3-time Indy 500 winner Bobby Unser dies at 87

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Jay Busbee
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Race car driver Bobby Unser celebrates after winning the Indianapolis 500. He was later penalized one lap and stripped of the title.
Bobby Unser celebrates after winning his third Indianapolis 500 in 1981. He was later penalized and stripped of the title before winning it back on appeal.

Bobby Unser, three-time winner of the Indy 500 and one of the most charismatic, compelling characters in racing history, has died at the age of 87. 

Unser died at his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, of natural causes.

Raised in Albuquerque along Route 66, Unser grew up with racing in his blood. His father and his uncles were all drivers. His uncle Louis spent most of the 20th century racing up Pike’s Peak for their annual Fourth of July climb. His uncle Jerry died while practicing for the Indy 500. His older brother Jerry died in a wreck at Indianapolis in 1959. His younger brother Al also won four Indy 500s.

Bobby Unser grew up tough, learning to wheel a car before he’d even reached his teens. Before his first major race in 1951, Unser’s mother and his brother Al wrote him a note that would serve as a motto for the rest of his life: “Hang your foot in it,” they wrote, “and don’t let anyone push you around. I love you.”

For the next 70 years, Bobby Unser would do exactly that, racing and designing cars, breaking rules, collecting checkered flags and enemies alike. He spent the first two decades of his racing career carving out a name for himself at small tracks all over the United States, claiming — among other records — 13 championships in the Pike’s Peak race once dominated by his uncle.

Unser didn’t even reach the Indy 500 until he was 29, in 1963, and proceeded to wreck on the third lap. The next year, he didn’t even make it that far, crashing out on the second lap. But four years later, he won the Indy 500 in 1968, establishing what would be one of racing’s greatest family legacies.

The second Indy 500 came in a rain-shortened race in 1975, but the third was the most crucial to Unser’s reputation. He won the 1981 race, but the sanctioning body penalized him the next day for passing cars under a caution flag and awarded the race to runner-up Mario Andretti. Unser raged against the penalty, saying the rule wasn’t spelled out specifically — in this, he was correct — and he won on appeal, paying a $40,000 fine but getting the victory back in his name.

All told, the Unser family owns three of the top nine slots on IndyCar’s all-time wins list: Al Unser has 39, Bobby has 35 and Al Unser Jr. has 34. But that Indy win cost Unser fans and esteem, and he largely retired from racing soon afterward.

Unser would go on to serve as a developmental driver, testing cars for manufacturers and breaking speed records into the 1990s. He also had a successful career as a broadcaster for both IndyCar and NASCAR events, but his one love in life always remained speed.

"I am the way I am, and I can't change that," Unser told Sports Illustrated in 1982. "There is no such thing as a slow day in the life of Bobby Unser. I was trained to go fast and I will go fast until the day I die."

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