Tuesday, November 1, 2005
Racing Bobby Unser
“I will go fast until the day I die.”—Bobby Unser, three-time Indianapolis 500 champion
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.
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