MOORESVILLE, N.C. – It seems that nearly everybody associated with the Indianapolis 500 knew the late Bobby Unser, but three men shared a unique bond with the three-time Indianapolis 500 winner who was one of its fiercest drivers and most colorful characters.
Mario Andretti, Rick Mears, and Roger Penske were all connected with Unser in unique ways.
Unser passed away late May 2 after a lengthy illness. He was 87.
For Andretti, Unser was one of his biggest racing rivals, but also a dear friend. That friendship, however, was strained after the events of the 1981 Indianapolis 500. Unser won the race, but had the victory taken away from him the following morning because of a USAC penalty for passing six cars during a caution period in the race. Andretti was awarded the victory the following morning.
Unser drove for Penske Racing and the team filed for an appeal. A three-person committee formed by USAC heard the appeal, reinstated Unser as the winner and fined him $40,000 for the infraction 137 days after Unser’s car finished eight seconds ahead of Andretti at the Indianapolis 500.
“There was some strain there, but we did not protest,” Andretti told SPEED SPORT Monday afternoon after hearing of Unser’s passing. “We didn’t have to. USAC penalized him and that was it. We were going to because there was definitely an infraction. When everything shook out as far as how they arrived at the decision, I never blamed Bobby or Roger Penske for having his lawyers be smarter than USAC’s lawyers, I always blamed USAC.
“USAC, as an organization, was lame duck organization any way. They allowed the rules to change by what was suggested to drivers selected to be judges. Bobby was never cleared of the infraction because he was fined $40,000 and given the race back.
“The important thing is, Bobby always thought I was resentful to him, but I put a lot of that to peace. I said, ‘Bobby, I won that race, but you got it. It’s not your fault that you got it. I would have done the same if I were in your place. I’m only blaming USAC – not you and not Penske.’ That is as clear as it could be.
“He was good with that.”
Although Andretti and Unser will be forever linked to the controversial events that surrounded Unser’s third and final Indianapolis 500 victory, and the final racing victory of his career, they were very good friends before and even many years after that controversy.
“I think of the great times that we had together, both on and off the track,” Andretti said from his office in Nazareth, Pa. “On track, he was such a charger and I think I was, too. We were out there fighting almost every race, whether it was sprint cars or Indy cars. We were even teammates at one point for Roger Penske when I was in Formula One. We were into each other throughout our careers until he retired, but I friendship became even stronger looking back at the times we had together.
“Bobby was a very colorful individual, as we all know, and it was easy to be part of his circle. Fun memories, for sure.”
Unser would have been a racing star based on his abilities behind the wheel alone. But it was his bigger-than-life personality that made him one of the most colorful and memorable Indianapolis 500 winners ever.
“They don’t make them like that anymore,” Andretti said. “They threw the mold away when they made Bobby Unser. He was widely liked because of all of that. In conversation, he always wanted to be dominant, and we all knew that. That, in itself, was fun to be around. All the stories that are out there. He will be missed so much.
“At Indy, we always look forward to all of us guys getting together and reminiscing about our battles and all of that.
“This year, one of the main contenders will be missing.”
Rick Mears and Bill Alsup were Unser’s last teammates at Penske Racing. While Alsup ran a limited schedule, Unser and Mears were Penske’s two full-time drivers from 1978 to 1981.
Although Unser had a background that was heavy into sprint car racing, both Unser and Mears came from very non-traditional IndyCar backgrounds. Unser was the King of the Hill as a 10-time winner of the Pikes Peak Int’l Hill Climb. Mears was one of off-road racing’s greatest drivers in the 1970s before coming to CART.