On May 2, 2021, three-time Indianapolis 500 champion and twenty-year motor racing broadcaster died from natural causes at his home in Albuquerque, NM. He was 87 years old. Unser won “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” in 1968, 1975, and 1981, joining his brother Al, one of three four-time winners of the Indianapolis 500, and his nephew Al Unser, Jr., who has two wins of his own, as the winningest family in the history of the storied speedway.
After returning from a three-year stint in the United States Air Force from 1953 to 1955, Unser won the first of his record 13 Pikes Peak Hill Climb victories in 1956. Unser first attempted the “500” in 1963 at age 30. After going winless in his first five seasons in IndyCar competition, the 1968 Indianapolis 500 was his first career win. The momentum that followed that win led him to edge Mario Andretti in that year’s USAC Championship.
After a win in 1975 with the legendary Dan Gurney, Unser drove for another legend in the twilight of his career – Roger Penske. The fiery Unser and stoic Penske were as polar opposites as could be dreamed of in an owner/driver combination, but that combination led to three years of race-winning pace and ultimately a triumph in the 1981 race, the final race victory of Unser’s career.
The 1981 race was won by Unser in a controversial ruling in which an in-race penalty by Unser was overturned in October of 1981, giving Unser the victory five months after Mario Andretti was named the winner of the race. Unser retired in 1982 after winning 35 career IndyCar races, starting on the pole 52 times, two national championships, and being inducted into the Motorsports and Indianapolis Motor Speedways’ Hall of Fames.
“Uncle Bobby,” as he was called by fans became a commentator for ABC Sports for over two decades following his retirement. He commentated turn two of the speedway and the backstretch during the month of May with Paul Page as the Play-by-Play announcer and Sam Posey as the turns three and four commentator. While Unser and Posey’s styles and opinions consistently clashed, the trio became one of the most beloved motorsports broadcasting booths in history.
As the month of May is upon us in Indianapolis, the eyes of the world will turn to the two-and-a-half-mile speedway this Memorial Day weekend. The legends of the speedway will be present after an absence in 2020 due to COVID-19, but it will be unusual to not have the voice of the ever-opinionated Bobby Unser filling the speedway as fans hang on to his every word. Unser will forever be enshrined in the walls and pavement of the speedway however, as the legend of “Uncle Bobby” will go down in history. Story by Tristan Fluhr.