Bobby Unser, the auto racing icon who won the Indianapolis 500 three times – including one of the most controversial races in the event’s history – passed away Sunday at his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, at the age of 87 from natural causes.
Racing Career: Born Robert William Unser in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in February 1934, he began racing as a teenager and won his first race as a 15-year-old participant in the 1950 Southwest Modified Stock Cars. After a stint in the U.S. Air Force from 1953 to 1955, he joined his brothers Al and Jerry in auto racing careers.
Unser’s first Indianapolis 500 race was in 1963, where he crashed and finished in 33rd place. He won his first Indianapolis 500 in 1968, then again in 1975 and in 1981. Unser was one of two drivers – the other being Rick Mears – who won the celebrated race in three different decades.
The 1981 race ended on a contentious note. Although Unser crossed the finished line first in his Roger Penske-owned car, the judges ruled he passed cars illegally while exiting the pit lane under caution. Second place finisher Mario Andretti was elevated to the winner’s spot, but Penske filed a lawsuit to rescind the decision. Five months later, Unser was awarded the victory, but was also fined $40,000 for his action on the track.
Andretti refused to return the winner’s ring from the race to Unser, who retired from racing after the fallout from the race resulted in the loss of commercial endorsements.
Post-Racing Career: After retiring from racing, Unser did consulting work for Audi AUDVF and served as a commentator on ABC and ESPN and NBC. Unser shared in 1989 and 1990 Emmy Awards for ABC’s telecast of the Indianapolis 500.
Unser was inducted into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame in 1990 and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1990. Unser would later recount his career with the 2003 autobiography “Winners are Driven.”
(Bobby Unser in an appearance at the 1986 Rainier Vintage Classic at the Tacoma Dome in Tacoma, Washington. Photo by Jim Culp / Flickr Creative Commons.)
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