Bobby Unser would have made a good preacher. When you listen to him talk, you can’t help but feel inspired.
“There’s one word that’s more imporant than any other in the world, and that’s desire,” said the 76-year-old Unser Friday afternoon. “Anyone who has desire can achieve anything they want.”
Just some hokey, homespun wisdom imparted by an affable, story-spinning grandfather figure? Not when you consider that Unser grew up dirt-poor in New Mexico, never finished high school and went on to become one of the greatest legends in auto racing.
Unser met with members of the press Friday in conjunction with his weekend at the Saratoga Automobile Museum, where he’s helping raise funds for the educational programs at the museum.
The museum will be staging “An Evening With Bobby Unser” from 6 to 9 tonight. Tickets are $25 for museum members and $35 for non-members, and will be available at the door. Unser will also be signing autographs, for $10.
The Unser name is synonymous with success in auto racing, beginning with Unser’s “Uncle Louie’s” exploits at Pikes Peak to Bobby and his younger brother, Al, who combined to win the Indianapolis 500 seven times.
And if there’s a common theme to the success of all the Unsers, it’s hard work.
“We were so poor we couldn’t afford to buy a newspaper,” said Unser. “I started working in my dad’s shop when I was 8 years old, and worked there until I bought the shop from him. I was raised as a mechanic, and I’m a self-taught mechanical engineer. I didn’t even finish high school, which probably isn’t a good thing, but I still did OK.”
Unser can’t put a finger on why he got into racing, but once he started, he was hooked.
“When I was 8, my dad sold five donkeys and bought a Model-A Ford, and if you could see pictures of that car, we put a number 3 on it. Who knows what triggers something like that in the head of an 8-year-old?” said Unser. “Back then, Albuquerque was a horse town, a cattle town. It was not an automobile town. But we were obviously a little wacky in the heads, because we loved automobile racing.”
His Uncle Louie, who won the famed Pikes Peak Hill Climb nine times, was his first hero, and his first mentor.
“When I was 12 or 13 years old, I knew I wanted to beat all of Uncle Louie’s records,” said Unser, who went on to win Pikes Peak 13 times.
And it was at Pikes Peak that he made the connections that got him to Indianapolis.
“The factories, Ford, Chevy, Chrysler, were all running Pikes Peak and Parnelli Jones was driving for Ford,” said Unser. “He was the golden-haired boy of auto racing at the time. I knew Pikes Peak well, it was really an obsession with me, and Parnelli and I got to be good friends because I taught him a lot about Pikes Peak. He’s the guy who took me to Indianapolis. I already had a reputation, and I probably would have gone, anyway, but Parnelli really made it happen. He thought I was good enough, and I didn’t.”
Unser went on to win the Indianapolis 500 three times, the last in 1981, when he became the oldest driver, at the age of 47, to win the race. But that race also pushed him into retirement.
Unser and Mario Andretti both made a pit stop on lap 149, and when they came out, Unser passed “seven or eight cars” before blending back into the pack. Unser went on to win the race, and Andretti finished second. But Andretti protested, saying that Unser had passed cars under caution, and Unser was stripped of the victory the following morning.
But a subsequent review of tapes of the race showed that Andretti had also passed two cars under caution, and the protest wound up being heard in court. Unser had his victory reinstated in October 1981, five months after he took the checkered flag.
Unser announced his retirement at the end of the 1981 season.
But the drawn-out procedure, which cost him about $300,000 out of his own pocket in lawyer’s fees, really didn’t have anything to do with Unser’s decision to leave the sport.
“I had already told Roger [car owner Roger Penske] that I was only going to run five races the next year,” said Unser. “We had a heck of a year. I led every race that I ran in 1981. But I had a young son at home. I had already totally missed my older son growing up, and I didn’t want to miss out on my younger son, too. He was winning races up the wazoo, and I owned his car, but I probably didn’t spend 60 days in New Mexico over the course of a year because of all the racing I did. That’s the real reason I retired after 1981.”
In addition to racing, Unser also designed, developed and tested racing tires for Goodyear for over 30 years, helped develop the front-wheel drive Toronado for the Oldsmobile division of General Motors and worked on high-performance testing for Audi.
The way Bobby Unser figures it, if he can rise from the dust of Albuquerque, N.M., to become a member of four different halls of fame and a legend of his sport, anyone can achieve their goals.
“No one should have to do things they don’t want to do. Everyone should have a trigger in their life,” he said. “If you’re going to be a guy who runs a taxi cab, be a good taxi cab driver. If you’re going to drive a race car, be a good race car driver.
“I believe in self-motivation. If you’re motivated enough, there are no limits.”