Any auto racing fan worth their salt can tell you that Bobby Unser was an IndyCar legend, and he proved his racing prowess at the Indianapolis 500. Born in Colorado Springs and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Unser is one of 10 drivers to win the Indy 500 three or more times and one of only two drivers (the other being Rick Mears) to have won the 500 in three different decades (1968, 1975, 1981).
But, it was Unser’s final Indy 500 win in 1981 that led to his ultimate retirement from IndyCar. Here, we’ll look at that fateful moment at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and how it came to shape Unser’s legacy.
What Happened at the 1981 Indy 500?
Driving the No. 3 car for Roger Penske, Bobby Unser started the 1981 Indianapolis 500 in the pole position. Nearly four hours later, he had beaten Mario Andretti (a racing legend in his own right) by only 5.3 seconds, making Unser the oldest driver to win the Indy 500 at the age of 47.
Unfortunately, Unser’s big win wouldn’t be so cut and dry. The following morning, Unser was stripped of his title after Andretti claimed that Unser made an illegal pass on lap 149 of the race. As it turns out, Unser was coming out of the pits during a yellow flag and had passed seven cars. Since passing is not allowed during a yellow flag, Unser was retroactively penalized an entire lap and Andretti was declared the new winner.
“We weren’t cheating,” Unser told Sports Illustrated immediately following the incident. “We had the fast car, no matter what the decision.”
Penske ended up fighting IndyCar’s decision, and after a five-month lawsuit, Unser was re-awarded the win. However, he was fined around $40,000, and it’s said that he also lost an estimated $1 million in commercial endorsements as a result of the delayed victory. Ultimately, the controversy caused Unser to lose his passion for racing, which led to him retiring in 1982.
“Regardless of the outcome, it’s been ruined for me,” Unser said. “I would paint out racing if I painted my future.”
Thankfully, Unser’s impact on auto racing doesn’t stop there.
Bobby Unser’s Racing Career and Legacy
Of course, Bobby Unser’s legacy goes far beyond what happened at the 1981 Indy 500. With two USAC championships under his belt, Unser’s star shone the brightest at the Pike’s Peak hillclimb. He won a record 13 championships at what later fittingly became dubbed “Unser’s Peak,” due to the Unser family’s success there. An inductee of the Motorsports Hall of Fame and National Sprint Car Hall of Fame, Unser also saw success as a television commentator, calling races for both IndyCar and NASCAR.
Unser is also part of one of the most renowned racing families of all time. Though his brother Jerry Unser was taken far too soon at the age of 26 following a devastating practice lap crash, Bobby’s younger brother Al had a Hall of Fame-earning career, with four Indy 500 wins and three National Championships. Bobby’s uncle Louis, his two nephews, Johnny and Al Unser Jr., and his son, Robby, also had professional racing careers.
Speaking of family, it was Bobby’s desire to be closer to his that also fueled his retirement in ’82.
“For the first time I realized that I had been thinking only of Bobby Unser, and perhaps it was time to think about my family,” Unser said in a New York Times interview following his retirement.
Here’s hoping that Bobby has found peace in the retired life and that he’s been able to foster the connections that he wasn’t able to during his racing days.