- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, January 11, 1982
BOBBY UNSER'S MODERN 15-ROOM RANCH HOUSE SITS BACK A BIT FROM OLD Route 66 on the outskirts of Albuquerque. Behind it is the foundation of the two-room house in which he and his three brothers were raised. 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, Jerry, before Bobby's first big race: the Carrera Pan Americana, 1,933 miles through Mexico. 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 until the wall outlining a 90-degree turn in the town square claimed the Jaguar. Seventeen-year-old Bobby 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—Hang your foot in it and don't let anyone push you around—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 '67 he raced up Pikes Peak more than 40 times in the annual Fourth of July hill climb. He was called the King of the Mountain, and he quit only when, at age 72, the race officials made him. Their Uncle Joe was a driver—killed while practicing on the highway for the '29 Indianapolis 500. Jerry Jr., the oldest brother, was USAC stock car champion in 1957 and was killed in a fiery crash at Indianapolis in '59. Jerry Jr.'s twin, Louis, twice won the stock car class at Pikes Peak. In '64 Jerry Sr. 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 open-wheel victory list with 36, one ahead of Bobby. Al lives on Route 66 too, across from Bobby's place.
Al and Bobby each made their racing debuts as teenagers, and for Bobby the 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 the winner's 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—with 12 championships over its treacherous 12½ miles and 156 turns.
It took Bobby 13 years to get to Indianapolis. In his rookie year, '63, 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. Al joined him in his third year, and in '68 Bobby became the first Unser to win the 500, and not until then could he afford to move for good out of the backseats of cars and into motel rooms. Within three years Al had trumped his brother with two titles, which Bobby matched in '75 when he won his second 500, a rain-shortened race that was stopped after 435 miles.
BOBBY UNSER'S EARLIEST MEMORY IS OF THE train ride to Albuquerque when his father moved the family down from Colorado. They settled on the wrong side of the tracks; the Unser boys were "stomps," tough white 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."
When Jerry Jr. and Louie were 11, Bobby nine and Al five, they rebuilt a Model A pickup that was rusting behind the garage. They tore around the outside of the house in it, Baby Al sometimes bouncing out of the back onto the ground. At night they'd leave Al home and sneak into town in the truck, often to be chased home by the sheriff, who could never catch them because they would kill the lights and drive over a mesa, where they knew every ditch and rock.
At 15 Bobby began racing at Speedway Park in Albuquerque, and at 16 he was the hottest thing on the track. He drove a '31 Pontiac with a Cadillac engine, bumpers welded to its sides for protection against the bashing he gave it. His father made him maintain the car himself, and he spent hours in the garage, both rebuilding the car and pumping gas to pay for parts. When they didn't have any money, the brothers would cruise the parking lot at the races, equipped with a flashlight and wrenches, peeking under hoods until they found the part they needed. Sometimes they left a note.