, I don’t believe I’d heard of Jerry before. I’ve already seen the display at the museum, it’s very nice and always cool to see such a broad range of machinery these guys drove.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    “They’re silly and they’re jerky,
    Competitive and quirky,
    They come from Albuquerque,
    The Unser Family!

    Ol’ Bobby’s kinda mopey,
    Big Al is really dopey,
    His son looks just like Opie,
    The Unser Family!

    Ask anyone you see-o,
    Who’s racing’s finest trio,
    The answer’s gonna be-o,
    The Un-ser Fam-i-ly!”
    – from The Bob and Tom Show, to the tune of the “Addams Family” theme song

    The Unser family story is a fascinating one, from growing up tough in pretty hardscrabble part of the country to becoming racing royalty and the most successful single family in the history of the 500. And it all started with Jerry. Thanks for the reminder, George.

  3. Chris Lukens Says:

    Uncle Louis Unser was a very accomplished racer. He won the Pikes Peak Hill Climb nine times. He was 71 years old the last time he raced up the Peak and he paid his entry fee with his social security check. That entire family is the epitome of living life to the fullest.

  4. Mark J Wick Says:

    My son was born Tuesday, May 24th, 1977. His mother had been with me many days at the track that year, obviously pregnant. The next year Darian was at the track. There is a photo of him in the 1968 Hungness Indianapolis 500 Yearbook. Darian went to many races after that and even covered at least one at a photo stringer for Associated Press.
    There is a connection here to the Unser family. The 500 has been run on my son’s birthday a number of times since he was born. George, I’ll let you check who won those races.

    • I know that bit of Trivia…from 1981 until the string was broken in 1998, an Unser always won when the race ran on May 24. Bobby in 1981, Big Al in 1987, and Little Al in 1992.

  5. Mark J Wick Says:

    Oops, that should be the 1978 500 Yearbook.

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