Bobby Unser was the king of the Pikes Peak Int’l Hill Climb during the 1960s. (NSSN Archives Photo)
Bobby Unser was the king of the Pikes Peak Int’l Hill Climb during the 1960s. (NSSN Archives Photo)

Bobby Unser: The King Of The Hill

Bobby Unser charges up Pikes Peak in a champ car. (NSSN Archives Photo)
Bobby Unser charges up Pikes Peak in a champ car. (NSSN Archives Photo)

“I was born in the mountains. I was raised in the mountains and I knew what the mountains were about,” Unser said. “When we lived in Albuquerque and were 8 years old we were going up in the Albuquerque Mountains driving my mother’s car without a driver’s license, obviously, and not legal to drive, fantasizing that it was the Pikes Peak Hill Climb. Our brains and minds and activity were into that.

“In my younger days, Pikes Peak was the place to be — not Indian­apolis, or Sacramento, of Springfield. It was the Pikes Peak Hill Climb, 100 percent.”

Unser believes the Pikes Peak Hill Climb used to be one of the greatest races in motorsports, but says when the road was paved it was no longer the battle it used to be. Instead of pulverized granite gravel, the road began to get paved and that changed the nature of the contest.

“That was the end of the gravel road and one of the greatest races on Earth became a paved race,” Unser said. “They did the paving in stages and last year’s race was 100 percent all paved. Before they were doing it in sections. Every time they paved a section of it, the race got faster and it wasn’t the same as when it was all gravel.”

Unser competed in three classes at Pikes Peak — Race Car (Indy car), Sports Car and Stock Car. His brother Jerry drove for the factory Chevrolet team in the Stock Car class. Bobby Unser’s last Pikes Peak Hill Climb was in 1986 with Audi and he won the race — 12 years after he had last raced at Pikes Peak and five years after he retired as an Indy car driver.

“They thought I had been lying on the beach down in Mexico, but I was racing 50 or 60 races a year,” Unser recalled. “I only got better.

“If they had more classes and I had a better helicopter I would have run all of them.”

Unser’s favorite memories include his first Pikes Peak win in 1956.

“Nobody thought the Albuquerque Unsers could do it,” Unser recalled. “We didn’t have any money. We had very little money. We had cars that were engineered and built in our shop in Albuquerque. We did it without any money because we just didn’t have it. I went up in 1956 and won it in a Jaguar. My dad built the first 3.8 Jaguar engine in history and that is what I won Pikes Peak with in 1956.”

Unser enjoyed tremendous success at Pikes Peak and Indianapolis — two of the world’s most unique races.

“They were totally different because Pikes Peak was a place where people had to have different talents than what they had at Indianapolis,” Unser said. “I know because I became successful at both of them and so was my brother Al. Jerry never got to show that at Indianapolis but he was very, very good at Pikes Peak. Unfortunately, his life didn’t last that long. It had to do with my dad and uncle Louie and uncle Joe. They ran Pikes Peak and that is where our heads were.

“When I looked at race cars I didn’t look at Indianapolis; I looked at Pikes Peak.”

Unser’s racing career took an entirely new turn thanks to another legendary race driver that saw something in Bobby Unser that others had yet to realize.

“If I hadn’t met a guy like Parnelli Jones who convinced me I was good enough to run Indianapolis I would have never done that,” Unser said. “Parnelli must have been right — I won Indianapolis three times and should have won it twice more.

“My eyes were on Pikes Peak, but my eyes were never on Indianapolis. I wanted to be the ‘King of the Hill.’”

And that he was.