There are certain individuals whose lives are so intertwined and synonymous with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that it’s virtually impossible to separate one from the other. Furthermore, these people, at some point in time, transcend the human element of Speedway history and became part of the fabric that is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the same way as the Yard of Bricks, the Pagoda, Gasoline Alley, Back Home Again in Indiana, and the Borg-Warner Trophy.
Undoubtedly Bobby Unser was one of those people whose legacy at Indianapolis went well beyond this 19 starts in the Indianapolis 500 and his additional 11 years as a broadcaster.
So many elegant words have been written about Unser since news of his passing broke on Monday morning, words of writers far more accomplished and polished than myself, that it feels almost disrespectful that I should try to, in some way, offer a summary of his life or deep thoughts into who Bobby Unser was and the inner workings of his mind. Yet, like so many other race fans, I somehow felt like I knew this man who retired from racing before I was even two years old.
I had the great pleasure and honor of doing two interviews with Bobby Unser in my time with More Front Wing. The first interview was done as part of our Centennial Interview Series for the 100th Anniversary Running of the “500” in 2011; the second was on qualifying weekend of 2014. (Both of these interviews are posted at the bottom of this page, so I invite you to take a listen to nearly 90 minutes of Bobby Unser in typical Bobby Unser fashion.) In both of the interviews, Bobby was his usual candid self, holding nothing back and chatting with me as if we had been friends for decades about Sam Posey, Danica Patrick, lost Indianapolis traditions, and – of course – Bobby’s fail proof way of restoring IndyCar racing to its former glory. In reality, Bobby wouldn’t have known my name if someone mentioned it to him, and I’d say there is only a very small likelihood he would have recognized my face if someone showed him my picture. Yet Unser was as open and as engaging with me as he was with anyone who ever sat down to ask him about his racing career or his thoughts on the state of the sport.
And it wasn’t just those of us who were fortunate enough to sit down face-to-face with Bobby who felt that connection to him. The millions and millions of people across the country and around the world who tuned into ABC Sports’ broadcast of IndyCar racing had an intimate connection with Bobby solely through the airwaves. We all felt like Bobby spoke directly to us. He spoke to us in a folksy, unsophisticated way that made seasoned veterans around the sport for decades and 12-year old rookie fans both feel like they were directly involved in the event.
Bobby loved his legions of fans. I never once saw Bobby refuse a moment with any random fan who wanted to stop him for an autograph, to take a picture with him, or to simply just shake his hand and say hello. What few ever realized was just how accessible Bobby really was. When setting up the aforementioned 2011 MFW interview, I actually just called a phone number I found on a website that seemed to be loosely associated with Unser. When I called the number, to my great surprise, the call was answered by none other than Bobby himself! (It was one of probably only two times that I was ever “litcherly” speechless on the phone with an Indianapolis legend – the other being when when long-time Penske PR rep Merrill Cain called me completely unannounced and started the conversation with, “Hi Paul. It’s Merrill. I’ve got Rick Mears right here. Are you ready for the interview?”) For a few moments, Bobby didn’t quite grasp that I was calling just to set up another call to conduct the interview and he started right in on his stories. I had no choice but to let him go on for a few minutes and then tell him that I wasn’t doing the interview right then but would call him back a few days later to do said interview. As always, he was exceptionally gracious with his time and delivered 50 minutes of golden sound bites. I will be eternally grateful that we were able to do that interview with him when his voice was still strong, his mind was still sharp, and his thoughts were as unfiltered as ever.
Since Bobby Unser arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1963, he never shied away from controversy or backed down from an argument when he thought he was right. (I’m not convinced he backed down even when he knew he wasn’t right, but he wasn’t ever going to admit to it.) Whether he was finding ways to beat the PACER light system or exploit a poorly-written pit blend line rule, Unser was always seeking whatever advantage he could. I don’t think Unser would ever admit to cheating, and in his mind he didn’t believe it was cheating, but he was damn sure going to push every rule to the very edge and find any loophole he could if it helped him finish ahead of his competition. To Unser, the “spirit” of the rule was of little importance. He felt he was only bound by the letter of the law.
It was that belief that led Unser to become one of the most meticulous and studious thinkers in Speedway history. There was no one during Unser’s time at IMS that knew the rules as well as Bobby did. I’m not even convinced that the USAC officials like Harlan Fangler, Tom Binford, Frankie Delroy, and Jack Beckley – all of whom serviced at USAC technical directors and “500” Chief Stewards – knew the rules as well as Unser.
That unparalleled knowledge of the rules is what allowed Unser to find every advantage. Whether it was the aforementioned exploitation of PACER lights or coming up with chassis or engine improvement in the middle of the night that just barely met the rules, Unser was constantly thinking about how to beat his competition.
But that isn’t to suggest that Unser wasn’t fierce in a mono e mono race on the track. Though I was too young to ever see Bobby race, I’ve heard so many stories of how Bobby was totally unrelenting from the green flag to the checkered. Unlike his younger brother Al, the four-time Indianapolis 500 champion who was much more of a tactical driver, Bobby was aggressive and full throttle. Though I’ve never heard the comparison made, it seems Bobby in his prime would remind me of Alexander Rossi on track. Both want to win at all costs, lead every lap, win every pole, lead every practice session.
As beloved as Unser was as a driver and as much as he was revered in the broadcast booth, I think the part of Bobby that I will miss the most was Bobby, The Storyteller. Regardless of what story he was telling, it was bound to be legendary when coming from the mouth of Bobby Unser. Many of his stories, like the “I like a good stuffed turkey” story, are bound to make your sides hurt when you heard them coming from Bobby directly. I’m sure most of the stories were embellished and grew legs over the years, but it never really mattered. Even if they were completely fictitious, the way Bobby told the stories made the time devoted to listening to them completely worth it. There are no better examples of his storytelling than the long, two-part interview Unser did as part of the Dinner with Racers podcast back in 2018. For nearly three hours, you will find yourself engrossed in stories that are equally likely to have your stomach in pain from laughter or face palming and thinking, “no, no he didn’t…”
The cliche was been used over and over the past four days that they “broke the mold” with Bobby Unser. But it is so true. There never has been and there never will be another like Bobby Unser. A driver from humble roots who worked his way to the pinnacle of motorsports glory. He wasn’t just the guy who finished last in his first race and first in his last race. He wasn’t just the first driver to win the “500” in three different decades. He wasn’t just the unfiltered TV analyst on an Emmy-winning team. He wasn’t just the storyteller who held court whenever he so desired. He wasn’t just the middle brother in the second generation of the greatest racing family lMS has ever known. Bobby was all of these and much more. He was truly a legend of the sport and an icon of the Speedway.
Field of 33 extends its deepest sympathies to the family of Robert William Unser – his wife Lisa, his brother Al, his four children, and numerous nieces and nephews – and to those friends who were so close to Bobby they considered him a brother.