Old Route 66 crosses the New Mexico desert and feeds into the outskirts of Albuquerque. Back a bit from the highway is Bobby Unser's house, surrounded by sand, scrub and sage. Up the road is a tiny Mexican-American café, just down it is a drive-in theater that shows X-rated movies, and directly across it is a wrecking yard for trucks. Behind Unser's modern 15-room ranch house is the foundation of the two-room house in which he and his three brothers were raised—it was so crowded they often slept on the porch. Hard by the highway is the garage Jerry Unser, the boys' father, built when he moved his family from Colorado in 1937. Its location at the end of town is no accident; Mr. Unser wanted his to be the first garage westward migrants would see after they crossed the desert in their exhausted, overloaded and overheating automobiles.
On a crowded wall in a corner of the ranch house, next to the bar, hangs a small, framed message, written in 1951. It says:
Dear Daddy & Bobby:
Hang your foot in it and Don't let anyone push you around.
I love you.
Al & Mother
The note was a send-off for Bobby and his father before Bobby's first big race: the Carrera Pan Americana, 1,933 miles through Mexico, from the Guatemala border to the Texas border. Bobby drove and his father navigated their Jaguar sedan. Bobby's hand had been broken in a fight two nights earlier. They started 90th, and passed 67 cars on the first day. On the second day Bobby approached a mountain turn, an Alfa Romeo on his right, a 500-foot cliff on his left. The slower Alfa swerved toward the Jaguar and the cars banged fenders. The Unsers just missed going over the cliff; the Alfa smashed into the mountainside, and its driver was killed. Bobby kept going, down out of the mountains and into a village, the stone walls lining its narrow dirt streets flying by him at 100 mph. The wall outlining a 90-degree turn in the town square claimed the Jaguar. Seventeen-year-old Unser led the race at the time. Could brother Al, who was 12 when he wrote that note with his mother, ever have known what a perfect family motto he had created?
Raised on Route 66. Was it inevitable that the Unser brothers would become race drivers? Their father was a driver. Their Uncle Louis was a driver—a legendary one. Between 1926 and 1967 he raced up Pikes Peak 46 times in the annual Fourth of July hill climb, at times competing in more than one class. He was called the King of the Mountain, and he quit only when, at 72, the race officials made him. Their Uncle Joe was a driver—killed while practicing on the highway for the 1929 Indianapolis 500. Jerry, the oldest brother, was USAC stock-car champion in 1957 and was killed in a fiery crash at Indianapolis in 1959. Jerry's twin, Louis, twice won the stock-car class at Pikes Peak. He was an expert mechanic as well. In 1964 he discovered he had multiple sclerosis and switched full-time to engine building. Today he is confined to a wheelchair. Al, the youngest, is a three-time Indy 500 winner like Bobby and second on the alltime Indy-car victory list with 36, one ahead of Bobby. He lives on Route 66, too, across from Bobby's place and next to Toby's Truck City.
The career of Bobby Unser touches five decades; 1949 to 1982, 34 years a race driver. His road up was a tough, slow one. There were nearly 20 years of hard work and heavy dues before the big rewards started coming. First he was a young punk jalopy hotshot, as likely to get into a brawl as Victory Circle. In the 60s and 70s he campaigned sprint cars on the county fair circuits and displaced his Uncle Louis as King of Pikes Peak—breaking the old man's heart in the process—with 12 championships over its treacherous 12½ miles and 156 turns.
It took Bobby 13 years to get to Indianapolis. In his rookie year, 1963, he drove a brutish supercharged Novi that no one else wanted—and crashed on the third lap. In his second attempt at the Brickyard he crashed on the second lap. He won the 500 for the first time in 1968, and not until then could he afford to move for good out of the backseats of cars and into motel rooms. In 1975 he won the 500 again, a rain-shortened race that was stopped after 435 miles.
But it is Unser's third Indy 500 victory that will be remembered longest. He finished first at the Speedway last May, but the morning after the race he was penalized one lap for passing nine cars under a yellow flag and was placed second to Mario Andretti. Unser protested, lost, appealed, and four months later a special USAC panel voted 2-1 to change the penalty to a $40,000 fine. Thus his victory was restored. (At least for the moment. Andretti has now filed an appeal, with the American arm of the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile, which oversees international racing. FIA is expected to decide on this appeal sometime this month.)
When Unser passed those nine cars on the pit apron while returning to the track under the yellow, it was in violation of a rule he knew to be vague and believed to be unenforceable. What this story is about, and what Bobby Unser's life is about—all those years of hanging his foot in it and not letting anyone push him around—was summed up in that pass.
Unser's earliest memory is of the train ride to Albuquerque when his father moved the family down from Colorado. The end of town where they settled was on the wrong side of the tracks; the Unser boys were "stomps," tough guys, and their enemies were "pachucos," tough Mexican-Americans. Knife fights were almost as common as fistfights. At 14 Bobby carried a .45, a possession so prized he had it chrome plated. The two-room house was full of holes from the brothers' rambunctiousness with guns. Bobby was drinking whiskey with the best of them at 16. His pet was a black Lab named Nick. "We never had to feed him," Bobby says. "He'd kill other dogs and eat them. About two a month."