Bobby Unser’s 1981 Indy 500 Win Cost Him Career

Bobby Unser

Three-time Indy 500 winner and two-time series champion, Bobby Unser

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.

1981 Indy 500 winning car

Bobby Unser won the pole and eventually the Indy 500 in 1981 with this Penske-prepared #3 IndyCar that gave Unser his third Indy 500 win and also his last career victory.

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.

Old Classics - Warbirds, Wings & Wheels

There were classic cars everywhere at the Estrella Warbird Museum & Woodland Auto Display

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

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NHRA Sells Pro Classes?

Glendora, California:

Six years ago, the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) had tentatively sold their professional operation to a consortium of investors called HD Partners.  However, that deal fell apart with the onset of the current Great Recession.  It appears a new deal with a new group … is just a hopeful rumor.Rumor

Actually, the news coming out of the NHRA is that Sunoco will become the official fuel starting in 2015 (go here for more).  VP Racing Fuels is who supplies the NHRA right now.

What if the rumors had been true?  It probably would be good news for everyone.  Television would finally be able to control the operations of an event more easily and the Pro classes would be able to rid themselves of the stagnant and sometimes confounding ways of Glendora.  I’ve mentioned this before but some years ago an influential man in sports marketing told me that if the NHRA was ever to be a major sport in the United States, one thing they would have to do is get rid of the Sportsman classes.

And speaking of Sportsman, the NHRA could finally turn their attention to the much maligned classes and help promote the grassroots of drag racing.  As far as what this might mean for Nostalgia drag racing is a bit more sketchy.  The Heritage Series is run through the NHRA Museum, which more than likely stays in the hands of the NHRA.  With the Sportsman classes and Nostalgia being the focus of the NHRA, they could start promoting the events and putting more emphasis on the the Heritage Series which gets almost no support from Glendora.

Again, we can only hope that some sort of promotion-minded business comes along to wrestle drag racing from the clutches of NHRA’s non-profit operation.  Until then, don’t expect much in the way of advancing drag racing past the midnight television slots and being delayed while the local women’s ping pong tournament from Bangladesh finishes up.

Daryle W. Hier

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Drag Racing Is Back!

It seems every winter I end up talking about the lack of racing and how I can’t wait for the new season to start.  This time, I stopped myself from another silly article about how boring it is without motorsports – unless of course this counts.

Joe Namath

Drag racing could sure use someone cool like Joe Namath

Being a football fan doesn’t help what with the Super Bowl and thus the season over for another seven months.  Hey, didn’t Joe Willy look cool – brings back great memories.

Regardless, the NHRA drag racing season is upon us and all I can say is: Thank God!

A shot of ground-pounding nitro-burning behemoths burning rubber is just what the doctor ordered.  The Winternationals from Pomona, California, start this Thursday and whether we agree with what the NHRA does and doesn’t do to screw up drag racing, it’s still nice to sit back and enjoy one of life’s pleasures.

Not having to be concerned about the news delving into another silly story such as toilet fishing at the Olympics – it appears Russians are troubled about just this problem (go here for the lunacy) – helps with the insanity.

Being inundated with what is the best Super Bowl commercial – by the way, they’re all lame, yes even the puppy ones – does nothing for my psyche unless I can entertain you while you watch my grey matter explode.  These brain farts called commercials are not going to make me buy Budweiser, Coke or a Maserati Ghibli, whatever the heck that is.  Advertising is truly dead.

Racing brings a bit of normalcy back to those of us who are motorsports folks.  Miley Cyrus and Puppy Bowls don’t do it for me.  Other than our new business, which excites the you-know-what out of me, drag racing does do it for me and now it’s time to light em’ up!

Winternationals

Daryle W. Hier

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64 Funny Cars!

Although my father (Ron Hier) was one of the early drag racers during the ’50s and into the first part of the ’60s, that was really before my time.  I grew up as a teenager in the ’70s during the the hey-day of Funny Cars and again, although dad was a Junior and Top Fueler, my love was the Funny Cars.

OCIR

Orange County International Raceway was famous for its manufacturer championship with ’64 Funny Cars’.

While I did see drag races at places like Lions and Bakersfield when I was quite small, my memories are seeing Funny Car after Funny Car run at places like Irwindale, Ontario and of course Orange County (OCIR).  The scenes are still vivid at OCIR when it seemed every piece of asphalt was filled with floppers.  The Hawaiian, Chi-Town Hustler, Jungle Jim and of course the Snake and Mongoose.  There are so many more but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my personal all-time favorite, Raymond Beadle’s Blue Max.  It was a magical time and listening to the radio advertisements of 64 Funny Cars and ‘Sunday, Sunday, Sunday’ still resonates in my mind today.

And that is what had me thinking, with the mass of Nostalgia Funny Cars around now or being built, a good promoter or somebody with some public relation moxie should be able to put a big dollar and fan exhibition together.  A majority of the cars are on the West Coast but because more and more new Nostalgia Funny Cars are popping up in the eastern half of the United States, maybe a neutral site that has the facilities to hold a lot of cars and fans, should be the base for this.

Sure, Bakersfield is one of the venerable drag strips of all times, but the facilities are limited so if you had a successful promotion and people came out to watch the event, there will be several thousands fighting  each other for an available seat.  Add to that the fact it’s in California and it makes it that much harder to make arrangements to travel there from the rest of the country.

Raymond Beadle's Blue Max

The Blue Max made many appearances during the hey-day of Funny Cars.

The purse should be high although what’s high in Nostalgia isn’t all that much.  However, to entice folks to come from all around including our friends to the north (Canada), there should be a healthy reward for whoever wins and even teams who went more than a round or two should be compensated for putting on such a huge show.  Sponsorship will obviously be needed to foot the bill for the purse but if enough promotion is done, the place should be packed no matter where it is.

An event like this may be newsworthy enough that even some of the major media organizations will at least briefly mention it.  So there you go Mr. Promoter.  Nostalgia drag racing continues to be very popular and Nostalgia Funny Cars are probably at record numbers right now.  Now’s the time.

64 Funny Cars … Be there!

Daryle W. Hier

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U.S. Route 66 and Burma Shave

Route 66

To some baby boomers and most of the younger set of Americans with their I-pads, I-phones, Palms, Droids and X-boxes – Route 66 and Burma Shave are File:US 66.svgforeign, like another language.  What are they and how do they relate to each other?  Well, in a sense, it might be a different language to them since it’s called history and nostalgia.  Nostalgia, because Route 66 was built in November, 1926 (FHWA.gov).  The “father” of the highway was a fellow by the name of Cyrus Steven Avery from Tulsa, Oklahoma.  The road stretched 2,448 miles (Historic66.com) from Chicago, Illinois, to Los Angeles, California, (Santa Monica) and earned the title of “The Mother Road” from John Steinbeck’s book “The Grapes of Wrath” and is colloquially known as the “Main Street of America”.

Burma Shave

In 1925, Burma Shave was invented by a fellow named Clinton Odell.  Mr. Odell’s father was a lawyer and a tinkerer and owned a company called Burma Vita, whose product was a liniment with ingredients from the Malay Peninsula and Burma (Myanmar).  Clinton had built an insurance business but was told by his doctor, that he needed to do something less stressful.  Since sales were not very exciting with his father’s liniment business, he decided to add something to the product line that would stimulate sales.  With the help of a chemist friend, he used the liniment to develop a brushless shaving cream that he would call Burma Shave, but sales and marketing of the product became a dilemma.BurmaShaveboxandtube

Brilliant Advertising

With the advent of the new Route 66, what better place to advertize your wares than signs on the brand new highway that would become the “Most famous road in America” and  stretched across most of the U.S.  Odell’s two sons decided that working with farmers and land owners, they would put up sequential signs that would be seen by thousands of motorists traveling to and from Chicago and Los Angeles and cities in between.  Sales skyrocketed and Burma Shave became the second highest selling shaving cream in the U.S.

The Signs

With the thought of entertaining motorists and their families while at the same time advertising the product, signs such as this appeared in sequential order:

PITY ALL – THE MIGHTY CAESARS – THEY PULLED – THEIR WHISKERS – OUT WITH TWEEZERS … BURMA SHAVE.

Route66 Burma Shave - White Cap

This cap might be yours

Of course, these signs were seen on just about every highway in almost every state from the 1920s to the 1960s.  As traffic increased on the new roads, the brothers thought they should do their part for driver safety so signs such as this began to appear:

DON’T TAKE – A CURVE – AT 60 PER – WE HATE TO LOSE – A CUSTOMER … BURMA  SHAVE.

I hope the youth of today with their high speed, high-tech, state-of- the art, technologically advanced, information highway will take time to look back at one of the most important events in U.S. history: The marriage of U.S. Route 66 and Burma Shave.

See ya’ at the races.

Ronnie Hier

Additional source: The Verse By The Side Of The Road

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California Needs Drag Strips: The Answer? Central Coast

In a state where drag racing was born due in part to dry lakes racing and the regions fervent support and love of the automobile, there seemed to be a quarter-mile drag strip in every corner of California.  Starting with the innocuous Goleta, there may have been nearly 100 drag strip facilities dotted throughout the state from Fremont to Fontana and Saugus to Santa Ana (pictured).Santa-Ana-drags

Population up, drag racing down

However, with the onslaught of population and the crush of urban development – along with noise activists – tracks disappeared.  Everywhere you looked, there were abandoned strips that sometimes sat vacant for decades afterwards.  Famed tracks like Orange County eventually became a plot of commercial highrises while Irwindale turned into a brewery and Lions, well, sadly it’s just a storage yard.

In a century of growth, the greater Los Angeles area in Southern California went from roughly 200,000 to 20 million (source US Census).  At the advent of the Roaring 20s, the state as a whole grew from about 4 million to almost 40 million.  Yet today, we have literally a handful of quarter-mile drag strips to pursue the thrill of drag racing.  That’s dangerous for our streets where especially the young head out to street race illegally.

Centrally located

What’s needed is to build in an area where urban sprawl doesn’t have an effect on a potential racing facility.  Also, would it be nice if it was centrally located so both the southern and northern folks can meet without having to drive half a day.  That can happen right here on the Central Coast.

National forests like Los Padres take up much of the land from Santa Barbara to Monterey plus with vineyards helping to insulate itself from population growth, much of the towns of the Central Coast will likely never see any population explosions.  Such are these reasons and more that many of us live near or on the coast of Central California.

Santa_Ynez_Valley_Farm

Regions like the Santa Ynez Valley northwest of Santa Barbara are perfect for drag racing.

The Santa Ynez Valley in inland Santa Barbara County is one of many excellent locations with idyllic small towns geared towards visitors for the vineyards that could also entertain racers and their fans.  Just north is Santa Maria with farms and wide open spaces, yet has many hotels due to being the biggest city on the Central Coast.  In San Luis Obispo County, there are several locations though don’t expect anything in the city of San Luis Obispo – it’s loaded with small-minded no-growth activists who would squash any idea of a race track.  However, in what is called the open rolling hills of ‘North County’, from Atascadero to Paso Robles, there are many potential locations for drag strips.

Positives

The idea of bringing safety to the Central Coast by keeping illegal street racers off our back roads should be met with open arms.  Additionally, the income from having one of the only quarter-mile strips in California would be welcomed during this continuing elongated recessional period we’ve had the last several years.

Among the beauty that this region is known for, the centrally located towns of the Central Coast, sitting between two giant metropolitan areas, would be ideal for a quarter-mile drag racing facility.  I got the ball rolling, now who’s ready to step up and make it happen?

Daryle W. Hier 

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Stuart Hilborn Passes Away

Stuart Hilborn - Facebook

Stuart Hilborn – Dry Lakes
Courtesy of Facebook

Sad news … I just heard that Stu Hilborn passed away at 96.  Back in the day we had one of the early Hilborn fuel injectors on a Ford Flathead for our dragster.  Later on, Stuart and Jack Engle were the “engineers” that put together the Potvin crank drive for the Lee’s Speed Shop dragster.  We used his dino behind Engle’s shop and Stu’s expertise to tune and fit the injector to the blower.  It worked so well and looked so good that Eric Rickman came out from Hot Rod magazine and it wound up on the cover of the Magazine.  He was one of my friends in racing and I, and the racing world will truly miss him.  My thoughts and prayers are with his family….May Stuart Hilborn rest in peace.

Ronnie Hier

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My father Ron (who posted above), knew Stuart Hilborn going back to the early years of drag racing.  He talks often about those days back in the ’50s.

Hilborn was born in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, moved to the United States and Southern California as a child, eventually becoming a college educated automotive engineer.  His life in racing goes back to the dry lakes and Muroc Dry Lake (now Edwards Air Force Base) prior to WW II.  He served in the Air Force as a gunnery instructor and then proceeded to make a life in motorsports.

Hilborn essentially invented the fuel injection system long before there was any electronic fuel injection.  He did so well racing his fuel injector that combined with an injury, Stu had to make the decision to build a business.  His products ended up in every level of racing and at one time, dominated the Indianapolis 500.  Stuart Hilborn’s company continues to this day.

These icons of racing pass away every day so make sure you say hi to one you know and talk about the those old days.  Their history is immense, but when they’re gone, they’re gone.

By the way, I’m a longtime advocate for Alzheimer’s and things like this always remind me that we have to preserve the history of racing because not only do we lose people everyday, but with Alzheimer’s as the fastest growing cause of death, it’s taking away the minds of our fellow racers.  Learn more about Alzheimer’s and dementia here.

Daryle W. Hier 

Sources: Dry Lakes and Drag Strips, Autoweek, SEMA Hall of Fame, Hilborn Fuel Injection

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