There were surprises. It only took one question to kick off a discussion that took nearly three utterly fascinating hours to unravel. And some of the statements he made were truly outside the image and expectations I had brought to the interview.
Bobby Unser began his flying career 10 years after he started racing cars. He won the Pike’s Peak race in ’59 (he won that event 13 times), a year after he started taking flying lessons, and bought his first airplane, a Cessna 170B, that same year.
Although the thunder of automobile engines, the whine of wide tires and the roar of the crowds began fading two decades ago, Unser is still active as a pilot, having logged over 9,000 hours. By now, he has probably spent more hours in an aircraft than on a racetrack.
Driving at Indy is history, of course, but he’s still involved in the world of auto racing as a kind of senior statesman and consultant. Ten years ago, at age 59, he set a new land speed record at Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, reaching 223.709 mph.
One can almost hear the echoes of his glory years when walking into his house, identified as “Unserville,” on Unser and Central Streets in Albuquerque, N.M. There, in his living room, are hundreds of framed photographs and trophies, testifying to a lifetime of achievement in pushing the limits. On a table near the front door rest three helmets, three pairs of gloves and three pairs of shoes—the ones he wore when he won the Indianapolis 500 in ’68, ’75 and ’81. When you recall that Unser’s kid brother, Al, also won the Indy four times and Al Jr. won it twice, you can appreciate why the family is a legend in New Mexico, as well as in the world of auto racing. It gives meaning to a quote in a Sports Illustrated article published 20 years ago, when Unser said, “I will go fast until the day I die.”
He admits that he had very little interest in flying, and initially, he just didn’t like it. That’s because flying scared the daylights out of him: Unser is afraid of heights. He’s quick to tell you that the fear is intense, even today. The experience of stalls was so horrifying to Unser that he went through a number of instructors, telling them that he won’t do stalls and couldn’t even imagine himself doing a spin. Spins can be dropped from training, but it’s pretty hard to prep for a flight test without doing stalls. “Stalls petrify me. It’s serious, even to this day,” says Unser, the confirmation showing in his eyes.
|Bobby Unser was (and is) afraid of heights, but airplanes provided him unequalled transportation to the racetrack. Although his racing schedule has calmed down a bit, he still crisscrosses the country in one of the fastest piston-production airplanes on the planet, the Aerostar 601P.|
Unser did manage to get a permit and flew for several years as a student pilot, logging hundreds of hours after buying a Cessna 170. For him, the aircraft was a practical solution to an urgent problem. He wanted to race, but had to hold onto a day job in his father’s garage. His family was poor in those days, but Unser’s racing was beginning to pay off. The race to the top of Pike’s Peak in Colorado provided a significant prize, but it only happened once a year. Consequently, to participate in races, Unser had to travel to California most weekends. Driving back and forth took 18 hours each way. That left him extremely tired at both ends. Then he realized he could fly the same distance in less than half the driving time, allowing him to leave his job on Friday afternoon and return on Sunday night. With his student pilot’s license, life got easier.
Eventually, he began to get some pressure to complete his private-pilot training. Unser began taking some lessons with a local CFI in a Cessna 150. One day, when he showed up for a lesson, there was an FAA man waiting for him, who insisted on going up with Unser so he could give him a check ride. Unser had not scheduled any check ride. The CFI told Unser that he was ready and would survive this one. There was no question by that time that Unser could handle takeoffs and landings without getting himself into trouble, and his handling of a taildragger came as easily to him as the steering wheel of a racecar. Now, whether or not he had to demonstrate stalls with the FAA man, Unser didn’t say, but he did describe the examiner as a real gentleman. Unser became a private pilot that day.
Bill Cutter, who ran the local FBO at Albuquerque and who was a good friend of Unser’s father, felt that it was time for the boy to move up to a Bonanza. The C-170 was paid for (all $3,200 of it), but Unser didn’t feel that he could afford to move up, in spite of his dad’s urging. He didn’t have the money and didn’t like borrowing.
Cutter, who Unser believes played a role in setting up his FAA check ride, then told Unser that the Beechcraft Bonanza was now his and that he was taking the Cessna 170 as a down payment. Cutter told Unser that he could make payments when his winnings at automobile racing allowed it. In spite of some protesting, Cutter prevailed. There was no contract, no monthly payment schedule, nothing more than a handshake. Cutter must have had an inkling of what was coming.
Unser had the Bonanza paid off in less than six months, “which totally surprised me,” says Unser. The Bonanza came at the right time.
“Now, I could make California nonstop, and boy, did I ever put the hours on that thing. And oh, how much nicer that was! Wow. I had that airplane for a long time,” comments Unser.
By this time, Unser was beginning to enjoy flying. He used his Bonanza to get to at least 60 races a year and to a growing number of endorsement gigs. He estimates that his annual flying totals were around 600 hours. He installed a primitive autopilot with a heading bug, bought himself one of the first compact, portable TV sets and set it on the dash so he could watch TV as the countryside rolled by below him. He became so comfortable that he started taking naps while flying alone. He would run a fuel tank dry, reach down without opening his eyes and switch over to a full tank! Obviously, he’s not only incredibly talented, but amazingly lucky.
Unser stepped up to a twin-engine Travel Air, which meant that it was time to get his IFR ticket. He had the instruments now, and he could no longer afford to jeopardize his racing commitments because of bad weather. The problem was that he didn’t have the time for a conventional IFR course. He learned about a school in Chicago that would work with him in his aircraft and might just get him through the program in two weeks!
The only time of the year he could take two weeks away from auto racing was Christmas. He contacted the school, telling them he had two weeks, but that he wanted to be home for Christmas. They replied that if he could go 24 hours a day, they would always have an instructor ready to work with him. Unser signed on, wondering how he would do, considering he had never finished high school. “Unser Determination” kicked in. He studied and flew IFR from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., collapsed for a few hours of sleep and started over.
“The guys were nice to me. They knew what my situation was and they worked my butt off!” remembers Unser.
At the same time, his career was prompting him to move on. He was covering so much ground that he had to cover it faster to keep up with his crowded schedule. He looked seriously at a B-25 and a P-38, both very reasonably priced in those days. The P-38 might require him to jump out with a parachute, so Unser’s fear of heights eliminated that option.
Finally, a friend of his suggested the next best thing to a warbird: an Aerostar. It had the speed and the range he needed. His friend made arrangements for Unser to fly to Milwaukee, Wis., to inspect the aircraft. Once there, Unser found the line boy with the key and stepped into the aircraft. He liked what he saw and called his friend in Illinois. “Fly it down here, and we’ll do a prepurchase inspection,” said the friend.
“Do you suppose that’s okay with the owner,” asked Unser.
“Yes,” replied his friend. Unser found the master switch and learned that the batteries were dead. He asked the line boy if he knew how to jump-start an Aerostar, and the boy said yes, but didn’t know where the batteries were located. The Pilot’s Operating Handbook came out and Unser was soon taxiing toward the active runway in an airplane he had never flown before. He took off and made his first landing in Illinois on what seemed like a ridiculously short strip.
When deemed mechanically sound, Unser flew it down to Albuquerque, called the owner, agreed on a price and sent off a check. He has never met the owner. And he never got a formal checkout in the aircraft.
Unser flew that Aerostar all over North America. “It took little or no maintenance, and although it burned more fuel than the Beechcraft Travel Air, it went so much faster that I wound up using less fuel,” he says. “It was a dream to own.”
Most of the time, he flew solo. He went through one set of engines with the Aerostar and would soon need another set. But Unser was getting sick of flying—burning out on it. He sold the Aerostar for a fraction of what he had in it because he just wanted to get out from under the ongoing expenses and the drudgery of cross-country flying. He went back to flying the airlines.
The severance wasn’t complete, however. He kept the Cessna 206 that he had bought to run back and forth to his large, working ranch in northern New Mexico. Then he began using it to commute to a house-building project in Mexico. Over the next few years, he found himself occasionally using the C-206 to go to a race or a meeting, but only if the weather was good and only if he was really in the mood. He eventually decided it was time to get back into a Bonanza and bought a B36.
The B36 rekindled Unser’s interest in flying, and it wasn’t long before he picked up a pressurized, air-conditioned Aerostar for his longer trips. He repainted the Aerostar to match the first one, which he had also repainted and tricked out with every available performance item. The Aerostar and B36 share space with his wife’s Cessna 182 RG, which Unser uses as a backup.
Unser makes it clear that flying beats walking and highway driving, too. If a car isn’t designed and cleared to break 200 mph, Unser would rather be flying. Races, other than the ones that he likes to watch now, have been replaced with business trips that come close in frequency to the days when he drove in circles. Unser still loves his flying experiences, but don’t ever invite him to go up and do stalls.