Bobby Unser

Bobby Unser 3rd July 2010 at the Goodwood Festival of SpeedRJ: Good to see you here Bobby. What is the main attraction for you about historic festivals, whether here at Goodwood or any others across the World?

BU: Well, first of all, this is the largest, single conglomeration of older racing cars on Earth! It’s a fantasy that most people just can’t understand, like, I know, like in the United States, I try & tell people about what this is like – what Goodwood represents –  and you can’t use words to explain it, as they just wouldn’t understand.

To come here and see it, it’s awesome! It’s big, it’s fun, everybody has a good time and the spectators – Mr General Public – get to rub elbows with the mechanics, the drivers, the owners… just a fabulous place to be.

RJ: Now you had a very brief Grand Prix career – would you have liked a longer spell in the sport, or was it always secondary to your Indianapolis/Stateside career?

BU: When I was a young lad – I started racing very young – 15 years of age – my choice, if I had had a choice then would’ve been to go road racing, which is typically a Formula 1 type of racing back then. That’s what I would’ve wanted to do, but I wasn’t “country club”. In the United States in those days if you wanted to be in road racing you had to be “country club”.

You had to rub elbows with the wealthy people and I couldn’t do that. That wasn’t where I came from and just wasn’t the way it was, so I got into sprint cars, midgets and dirt track racing – things like that and so you can see it wasn’t such a necessity. Of course, once I got going, it blossomed and got better and I got into Indianapolis – which is the top of all racing on Earth for me, so not doing road racing was somewhat of a blessing in disguise for me.

But yes, I wanted to do Formula 1. That’s the reason why I did the little bit that I did with BRM. BRM was a terrible car that year, sad to say, but it doesn’t make any difference – I still wanted to do it and I eventually got it done, but for example, at one time, I had a really strong desire to run at Le Mans and unfortunately, I just never got to make it.

Every time something would become a little bit available and I was interested in, I would be doing something else! I often did a lot of development and testing for Goodyear and besides that, with all the other racing.. I was too busy. So, that’s the little negative part of my career!

RJ: Well, I think you can be excused that, considering the rest of your career! Now you raced at Indianapolis for a fantastically long time – in that time there were a lot of new rules, new cars, new technology and new rivals. Was it difficult to adapt or were the basic skills of driving racing cars enough?

BU: No, because I did development work, I’m well known for doing development work. I was lucky as I drove for good, big, powerful teams and that helps also. The answer to that is that I was in a good place to be, a good place to go and I had basically everything. I look back at my career and go Wow! I had a lot of bad years, a lot of lean years climbing that long ladder but once I got into it, somehow the good Lord found good race cars!

RJ: Now you mentioned development work – obviously you’ve been very influential in doing that and I know, looking at your website, it’s something you’re very proud of. Are there any particular skills or attributes you need to be successful in this kind of work?

BU: Yeah, well, number one, I was raised as a mechanic. My father had a garage, and I would be involved from 8 years old, but by the time I was 12/13, I would be involved all the time and by time I was 15, we were building our own racing cars and racing them and by the time I was 16 – which is very young – I won the whole South Western Championship of the United States! So that was all really good and so why did I become a development driver? Well, that’s what I did – I did everything.

I overhauled a whole rear end on a racing car – every type of car. We specialised, ironically, considering we were in the United States, remember – foreign cars.

Cars that we often called “English cars”, but in truth, they came from all over the World. I became a Jaguar specialist – at 16 years of age!

Now, fantasise this – I had cars coming from West Texas, all of Oklahoma, all of Colorado, all of New Mexico – Jaguars, okay? They were just lined up for this 16 year old kid to work on! I wasn’t just doing a little bit of adjustment – I was doing valve jobs, a very difficult thing on a Jaguar – I could do all of that at 16 years of age, and that really makes you into a development person. You learn how to gets things done.

RJ: So you didn’t really know any different, basically?

BU: That’s right, it’s not different for me to do that, then it is for you to get a fork to eat, so when I got into racing as well, remember, I worked with the best engineers, like with Dan Gurney and so on – they had the best engineers, so I learned from them and so I became, what is effectively known as today, a self-taught mechanical engineer. I could draw whole suspensions; I knew how to draw – I wouldn’t do a whole race car – but I could do the suspension, I could do the whole aerodynamics, I could do all that stuff.. and the tyres, ironically, as I got involved with Goodyear very early in my career and that the 2-ply tyre came from Bobby Unser – that was my idea – and cost Goodyear to make it. We used to.. to get walnut shells, crushed walnut shells, burn them in the rubber compound and use them at high speed and that’s something else I did! So all that stuff, I just did two of those tyres, they didn’t have a particular Goodyear type as they were made from just a generic mould and Goodyear… the first two-ply tyres ever made!

Yeah, and I just sent them to Ford Motor Company Museum and so things like that, when you’re a poor boy in the United States and you’ve gotta feed, you’ve gotta think of things like this as you need money to just survive. That’s development, see?

RJ: Now to Pikes Peak – you won it 13 times. Was there any secret to your success? What makes a great hillclimber?

BU: It’s still road racing, though. 60 turns, and I admit it’s loose rock, gravel type, like gravel, very slippery and again we.. we being the Unser boys, learnt how to get traction, make cars the best we could money-wise and so everything that I did development wise, got the tyres made, got associated with Goodyear – got Goodyear into motor racing!  We were the first – I was the very first one to get them into motor racing, see? (AJ) Foyt took them to Indianapolis, I took them to Pikes Peak beforeIndianapolis and so all that was done in our shop in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

I would make a little dinky race track, right outside on the old sand, you know, and I would get a water hose and stretch a whole bunch of them together.. water it down a little bit and get the car out and do a bit of testing and I was testing tyres on not the same surface as Pikes Peak would have but I learnt how to make one tell the other one what was going to happen – what was going to be… and it worked!

I mean, less than appropriate maybe, but it worked! I broke a lot of historical records that way and it was the way it was needed to get things done.

RJ: You also had a brief spell in NASCAR? Is this something you would’ve, again, like to have done more, given the opportunity?

BU: Not really. Stock car racing was a side thing for me. As a young man, if I had a choice, I would race every day of the week. Now, often, I used to race 2 or 3 times a week, if I was running in the little midgets/sprint cars and that was easy to do, as you could go to the Midwest part of the United States, and you could do that. But, there’s really no technology to that and it was a way to make a living, as I needed to fill my stomach every now and again. It could be a rough life, but a fun life so I did that as it came. When I was older, less so.

RJ: Moving on to after your racing career – you later became a TV commentator – what did you enjoy the most about that? Was that a slightly different challenge for you?

BU: Well, look at this way. I didn’t finish high school – I went through the sophomore year, which is the 10th grade, right? I grew up knowing I wanted to be a race driver so I told my father why should I keep going to school? I want to be a racing driver. That was dumb, but nevertheless, it worked! I wouldn’t tell my kids or any kids to do that at all, but by the same token it worked good for me. So, you know, like for example with stockcars, I used to do stockcars because I needed a challenge. I wanted to win in stockcars, so I didn’t want to leave it at a little bit of NASCAR. We had what we called stockcars and what we called the United States, auto cars. Every time one of the big owners would call with a good car, I would go drive it, maybe only once or twice a year for that team, so I wasn’t the only thing open to me, but a way to do extra things, and I took it!

It was very important to me and I set hundreds of records in numerous racing series and it became very important to me. I would drive a stock-car, and the other day, I got to look at some old facts and I forgot how many stock-car races I actually won – a whole bunch of them, but never a career – never did I want it to be a career. I just wanted extra as I was just hyper and I just wanted to race a lot of cars – no money in it.

If I’d win a race, and it was a good car for me, I would give my share of the purse. My airline fare, my expenses, I’d keep – the rest I would give to my mechanics, because it was fun for me and easy to do. Getting the good car was the problem! Always is!

RJ: What do you do nowadays? You do attend a lot of historic events nowadays.

BU: A do a lot of charity work today and you know, I’ve always done a lot of charity work in my life, but today, it’s a time where I’m lucky where I’m still healthy and I’ve got a few years behind me and now I can give back for what I took for so many years.

Not wrongfully of course, but the industry was very kind to me, very good to me, very good to the whole Unser family and so, I look at this, coming here to Goodwood as a charity thing. I don’t get paid, I don’t get any money for it but I really do it as if I can make people happy, now’s the time for me to do it. So I go round the United States and do a lot of charity things and I just look at it, and rather than when I was younger and racing a lot – it took time. Time to travel, time to get somewhere, always an inconvenience. Today, I just think wow! It makes me happy – I’m lucky I can do it, so..

RJ: Well, just to see the look on people’s faces when you and other drivers walk down it’s really special…

BU: Well, I stopped right out in front, where we’re sitting (The interview was done in the Dunhill Driver’s Club – at the end of a walkway is the entrance to the rest of the circuit and a mass of fans waiting for autographs), right now and did autographs yesterday, for I don’t know, maybe an hour & half, two hours and I saw pictures of myself that I’d never seen before! Racetracks too… Where these people in England get these from, I don’t know. But nonetheless, they’re real race fans. If I can make people happy, now’s the time to do it.

RJ: Well, I was watching Surtees spend a good hour signing earlier and the range of photos he had to sign surprised me and him – not only did they have photos ready in an instant but ones that he was taken back by surprise – pictures he’d not seen for 40 years or more..

BU: Well, all through the paddock yesterday, there were pictures I’d never seen before but more than that, pictures of race cars that I don’t even remember driving!! Amazing! I’ve driven everything in racing with the exception of drag racing. I’ve never done drag racing in my life, but everything else, I’ve done and I’ve won at it. But even I forget some of the cars!

RJ: Finally, how’s Robby? Does he race any more?

BU: No, he doesn’t drive any more. He has fun hanging around racing but something in his life just made him quit and I don’t know why, and probably never will know why. He got hurt down in Texas one time and I really think that did something to his head. He was very good, very fast and really had a good career that he was looking at but he quit.

But, racing is that way. If you don’t have.. – a lot of my talks that I do are on desire. If the person doesn’t have the desire to want to give a whole bunch of risking your life…when I was young, for example, 50% of drivers used to die in race cars. Believe it or not, it was acceptable. It was a different era. I got hurt a number of times and it never deterred me. I never thought that I might not drive again – I might’ve worried that I couldn’t, but I never wanted to quit because I got hurt, so I don’t know how people think that way, but I know they do.

So that’s what happened to Robby, and also to Bobby Jr. He was the same way – he did it, he was good, not as good as Robby, but quite good, but really didn’t want to give that extra thing – the desire wasn’t there to race and win.

You can’t give that to somebody – I keep taking about it and it was in the last book I wrote – Winners are Driven was the name of it – and I wrote about the need fordesire, basically.

Why do some people excel more than others? It all comes down to one word, desire. Robby didn’t have the desire to continue.. I’ll never know why, but that’s the way things have been done.

He had more talent than I had at that age – he had more talent than maybe Little Al did, you know my brother’s son, and became very good – won a lot of races as you know! But at the same token, something went click in Robby’s head and he gave up racing cars.


Interview conducted 3rd July 2010 at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. Thanks to Bobby Unser for his time, patience, kindness and enthusiasm and thanks too, to Gabby Zajacka for arranging the interview.