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The car grinding precariously around the twisted and tortuous curves of the bone-dry and precipitous mountain road pictured opposite has just passed the nine-mile mark in America's most celebrated and spectacular uphill race, the annual Pikes Peak Auto Hill Climb. On July 4, some 20 drivers who have survived qualifying runs will take off at three-minute intervals and roar up the 12�-mile course that rises 4,708 feet at something better than 60 mph. If form holds, almost all of the cars will finish, there will be no serious accidents (nobody has ever been killed in the event) and among the money winners there will be an Unser.
An Unser is any of five different persons from the same family who have made the Colorado race something of a personal undertaking. They drive stock cars and sprint cars, American makes and foreign. They are all master mechanics as well as master drivers and their skill commands respect on almost any speedway in the West, although Unsers have raced and won reputations in Mexico and in Hawaii.
First there is Uncle Louis Unser from Colorado Springs, an old pro who has won the race nine times, on four occasions breaking the course record. Then there is Jerry (Dad) Unser Sr., Louis' brother from Albuquerque, N. Mex., who before he retired last year, entered 16 climbs and never finished out of the money. And there are Dad's three oldest sons, the twins Louis and Jerry Jr., 23, and Bobby, 22, who drove in the climb for the first time last year and finished third, fourth and fifth.
Uncle Louis and the three boys are all entered again and should qualify. Dad Unser, as he did in 1955, will stay on the sidelines and work and root for his sons. "I'm not modest about my driving," he says, "but, at 56, my reflexes aren't what they used to be. I know when to quit. But my brother obviously doesn't. Louis is almost 60, and he still thinks he can compete with my youngsters."
Age has become a bone of contention between the branches of the family. The trouble began before the race last year when Uncle Louis, who was to drive a $30,000 Meyer-Drake, persuaded the owner of an Offenhauser not to go through with his intention of letting young Louis drive it in the race. Uncle Louis was against allowing any of the boys to drive on Pikes Peak because he felt they were too young. "If you have to let them get in the race," he told their father, "put them in clunkers the first time around, not in real fast jobs like Jags and Offies."
When Louis the Less told his sad news to the rest of the family Bobby, who at the moment was working on a Jaguar engine, threw an oily rag on the floor and vowed Louis would drive the Jag, which, he claimed, "can outrun any Offie on The Hill."
Dad Unser was simultaneously stunned and pleased. "I've always taught my kids to be sportsmanlike and unselfish," he said recently, "but this was asking too much of Bobby. That Jag was made for his style of driving and driving it in the race was all he ever dreamed of. I was half choked up, but all I could say was, 'Pick up the grease rag, Bobby.' "
Young Louis got the Jag and the family pitched in and did a fast job of reconversion on an Oldsmobile that Bobby had used to win the Southwestern stock car championship. It looked like a race car after they got a body on it, but it was an Olds under the hood.
In the race, with the toughest third of the grind still to go, Louis' brake handle came off in his hand, and Jerry, who did drive an Offenhauser, ran into transmission trouble. Not everything went well for Uncle Louis either (he had carburetor trouble before, during and after the race). And, worst of all from his standpoint, he finished 11th. This year Uncle Louis is determined to prove that what happened was a mistake, and Dad and the boys are out to convince him that indeed it was a mistake—his.
"We hear Louis will be driving the Offenhauser that Jerry Jr. won fourth place with last year," says Dad. "So Jerry's negotiating for the same Meyer-Drake that Uncle Louis drove, just to show him it wasn't the car."