OK, we’re all stuck in lock-down hell – no racing, no sports, no social gatherings, no traveling and nothing to do but browse the internet, read a book or Facetime friends and family.
But wait. There is a ray of sunshine in this pandemic: it’s the perfect time for a phone call to Robert William Unser.
The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner, four-time loser at love, self-taught engineer, king of Pike’s Peak and outspoken leader of one of motorsports’ most decorated families is always fun to talk to, but is just getting warmed up at 30 minutes.
So what better window to ring Uncle Bobby than now, when all anyone has is time on their hands? At 86, he’s not getting around without his motorized chair and he has trouble hearing on occasion, but his mind and memory are still plenty sharp.
And, thankfully, he’s still that uncensored treasure who always says what’s on his mind, regardless of the fallout – just like his old rivals Foyt, Johncock and Jones.
We spent an hour discussing the golden era of IndyCar racing: the heroes that are gone, and the ones still kicking that we idolize. So sit back and enjoy the world according to Uncle Bobby as he expounds on the warriors he raced against…
A.J. FOYT: “At one time, he was my hero, for sure. He was a good friend in the beginning before he became a bully. I don’t care for the way he acts sometimes but nobody could say he wasn’t an exceptional racer. Maybe not the best, but damn good in everything he drove. And a really good chassis and engine man. A hard-charger and clean. But being a bully made his racing look better.”
MARIO ANDRETTI: “First of all, I’m happy – and I hope he’s happy – that we’re friends again. We were great friends for a long time and then mad (at each other) for many years; but now we’re good. He was so good. He was born with that spoon in his mouth for being (a) great racer. Just a natural and exceptionally talented. He came along at the right time and stayed with it. He became a hero.”
PARNELLI JONES: “One of best that ever came down the road, if not the best. It was amazing what he could with a racecar, and he didn’t even have to try hard. But he hung it up way too early. He was too good to quit at that age. He’ll get mad at me for saying it, but he shouldn’t have quit at age 34.”
DAN GURNEY: “Only ran against him for a little bit, but he was very good, very clean and very bright. [The] guy had a one-track mind; learned a lot from those English guys and then put it to use over here. So smart on the mechanical stuff – roll centers, camber curve, you name it, he knew it. We made a great team.”
AJ UNSER SR: “He was untouchable if he wanted to be. If his car was right, he was going to win. He had everything you needed to win races. He wasn’t untouchable, no, but really, really good. I liked the way he drove.”
JOHNNY RUTHERFORD: “Johnny was a good race driver, more like a gentleman race driver, and finally got good results with McLaren. He needed that to get him going. He was a charger and crashed a lot in his early years, but he was fast. Really good on ovals but pretty poor on road courses.”
GORDON JOHNCOCK: “A good, natural-born racer; good on the high banks. He could make a lot of guys look like dummies because he could go so fast, but he didn’t know how or why. He knew where the steering wheel was and that’s about it. But as good as he was, I never thought Gordy had his heart in it. I don’t think he liked racing like I did.”
LLOYD RUBY: “Too good, too fast, and it’s sad day that he never got to drive a car like mine. Nothing would have stopped him from winning Indy many times if he had better equipment. He’s the best guy that never won. He didn’t achieve based on his abilities. But he didn’t know how to help himself. He had no mechanical ability, just a lot of feel.”
ROGER MCCLUSKEY: “Good at times, but not all the time. Good racer and a smart guy, but he didn’t know chassis. Helluva sprint car driver. One of my best friends.
JIM HURTUBISE: “Could have been one of the greats – a lot like McCluskey. One of the best in the early ‘60s before he got burned, and he was sooooooo brave. But he didn’t like rear-engine cars, got stuck on roadsters, and that was his downfall.”
DON BRANSON: “Oh, ****, Pappy was so good. For sure he was one of the strongest on dirt. You couldn’t get rid of him on dirt. He would win a sprint car race and then tell you he was sorry you didn’t win. And damn good on the pavement as well. What a wonderful person.”
RODGER WARD: “He was my hero in a lot of ways. The guy could drive better than he was getting credit for in his last days. He didn’t want to race anymore by the mid-1960s. But he was amazing in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s before I came along. Unbeatable on the mile dirt tracks. I know A.J. and Rufus thought very highly of him. Rodger treated me really well and helped me when I came along.”
WHERE DO YOU RANK ON THE ALL-TIME LIST? “I don’t know. Got my learning from Parnelli Jones. I probably belong in the Top 5. I outdid a lot of guys, made a lot of big changes in my career. Sprint cars did a lot for me. It could have been disastrous, but it worked out. I led a lot of laps and never cared about second place. It was a wonder I was able to quit when I did. Think about how much I loved racing.”
BEST CAR? “A toss-up between the 1972 Eagle and 1981 Penske. Never remember a close call in either one of them, and just a delight to drive. I could have lapped the field in that ’72 Eagle while picking my teeth. And nobody had anything for me in ’81 with Roger’s car; it was in a class of its own.”
WORST CAR? “That Huffaker. Honest to goodness, father, that thing was really evil. No knowledge on how to fix it. I liked Joe (Huffaker) but his car was trying to kill me. Sent me the steering wheel from 1966 after I went under the guardrail at Phoenix.”
BEST WIN? “Had to be in 1968 at Indy because it changed my life. I beat the turbine and people started paying attention to me.”
FAVORITE TRACK? “Has to be Indy for obvious reasons. Indy makes your life. It made my life.”
FAVORITE WIFE? “I had two. The one I’ve got now (Lisa) and Marsha.” (Editor’s note: Lisa Unser has spent 20 years putting up with Unser and deserves the Silver Star, Nobel Peace Prize and a two-week vacation to Maui by herself.)
DID YOU LIKE SAM POSEY? “You know, I did like Sam. Everybody misconstrues it. He was a nice person and always polite. I had to correct him a lot on the air but it wasn’t mean-spirited. He just needed some educating. And sometimes some deodorant.”
GIVE US A STORY NOBODY KNOWS: “Back in the ’60s when Foyt and I were buddies, we went to Ascot Park for a midget race. He was driving for A.J. Watson. On the flight to L.A. I got him drunk and A.J. wasn’t much of a drinker so it was pretty funny. We got to the track and Watson was livid. ‘You got my driver drunk!’ he screamed. Well, Foyt wins the feature and is waving at me on the cool-off lap. I swear he was drunk before that race started, but he sure was impressive when they dropped the green flag.”
WHO WILL LIVE LONGER? “Me and Ruf are the oldest at 86. Foyt is 85 and should have croaked years ago with all the things he’s battled, but he’s a tough old bird. I’d like to think Ruf and I will live longer but all I know is that all three of us have had great lives and careers. So has Mario, Johncock, Rutherford and my brother. We’re damn lucky.”