The Journal Gazette
Tuesday, May 04, 2021 1:00 am

Indy's loquacious legend, Bobby Unser, dies at age 87

Ben Smith

Of them all, he was the one the talking gene caught. It might have been the only thing that ever caught him.

Bobby Unser was fast and he was fearless and, lord, could he talk. He was as free with words as his younger brother Al was stingy with them, as heavy-footed as his brother was cool and calculating.

They sprang from the mountains and desert around Albuquerque, New Mexico, heirs to an iconic racing family that made its bones broadsliding up Pike's Peak and then found other challenges. Jerry Unser Jr., Bobby and Al's older brother, died at Indy before his brothers ever showed up.

Bobby and Al went on to avenge him, of a fashion, winning the 500 seven times between them. Al Jr., Al's son and Bobby's nephew, won it a couple more times.

Now Bobby is gone, passing Sunday at 87. No doubt he's bending a few celestial ears somewhere at this very moment.

I'm guessing this, see, because one day at Indianapolis I collared Bobby in the media center to ask for a few words about A.J. Foyt, his contemporary from what those who've been around awhile regard as the golden age of IndyCar. There were the Unsers and there was Foyt and there was Mario Andretti, and don't forget Johnny Rutherford and Gordie Johncock and Lloyd Ruby, whose misfortune on Memorial Day weekend in Indiana became legendary.

Anyway, here I was and here Bobby was, and he talked and talked and talked. He talked about A.J. the racer and A.J. the curmudgeon and the A.J. not everyone knew about, the guy who lent Bobby a ride one night at some forgotten short track and got halfway mad when Bobby ran faster than A.J. did.

It might have been the only time as a sportswriter when I actually thought, “Is he ever gonna shut up?”

Of course, this was at roughly the same time I was thinking, “Thank God for Bobby Unser.”

In any case, when he was finally done talking, my notebook was out of unscribbled pages. And my A.J. Foyt feature had some real meat on its bones.

I could have written something with similar heft about Bobby himself, because heavens knows he saw so much. He came in at Indy in '63 driving a Novi for Andy Granatelli, and he went out in '81 driving rocket ships for Roger Penske. The hotshoes were qualifying at 150 mph when Bobby first answered the green at Indy; when he departed 18 years later, it took 200 mph to win the pole.

So, yes, some stuff happened in his time. In his first start, he finished dead last after turning the Novi into scrap against the first-turn concrete; five years later, he wound up in Victory Lane when Granatelli's sleek white-sidewall turbines died nine laps from the finish.

After that there was the Olsonite Eagle with which he cleared 195, and a rain-shortened win in 1975. And then the third win in '81 for Penske – which will forever be disputed because Bobby was initially disqualified, then reinstated a couple of months later.

In between, Mario Andretti was briefly a two-time winner. Not that Bobby likely cared.

The Borg-Warner Trophy still has his face on it, after all. As I'm sure he likely said at some point.

Along with much, much else, naturally.


Ben Smith a former columnist for The Journal Gazette. 

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