He wanted to lead every lap, monopolize every conversation, chat up the prettiest girl in the room and have the final word. He couldn’t be bothered if he offended you because, “Son I only tell the truth,” and he had more opinions than boxes of oil stashed at his garage. He was fast and fearless in a race car, and dodged The Grim Reaper many times.
But the essence of Bobby Unser was that personality. That bombast. That cocksure attitude. That undying belief everything he said was true, or at least in the vicinity. Ask him a question, you got an unfiltered answer.
A.J. Foyt: “Great, great driver but a big bully.”
Mario Andretti: “As good as anyone that ever sat in a race car but a little tough on equipment.”
Parnelli Jones: “The best I ever saw.”
Gordon Johncock: “Tough to beat but if he’d known anything about a chassis he’d have won a lot more races.”
Brother Al Unser Sr: “Really, really smart in a race car. Didn’t know a lot about them, but when the car was right he was almost impossible to beat.”
Johnny Rutherford: “Great in a sprint car. Aggressive and fast but crashed a lot of Indy cars.”
The Magnificent 7 is now down to six. We’re so lucky all these badasses and heroes are still alive and kicking in their 80s, but the one thing we should never lose sight of is why so many fans gravitated towards Uncle Bobby.
He talked to everyone that ever approached him, signed everything, posed for endless photos and acted like he remembered meeting ‘Ol’ Joe at Trenton in 1970.’ He made people feel appreciated and part of the conversation – just like Mario does.
“I’d never admit this to him, but he taught me something very good and very valid back when we were running Pikes Peak in the ‘60s,” says the 1969 Indianapolis 500 winner. “He was always around a lot of people and I just remembered how kind and how good he was to the fans. That never left me.
“Bobby was a good dude.”
Unser had a nickname for his Italian-born rival that doesn’t sit well with modern sensibilities, but it was meant as a show of affection, not a slur, and there was no offense taken by the guy he went up and down the highway with for 20 years. Their intensity and desire to lead every lap almost made them twins.
“We were very much alike, we both wanted to lead every lap and extract everything from the car, and I think our style would have been good today,” continues Andretti.
“The friendships were lasting back then. We’d be out there trying to kill each other and then go have a beer later. We had so many good times off the track and the camaraderie was so real, and I know we always appreciated the fact we were still standing.”
Whether it was jetting back and forth from the Hoosier Hundred to the Italian Grand Prix on the same weekend, racing rental cars or laughing at the practical joke they just played on a fellow driver, Bobby and Mario were best of friends until 1981’s disputed Indy 500.
It wasn’t a cold war as much as it was just chilly between them. Gracious in public, but no social interactions to speak of until 2013. PR maven Steve Shunck was hosting his annual Borg-Warner dinner two nights before the race with Parnelli, J.R. and Unser, spotted Mario downstairs and invited him to join the boys. It was magic; 90 minutes of the two old pals telling stories, laughing and giving each other the needle.
“I think he likes me again,” declared Unser a couple days later.
Time, age and distance kept them apart except for May, but they stayed in touch by phone periodically. When Andretti called Bobby on his 85th birthday, he confessed he got a little “tear in his eye” and we couldn’t wait to tell Mario.
The last few months were rough and Unser never left bed as wife Lisa did a masterful job of making him as comfortable as possible. At first he balked at having day care twice a week (“too expensive”) but even the multi-millionaire finally realized he needed help. The last time we talked he said to make sure Penske knows he’s available to drive the pace car, but his lucid moments were few and far between over the last six weeks. It was time for this icon to move on, because nobody lived life at the edge longer than Rapid Robert.
“Life goes on,” says Mario. ”But our gang has lost a great one.”