One of the big advantages of this line of work is that you get to cover, and sometimes meet, really consequential people. Once such instance happened for me when I found myself at the induction dinner for the Indianapolis 500 Hall of Fame a few years back. A big part of the evening, which was studded with racing luminaries, came when Bobby Unser sidled up to me, away from the crowd, and just started to talk. We kept at it through a few rounds and most of the ceremony. Bobby had a lot to say, much of it private, and all of it heartfelt. So we know that even a guy who won Indy three times after an extremely violent and dangerous apprenticeship is, in many ways, just a guy. That’s how Bobby Unser, who died this week at 87, presented himself, whether he behind the mike for ABC Sports or just knocking back a couple with an interested admirer. He was a scion of America’s foremost racing family, which can trace its involvement in the sport back a full century and across four generations.
So for me, the accompanying Albert Wong photo from the Road Racing Drivers Club, which honored Uncle Bobby before the IndyCar race at Long Beach in 2015, captures things perfectly. How can you summarize this guy’s existence, or his family’s, without writing a book about it, something that’s already happened a couple of times? Bobby was just one of the Unser family to lay claim to Pikes Peak, mastering the mountainous thrill ride 13 times, including aboard his Trans-Am Audi Quattro that was one of his final rides. He survived a murderous climb through Sprint cars, had a hand at taming the vicious Novi, and won Indy outright in 1968 and 1975. His third win, over Mario Andretti in 1981, required a courtroom battle and six months to resolve, which makes some people forget that Andretti was the only other driver Unser hadn’t lapped during the race. After turning one of IndyCar’s first 200 MPH laps aboard one of Dan Gurney’s Eagles, he demolished the track record at Indy by 17 MPH in 1972. Before starting a 20-year broadcast career, Bobby won 35 times in Indy cars, collecting two USAC national titles. He was incredibly brave, granite tough and above all that, a great guy. The photo shows Bobby being feted by RRDC president Bobby Rahal, himself an Indy champion, with Bobby’s wife Lisa Unser showing her pride.