Pilot Journal
Tuesday, November 1, 2005

Racing Bobby Unser

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

racing bobby unserThere 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.
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racing bobby unser
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.


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