The Unser Family
by findingDulcinea Staff
Fourteen members of the Unser family, spanning four generations, have dominated every aspect of Indy car racing.
The family that seems to have motor oil running through its veins has earned accolades both individual and collective. In 1999 the Albuquerque Journal included the Unser family among “the 20 individuals or families who helped make New Mexico what it is today.”
It all started back in the 1890s, when Louis and Marie Unser left their native Switzerland for the United States. They settled near the famous Pike’s Peak in Colorado and had three boys: Louis Jr., Joe and Jerry.
The three brothers grew into auto enthusiasts, and in 1915 they achieved their first “first” by driving a motorcycle and sidecar to the top of Pike’s Peak, a feat then thought impossible. Soon they were giving driving lessons to the local police department. When a road going up Pike’s Peak was built the following year, wealthy businessman/hotelier/philanthropist Spencer Penrose sponsored the “Race to the Clouds,” a race up the mountain in which the Unsers often competed. The Unser family has racked up more than two dozen Pike’s Peak victories in the years since.
Louis Jr. was the best driver of the three. Nine of those Pike’s Peak victories were his, earning him the nickname “Old Man of the Mountain.” Joe never won the Pike’s Peak climb, but that never slowed his passion for racing. He and his brothers soon got a sponsor and set their sights on qualifying for the Indy 500 when disaster struck: while test-driving in Colorado, Joe lost control of his car and died in the ensuing crash.
Louis Jr. and Jerry gave up on the Indy 500, and Jerry soon stopped racing altogether. It may have been for the best, as his real skill was in fixing cars. After moving to Castro Valley, California, he turned an abandoned car he pulled from a ditch into the town’s first fire truck. Castro Valley’s official Web site has the story, and a picture of Jerry.
He eventually settled in Albuquerque, where he opened a garage and developed a reputation as a top-notch repairman. It was there that he and his wife, Mary, raised their four sons: Jerry Jr., Louie, Bobby, and Al.
It wasn’t long before Jerry’s boys were competing on short tracks all over the West. In 1955, they entered their first major race: Pike’s Peak. The race’s official Web site has a six-part audio interview with Louie Unser, available in MP3 format.
1957 was a big year for the brothers: Jerry Jr. won the U.S. Auto Club stock car championship, with twin brother Louie serving as his mechanic. Louie, for his part, was named Mechanic of the Year. The following year Jerry Jr. became the first Unser to qualify for the Indy 500 (with Louie still doing the tuning), but a crash during the warm-up left his car unable to race. In 1959 he tried again, but the result was considerably worse: during a practice session he crashed once again, but this time it was fatal.
Bobby cut his teeth on Pike’s Peak, winning the race in 1956 and again every year from 1958 through 1963. Moving on to Indy car racing proved to be wise; Bobby won 35 races and was in the top five for all-time victories when he retired in 1981. He “un-retired” five years later to race up Pike’s Peak one more time. He won, of course, giving him 13 victories on the mountain. Inducted into the International Motor Sports Hall of Fame in 1990, Bobby was also known for his outspokenness, and he is famously quoted as saying, “Nobody remembers who finished second but the guy who finished second.” BrainyQuote lists some more of Bobby’s memorable lines.
Meanwhile, the Unser name was fast becoming synonymous with the Indianapolis 500. Bobby was the first in the family to win, which he did in 1968, 1975, and 1981. Baby brother Al won in 1970, 1971, 1978, and 1987. They’re the only pair of brothers who have each won the race, and Al is one of only three four-time winners. The official site of the Indy 500 furnishes the stats of the many families that have run the race, including the six Unsers who have started the race.
If Jerry’s four sons had been the last of the racing Unsers, they’d be among the most impressive family dynasties in the sport. But the next generation brought five more Unsers to professional racing: Jerry Jr.’s son, Johnny; Al’s son, Al Jr.; and three of Bobby’s four kids.
Particularly notable is Bobby’s daughter, Jeri, who is something of a pioneer among female drivers. She, too, competed at Pike’s Peak, where she was named the race’s Rookie of the Year in 1998 and later, in 2003, set a record for electric-powered vehicles.
Among the third generation of racing Unsers, though, Al Jr. is the best known, and for good reason: he won the Indy 500 twice, in 1992 and 1994, becoming the second half of the only father-son duo to win the race. Among his many other accomplishments are two CART season championships. An injury forced him to retire in 2004, but he came out of retirement to race in the 2006 Indy 500 and has continued racing since.
The official site of the Indy 500 has dozens of pictures of various Unsers at the race.
The fourth generation of Unsers has seen two of its members get behind the wheel. 26-year-old Jason, a grandson of Al Sr. and nephew of Al Jr., has had success racing several different types of vehicles. Al III, 25, was named Rookie of the Year in the Skip Barber Western Racing Series. He’s since moved up to the Indy Pro Series. In a 2007 interview, he listed seeing his father, Al Jr., win his first Indy 500 in 1992 as a favorite memory. “That one was so intense,” he said. “I can’t wait to get on the track and win my own Indy 500.”