Unser Family The Best Ever At Indy
INDIANAPOLIS – When it comes to success at the Indianapolis 500 no family can touch the Unsers.
Between four-time winner Al Unser, his three-time winning brother Bobby and two-time winner Al Unser Jr., the family has achieved nine Indianapolis 500 victories.
“In our cars Bobby Unser won the Indy 500, Al won the Indy 500 and Al Jr. won the Indy 500 so it was really a family affair,” said team owner Roger Penske, whose cars were driven by an Unser to three of their nine victories at Indianapolis.
In fact, each of the three drivers achieved their last Indianapolis 500 victory in a Penske Racing car with Bobby winning his third Indy 500 in 1981, Al becoming the second four-time Indy winner in 1987 and Al winning his final Indianapolis 500 in 1994.
The Indianapolis 500 has brought the Unsers tremendous fame and glory but it has also taken a price.
The first of six Unsers to compete in the Indianapolis 500 was Jerry, the eldest of the Unser Brothers. He was a rookie in the 1958 Indianapolis 500 but his car went sailing over the Turn 3 wall in the massive first-lap crash that killed driver Pat O’Connor. Although Jerry Unser was unhurt he was involved in a crash at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway the next year and died on May 17, 1959 from blood poisoning.
Al Unser was just 19 years old when his oldest brother became the first Unser at Indianapolis.
“It was an honor to know that my brother Jerry was going there as a rookie,” Al Unser said. “He had problems and the next year he spun and hit the wall and caught on fire, swallowed the fire and died. It was an honor to have your brother there and I thought, `Boy, I’d like to race there one day and it all worked out.’ Bobby did it and then I did it and then my son Al came along. It represents a lot.”
“Uncle Joe” Unser also had dreams of competing at Indianapolis but was killed in a car crash in Denver in 1929.
Jerry’s son, Johnny, would compete in the Indianapolis 500 from 1996-2000 with a high finish of 18th in 1997. Bobby’s son, Robby, ran in two Indianapolis 500s finishing fifth as a rookie in 1998 and was eighth in 1999.
It was Bobby Unser that would ultimately begin a career at Indianapolis in 1963 that would ultimately make the Unser name synonymous with success at the Indy 500 when he scored the first of the family’s nine victories in 1968.
“It’s indescribable to say the least,” Al Unser, Jr. said of the family record at the Indianapolis 500. “It’s something that I just feel my family was blessed to do very well at Indy. It’s phenomenal that Uncle Bobby and Dad and myself were able to win the race. Making it is an achievement in itself and to do as well as we did there is phenomenal.
“I just consider it being a `God thing.’ It was something we were very, very fortunate to be as successful as we were at Indy. Great race car drivers – many great ones that could win that thing numerous times never did. I can tell you it’s nothing we did differently. We were just very lucky and fortunate to be able to have the teams we were with and to be running at the end of the thing.”
Bobby Unser’s path to Indianapolis may have been the least likely. He was just a local short track driver from Albuquerque, New Mexico who attempted to go to Indianapolis just four years after his oldest brother Jerry’s death. The town of Albuquerque was so proud they threw him a going away party before he left for Indianapolis in 1963.
There was certainly no way Bobby could let them down but he knew the odds were against him. It was a strong friendship with Parnelli Jones, who would go on to win the 1963 Indianapolis 500, that helped him defy the odds and make the field that year. Bobby Unser’s first ride wasn’t going to be fast enough to make the race and the team had run out of tires so Jones was able to convince another team owner, Andy Granatelli, to give Unser a chance in the loud, powerful Novi.
“My career was right there in front of my eyes so I had to make the race,” Bobby said. “Lo and behold I went really fast – the fifth fastest qualifier in the race. Yes I had some lesser than good cars after that but I knew how to go fast. There were some years before 1968 before I won it for the first time. There were 60-70 cars entered that were looking for drivers. In 1968 with the Turbine they had us beat and it turned out they screwed up but we got better. I have always said the Good Lord had everything to do with that. It wasn’t me because I didn’t have the power to do that.”