Personal Reflections on Bobby Unser

I am guilty of using words like “icon” and “legend” way too often. It could be because there are so many living legends in this sport, that those are the words that I use to describe them. I am guessing that there are more true legends of our sport in their eighties than there has ever been. We lost one of the true legends Sunday night, when Bobby Unser passed away at the age of eighty-seven.

By now, we’ve all read and heard countless tributes to the three-time Indianapolis 500 winner, but those came from those that knew Bobby Unser. Instead, I’d like to offer my personal memories of the man. I didn’t know him and never met him. Over the last twelve years of doing this blog, I have been around the man more times than I can count and had the privilege of witnessing his humor first-hand. But I’m not one to go up to a perfect stranger – especially a celebrity – and bother them, just to shake their hand. So did I know him? No, I did not.

That doesn’t mean I wasn’t aware of Unser at a very early age. I want claim to know the name of the driver of the very loud car when I went to my first 500 in 1965, but I knew it was louder than the others and my brothers told me it was called the Novi. It dropped out about a third of the way through the race, but I remember that ear-splitting sound like I heard it yesterday.

If I were to tell you that I remember Bobby Unser’s run, when I returned in 1967 – I would be lying. I don’t. But my memories of Unser are vivid from 1968 on up. Unlike the rest of my family, I was a fan of the Lotus turbines in 1968. I thought they were about the coolest thing this nine year-old had ever seen. Joe Leonard was who I wanted to win that year. When he didn’t and Bobby Unser did, it put a bad taste in my mouth that day.

I hated to admit it, but as much as I liked the looks of the day-glo Lotus; I really, really, really, REALLY (in my best Uncle Bobby voice) liked the paint job of the Rislone Eagle that Unser drove to victory that day.

As I grew older, I grew to appreciate Bobby Unser as a driver. I really (really) became a fan when he won the pole in 1972 and beat the previous year’s pole speed by over 17 mph. When he won in the rain in 1975, I was very happy for him. I loved it when he won for Roger Penske in 1981. I was sick when they took it away from him after the race, then rejoiced in October of that year, when his win was reinstated.

How do you really describe Bobby Unser?

You could recite his racing career, which was phenomenal. Having conquered Indianapolis and Pike’s Peak multiple times along with a couple of National Championships, most drivers would be content to retire with their memories. Not long after he stepped out of the racing cockpit, he stepped into the broadcast booth to start a twenty-year career doing that. His exchanges in the ABC booth with Sam Posey were legendary themselves. Even after Bobby Unser retired from the broadcast booth, he remained very involved in racing – and very visible.

Another word to describe Bobby Unser might be – philosopher.

If you ever take an extended road trip and need some entertainment, I recommend two podcasts to listen to. A shorter and more family-friendly version is a two-part interview n One-on-One with Mark Montieth. This was done during the Centennial Celebration back in 2011, so it is ten years old. Each part lasts about forty-five minutes, so you get a full hour and a half of the wit and wisdom of Bobby Unser, along with some not so humorous stories of his extremely poor, but happy upbringing during the depression. He also tells of the death of his brother Jerry, after a practice crash at Indianapolis in 1959. But there are some hilarious tales of racing and other topics, as well as a keen look into the perceptive intellect behind the adept story-teller.

If the Mark Montieth podcast is PG, the Dinner with Racers podcast is probably rated R. It is also a two-parter, and was recorded inside an Albuquerque restaurant. It involves Bobby Unser, his wife Lisa and the two guys from Dinner with Racers, Ryan Eversley and Sean Heckman, that interviewed him. It is a fast three hours and fifteen minutes of side-splitting stories that are made even funnier by the way he tells the story. If I were to tell the story of getting stung by a bee, it might generate a couple of mild chuckles. The way Bobby Unser tells it is epic. He tells an R-rated joke he tried to play on his brother Al, while Al was in the hospital.

But you really get a glimpse into the mind of Bobby Unser when he describes when the government sued him for getting lost in a snowstorm in a wildlife refuge. He fought the government and lived to tell about it.

Beyond his racing prowess and his unique broadcast, I think another word I might use to describe Bobby Unser is – a character.

If you find and listen to the podcasts I mentioned, that is when you realize what a character Bobby Unser really was. If you go back and watch old clips of Unser from the sixties, you’ll see a soft-spoken man with a look of determination in his eye and a hint of seriousness in his voice. Apparently that was his racer TV voice. When he stepped into the booth, we got to see the playful side of Unser we fans didn’t always see when he was driving.

Whether he was telling Sam Posey that he was wrong about something, or he was explaining the flywheel effect to Jack Arute – he always did it with that trademark smile on his face.

When you listen to the podcasts, you are getting the totally unfiltered Bobby Unser, whose story-telling ability is unmatched.

A few years ago, Bobby Unser was holding court a few rows behind me in the IMS Media Center. He was sitting down, while others (including Robin Miller) were gathered around. I wasn’t invited and I wasn’t going to horn in, but I could tell he was in rare form. I couldn’t hear everything he was saying, but I could hear enough to tell it was funny and he was keeping his audience in stitches. He could have been telling the infamous Turkey Story or anything else. He was just funny to listen to.

But don’t think for a minute that he wasn’t dead serious. He could figure out anything. Almost everything he did was self-taught, including flying an airplane. He could out-engineer most engineers in the paddock, yet he had no training on it. He was able to out-maneuver the most skillful attorneys, yet he never set foot in a school of law. He was also able to out-think his fellow drivers. If you didn’t believe any of that, you could just ask him – he’d tell you. The thing is, as arrogant as that seemed to some people – it was true.

Although I never actually met the man, I have studied him enough over the years to feel like I knew him. What is the one word I’d use to describe Bobby Unser over all of the others? Happy.

He always seemed happy and wore that healthy grin on his face. He never apologized for any of his iron-clad opinions. They were his opinions and he was entitled to them. Of course he was, because they were always right. He was politically incorrect and never shied away from the fact that he was a womanizer (hence the Turkey Story) or that he was not great at picking out spouses, although all indications are that he finally met his soul-mate in Lisa, his wife that took care of him at the end.

Bobby Unser led a full life, a happy life and a life filled with humor. He honed his skills in most everything he tried and may have been one of the most competitive people on the planet. Quite honestly, this world needs more people like him.

May God bless Bobby Unser.

George Phillips

5 Responses to “Personal Reflections on Bobby Unser”

  1. Bruce B Says:

    The iconic Eagle emblem Helmet glistening off of the May sun on race day at Indy! ……I saw him at the vintage weekend taking a few laps in the beautiful Norton Spirit he drove in 1981. Diligently shifting through the gears on the main straightaway as the Cosworth purred behind him. Godspeed Bobby Unser!!! 🏁🏁🏁

  2. James T Suel Says:

    Well said George, I was lucky enough to meet him in 2018. He was a great driver and a fun guy.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    It’s a hard way to start a month, but what a tremendous group of memories Uncle Bobby gave us! I, too, never met him, but I did briefly eavesdrop as he was holding court in the IMS museum in 2011… he was being the Bobby Unser we all knew from television.

    In the car, he was always pushing, always driving as fast as he could. He could be hard on equipment, yes, but his thirst for top speed was the reason he achieved the great successes he did.

    On TV, he had a folksy charm that seemed truly genuine, largely because he never minced words or held his tongue when an opinion reached the end of it. It is a balance that few others have been able to achieve, see Darrell Waltrip for exhibit A.

    A titan of the sport. He will be missed.

  4. Thank you, George, for your tribute to Bobby. What a life!! I never had the pleasure of seeing him race or meeting him. However, he was one of my favorites. RIP Uncle Bobby

  5. Great tribute to a true legend.

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