There are very few drivers, living or deceased, who could drive as well, set up a racecar, talk as fast and share opinions like Bobby Unser. The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner and longtime ABC broadcaster was as outspoken as he was decorated during his four decades of entertaining the masses and, now 81, he’s still running wide open when it comes to speaking his mind.
He gave RACER’s Robin Miller an earful about what Indy car racing lacks and needs by the time we reach 2018.
Uncle Bobby, before we begin your critique, tell us what’s good about IndyCar today?
I think the racing is very good and the drivers are very good, a much better core than when the IRL started with a bunch of second- and third-echelon drivers. We have good drivers today but unfortunately most of them are foreigners and they don’t bring the crowds or draw the ratings.
Take Scott Dixon. He’s a wonderful driver and I think he could probably drive anything – a midget, a sprinter or a stock car. But I could take him to racetracks in Colorado, Arizona and Florida and nobody has any idea who he is, and that’s sad. Like I said, the racing has been tremendous the last couple years with as close a competition as you’ll ever see but two cars running side-by-side doesn’t excite the fans.
So what has to happen for people to start caring?
Everything must come from and through the Indianapolis 500, not the other races. And the first thing that must happen is that the Indy 500 needs to be segregated like it used to be. It needs to become a standalone event with its own set of rules and it doesn’t run or own the series. IndyCar shouldn’t have anything to do with it and Mark Miles can sell it or just give it away.
Like it was in the USAC era?
Yes, take that rulebook they have now and pitch it, throw it away. Indy has to be open to the world and open to innovation and design. Go back to 1970 or 1975, make some modifications, but leave it open. Go back to how it used to be. I hear people say you can’t go back and that’s b.s. The stands were full, the garages were full, we had 50 or 60 cars trying to qualify, and Indy had its own set of rules.”
BELOW: Bobby Unser’s three Indy 500-winning cars. The 1968 Eagle-Offy, ’75 Eagle-Offy and ’81 Penske PC9B.
ABOVE: Beaten to the first two spots on the grid in the 1968 Indy 500 by the Lotus 56 turbines of Joe Leonard and Graham Hill, Bobby had the last laugh after 200 laps. Image: Steve Shunck.
BELOW: Behind the times or advanced? Either way, the Ferguson Novi that Unser raced in the ’65 Indy 500 was very different, being cursed with a front-engine but blessed with all-wheel drive. He qualified eighth but finished only 19th with a fractured oil line.
Obviously you’re of the mind that the cars are important?
Hell yes the cars are important. The cars helped make Indy famous. I only made two laps in the Novi the first year I drove it but people knew me all over the world because I drove it. What a kick-start that was to my career. We didn’t like the fact Andy Granatelli out-smarted us with the turbine but that’s where the interest came from – that car is still popular today, 50 years later. It’s always been about the car and the driver and the cars always created interest at Indianapolis.
Today’s cars are all the same except for the paint jobs and that doesn’t excite anybody. How many people are those new aero kits gonna draw? C’mon, get serious. This has to be about the fans and the fans want variety and innovation. They keep talking about in order to excite people you have to break 240mph and that’s also b.s. because they want to manufacture the rules to do it. You create history by trial and error, using your noggin and taking a chance.”
Any suggestions for those rules?
I’d keep the safety cell, although I hate that phrase. It’s the tub or the frame and it needs to stay carbon fiber but the rest of the car has to be built out of either fiberglass or aluminum. No carbon fiber wings or sidepods and I’d also get rid of titanium.
Why does a car have to cost $1 million? Why is a sidepod $30,000? Why can’t people build their own parts? Why is an IndyCar budget $10 million? Why do you have to have 50 guys working on a team? The cost of racing today is insane and it doesn’t have to be.
I’d also be inclined to get rid of ground effects. The engine could be turbocharged, normally-aspirated, four, six, eight, 12 or 16 cylinders…whatever you want to try. I don’t care because I’m going to like it. You want to try a different roll center? Fine. You want the radiators mounted higher? Go for it. You want to put six washers in your mirror? Be my guest. If Roger Penske wants to try 10 different bodies, let him.
We don’t need a closed shop like IndyCar is today. Open things up and I promise you would have teams and cars coming from all over the world. And a hell of a lot more interest than there is today.
Some suggest going back to dirt races and front-engine cars might resurrect interest.
No, that can never happen, technology has gone too far.
But the segregation of church and state, Indy and the series, is Uncle Bobby’s cure?
No single item can cure the problem. We have spec cars nobody cares about and these ridiculous rules. The Speedway has to know we’ve been going the wrong way for many years and they’ve got to do something radically different.
Your old boss, Dan Gurney, penned The White Paper 37 years ago and one of his main concerns was that the USAC Championship Trail was the Indy 500 and a bunch of other races nobody cared about. It seems like that’s a pretty accurate description of today’s Verizon IndyCar Series.
There was a lot of logic in Dan’s White Paper and somebody should have read it and adhered to it but I’m telling you that today Indianapolis holds the golden spoon. It needs to make its own rules and just worry about itself. Indy has to stand alone and IMS can support the series but shouldn’t fund it. Another promotion entity can come up and have all the rest of the races and hopefully it will have 18-20 races a year but not be controlled by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It’s not going to kill racing, it’s going to make it better. It’s the only way to bring back big fields and fill the grandstands. And people will start caring again.
BELOW: Bobby and jubilant team owner Dan Gurney after winning the Ontario 500 in 1974.