Unser retired from driving to help young Mexican driver Josele Garza at the 1982 Indianapolis 500 and became one of the biggest personalities in racing.
When his nephew, Al Unser, Jr., was a rookie at the Indy 500 in 1983, Bobby Unser earned the nickname, “Uncle Bobby.”
Over the years, he became “Uncle Bobby” to his list of friends. As a longtime journalist covering IndyCar races beginning in the 1980s, I became friends with many of my heroes, including Bobby Unser.
As the years passed, Unser would always greet me with a warm smile and an engaging handshake. If he liked you, he called you “Father.”
Other motorsports journalists such as Robin Miller, TV’s Dave Furst and famed publicist Steve Shunck had become part of Unser’s extended family. We greeted him when his motorhome arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and we bid farewell to him the night of the race.
To us, he was simply “Uncle Bobby.”
At a Performance Racing Industry Show one year in Indianapolis, Shunck was off to a meeting and handed me $20 and said, “You’ve got to take Uncle Bobby over to get a hot dog while I go to this meeting.”
Because “Uncle Bobby” knew so many people in the Indiana Convention Center at the PRI Show, getting a hot dog took two hours. It seemed that practically everyone wanted to talk to “Uncle Bobby” and Unser was happy to talk to anyone who stopped him.
The man seemingly knew everybody.
He was also plugged into racing and frequently pulled one of us away to discuss the happenings within IndyCar. Those were the surreal moments when a legend was asking me what was going on and interested and engaged with what I had to say.
But over the years, “Uncle Bobby” began to slip away. First, it was his back, which was so bad his body was contorted.
And then, the mind slowing began to fade. A man who had so many great stories to tell, began to forget some of them.
The past year or two, “Uncle Bobby” and his wife Lisa stayed at the family residence in Albuquerque, N.M., known as “Unserville.” Some of us would check up on them over the phone. On a good day, he remembered, but on a bad day, Unser had become a man of few words.
He turned 87 on Feb. 20, sharing the same birthday as Roger Penske. I made sure I called “Uncle Bobby” that day to wish him a happy birthday.
Somehow, I was the first to call and he was having a good day, remembered everything and was thrilled that people remembered him on his birthday.
We talked, he joked, we laughed, and we ended the call by saying we loved each other.
I knew that may be one of the last times we ever spoke, but I was always hopeful he would still be around, and maybe make it back for one last Indy 500.
Monday morning, I was seated on an American Airlines flight home following the IndyCar Series doubleheader at Texas Motor Speedway when Shunck sent me the text message that said, “Yes, it’s true. Ugh.” I inquired what he meant.
“Bobby passed” was the reply.
A quick call to Mario Andretti and Rick Mears followed to pass along the news. Andretti already knew, but Mears did not.
“Damn, what a sad day,” Mears said.
So, sitting on a flight somewhere over Meridian, Miss., through tear-filled eyes, I reminded myself that “Uncle Bobby” was a man who invoked laughter, not tears. He was one of the greatest storytellers racing has ever known.
Somehow, this kid from northern Indiana got to become close friends with one of the greats in Indianapolis 500 history to the point where we actually loved each other.
To me, Bobby Unser will always be one-of-a-kind. Thank you for being a key part of this journey and for your friendship.
Godspeed, “Uncle Bobby.”