You would think that winning the most famous race of all – The Indy 500 – would have kept one of the sports elite and successful drivers going for more, but Bobby Unser’s victory at Indianapolis Motor Speedway would be his last. To add more oddity to the situation, Unser wasn’t declared the winner of the race until October of that year, roughly five months after the race ended. On top of that, the victory had tied him for second on the all-time Indy 500 winners list with three.
I’m talking about Bobby Unser for a variety of reasons but primarily because one, we’re in the month of May leading up to qualifying and running of the ‘Greatest Spectacle in Racing’ and two, I saw the legendary driver in person with the car he won Indy back in ’81 (he also had the pole that year).
Here in wine country, we have an excellent warbird and car collection called the Estrella Warbird Museum and Woodland Auto Display. We had a huge spectacle of our own this past weekend out at the airport (Warbirds, Wings & Wheels) and here, in the middle of wine country on a beautifully clear day with temps in the 70s, was a racing legend.
One of the greats
Bobby Unser’s career actually took off while winning one of the oldest racing events in the United States: Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. Bobby is the winningest driver of the event. He also drove sports cars including for the Arciero Brothers who went on to wine fame here in Paso Robles.
He started his IndyCar career in ’63. From the pole, Unser won his first IndyCar race in ’66 at where else, Pikes Peak which was part of the circuit from ’65-’68. His first win on a road track happened the following year when he won a double-header at Mosport in Canada – he was on the pole both times. Bobby’s first circle track win came at Phoenix in ’68 and yes, you guessed it, he won from the pole.
Win, lose, win
Rain had made a near nightmare of qualifying for the Indy 500 in 1981 – yeah, us Californians say ‘what’s rain’? Yet, the rain wasn’t the biggest story that year. Obviously known for his ability to win from the pole, Bobby appeared to do just that at Indianapolis in ’81. However, shortly after Unser had drank the milk and taken all the pictures and accolades, controversy dampened his victory. Officials penalized Bobby’s Penske-prepared Cosworth-powered #3 Norton Spirit for passing cars during a caution. He was dropped one spot into second and Mario Andretti – who was racing Formula One full-time – was awarded the win the next morning. Car owner Roger Penske immediately appealed the penalty and after nearly five months a decision was finally rendered giving back the win to Penske and Unser.
The fact that he lost endorsements because of the long ordeal had left a disdain of sorts with Bobby, so he retired. The two-time IndyCar series champion joined the television booth and was an accomplished color commentator for many years.
Stars of all kinds
Now at the age of 80, Unser seemed to be in good spirits and was very lively with the crowd, even if he had to sit most of the time. It was great to see him among the many stunning cars and warbirds of all sorts including a T-33 which was the trainer for my favorite jet, the P-80 Shooting Star, which I believe was the United States’ first jet fighter.
By the way, the airport originally began as a P-38 Lightning training site during WWII. The P-38 happens to be my favorite airplane of all-time and the number one ace of WWII – Major Richard Bong – flew a P-38. Yeah, some folks think it was the P-51 Mustang or F4U Corsair, but no it was the more versatile Lightning. I was looking forward to seeing the masterful aircraft however; I was disappointed they didn’t have anything more than some models. They’re very rare but I was hoping … oh well. Still, these stars of the sky were a treat, along with the more grounded stars.
It may be a little much to say the delayed Indy win in 1981 cost Unser his career but it certainly tainted the situation and probably led to an earlier retirement than he was ready for. In any case, my day was great as I love flying, cars and of course motorsports; so it was nice to do something away from the usual wine business which is everywhere here in wine country. Being at the airport with Bobby Unser brought out the nostalgia in me – which isn’t hard – and the story of his last Indy 500 is always worth telling.
Not that I don’t love the wine business and especially wine barrels, which brings me to an interesting situation …
Daryle W. Hier