We are saddened by the passing of Al Unser, Sr., on December 9, 2021. Over his nearly 40-year racing career—ranked as one of America’s top drivers for much of it—Unser added immeasurably to his family’s rich legacy in motorsport. He earned 39 wins in national championship races and three national titles. Unser won two overall victories at Pikes Peak. He earned a championship in the IROC series. Most famously, Unser won four times at the Indianapolis 500.
Some families farmed, and some ran small businesses. The Unsers raced. Al’s father and uncles grew up near Pikes Peak, Colorado, where they competed in the celebrated Pikes Peak Hill Climb starting in 1926. Uncle Louis won nine victories there between 1934 and 1953, while father Jerry scored a personal-best third-place finish on the mountain.
An American racing dynasty: Jerry Unser (rear) with his sons (front, left to right) Bobby, Jerry Jr., Louie, and Al. / THF227428
By the time Al was born in 1939 (on the day before Memorial Day, appropriately enough), Jerry and Mary Unser had moved their family to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where Jerry operated a service station on well-traveled Route 66. Like his older brothers Jerry Jr., Louie, and Bobby, Al grew up helping at the station where he was surrounded by cars and racing culture. Jerry Jr. and Louie went to Pikes Peak for the first time as competitors in 1955. Jerry Jr. earned class wins there in 1956 and 1957. He started in the 1958 Indianapolis 500, but was knocked out of contention by a collision on the first lap. The following year, Jerry Jr. was killed in a crash while attempting to qualify for Indy.
Louie earned class victories at Pikes Pike in 1960 and 1961, but multiple sclerosis forced his retirement from competitive driving in 1964. It was Bobby who became “King of the Mountain,” earning 13 wins—including 10 overall victories—at Pikes Peak from 1956 to 1986. Bobby made his mark at Indianapolis too, winning the Indy 500 in 1968, 1975, and 1981.
The Unsers reigned at Pikes Peak, and Al earned overall wins in 1964 and 1965. He posed there with Wes Vandervoort (left) and brother Bobby (right) in 1964. / THF218643
Al launched his own competitive driving career in 1957. Fittingly, his first taste of success came at Pikes Peak. He interrupted his brother Bobby’s successful streak on “America’s Mountain” by claiming the overall victory in 1964. Al then turned in a repeat performance with another overall win in 1965. That same year, he made his debut in the Indianapolis 500. Al finished ninth, ahead of Bobby (who placed nineteenth) but behind Jim Clark and his rear-engine revolution.
Al’s Johnny Lightning cars of 1970–71 remain Indy fan favorites. / THF148071
Al scored a second-place Indy 500 finish in 1967 and, the following year, he joined Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing team and chief mechanic George Bignotti. Al’s first win at the Brickyard came in 1970, when he dominated the race by leading 190 of the 200 laps. Just as he had done at Pikes Peak, Al posted a repeat win at Indy by taking the checkered flag again in 1971. In both years, Al turned heads not just with his performance, but with his distinct blue and yellow cars sponsored by toymaker Johnny Lightning.
Unser notched another Indy 500 win in 1978. That year’s victory was followed later in the season by wins at Pocono Raceway and Ontario Motor Speedway. The trio of checkered flags gave Al the Indy car “Triple Crown”—victories in all three of the 500-mile races on the 1978 calendar.
Al’s 1987 Indy 500 victory made him only the second driver (at the time) to win the race four times. / THF225018
Unser’s fourth Indianapolis 500 win shouldn’t have happened at all—which made the triumph that much sweeter. Al was without a ride heading into the 1987 race. But when Team Penske’s Danny Ongais went into the wall during practice and then withdrew from the race under doctor’s orders, the team offered Unser the chance to take his place. Al was less than a week from his 48th birthday, but he was game for another run at the greatest spectacle in racing. Unser started the race in 20th position but steadily moved toward the front, taking the lead on lap 183. He held off the opposition long enough to take the checkered flag with an average speed of 162.175 mph. At that moment, not only did Al become the second driver to win the Indianapolis 500 four times (after A.J. Foyt), he also became the oldest driver to win the race (beating a record set by his brother Bobby, who’d won in 1981 at age 47).
Al retired from competitive driving in 1994, but not before racing several times against his son, Al Unser, Jr. “Little Al” earned two Indianapolis 500 victories of his own, taking the checkered flag in 1992 and 1994. Altogether, an Unser won the Indy 500 nine times from 1968 to 1994—one-third of the races held in those 26 years!
For 30 years, Al Unser, Sr., was one of only three drivers to win Indy four times (along with A.J. Foyt and Rick Mears). Helio Castroneves joined the exclusive club in 2021. / THF146847
We join the racing world in mourning the death of Al Unser, Sr. His passing is especially hard coming in the same year that saw the loss of his brother, Bobby, and his nephew (and Bobby’s son), Bobby Unser, Jr. Al’s achievements and his impressive record will endure, as will the incredible legacy of the Unsers of Albuquerque, the first family of American racing.
You can hear Al Unser, Sr., describe his career and accomplishments in his own words on our “Visionaries on Innovation” page here.
Al Unser, Sr., in 2009 (photo by Michelle Andonian). / THF62695
The Henry Ford mourns the loss of Bobby Unser, who passed away on May 2, 2021. He was a good friend to our organization and, of course, one of America’s most accomplished racing drivers.
Bobby Unser was born into automobile racing. His father and uncles grew up in the shadow of Pikes Peak and competed in the legendary Pikes Peak Hill Climb race. Bobby’s uncle, Louie, earned nine victories in the contest from 1934 to 1953. Bobby’s father, Jerry, finished third as his personal best, but his sons would go on to dominate at Pikes Peak—and Indianapolis.
Bobby Unser was just one year old when his parents, Jerry and Mary, relocated the family from Colorado Springs, Colorado, to Albuquerque, New Mexico. Jerry opened a service station on Route 66—wisely locating it on the west side of town, so his station was the first one motorists saw after traveling across the New Mexico desert. Bobby and his brothers, Jerry Jr., Louis, and Al, grew up working in the station, living and breathing cars. Not surprisingly, they all caught the racing bug. Jerry Jr. and Louis each competed at Pikes Peak for the first time in 1955. Jerry Jr. won his class twice, in 1956 and 1957. He went on to compete in the 1958 Indianapolis 500, but died in a crash during qualifying for Indy the next year. Louis won his class at Pikes Peak in 1960 and 1961, but retired from competitive driving in 1964, when he developed multiple sclerosis. Al earned back-to-back Pikes Peak overall victories in 1964 and 1965. He made his Indy 500 debut in 1965 and went on to become only the second person to win the race four times, taking the checkered flag in 1970, 1971, 1978, and 1987.
Bobby Unser racing up Pikes Peak, 1960. / THF217906
Even in a family of racing legends, Bobby Unser stood out. Following service in the Air Force, he made his own debut at Pikes Peak in 1955. He earned the overall victory there the following year, kicking off an incredible run of nine overall wins in 13 years. Altogether, Bobby Unser claimed 10 overall victories and 13 class wins at Pikes Peak between 1956 and 1986. It’s no wonder they called him “King of the Mountain.”
Bobby followed his older brothers to Indianapolis in 1963. His first years at the Brickyard weren’t promising—crashes took him out early in the 1963 and 1964 races, and during qualifying in 1965—but he earned a top-ten finish in 1966. Two years later, Unser won his first victory at the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Despite a challenge from Andy Granatelli’s turbine cars, and his own car getting stuck in high gear, Bobby finished nearly a lap ahead of second place finisher Dan Gurney.
Bobby Unser drinks the traditional bottle of milk following his first Indy 500 win, 1968. / THF140423
Unser and Gurney went from competitors to collaborators. Bobby joined Gurney’s All American Racers (AAR) as a driver and competed at Indy under the AAR banner through most of the 1970s. The capstone of their partnership came in 1975 when Unser once again became a reigning Indy 500 champion—or, more properly, a “raining” champion. Mother Nature put on the biggest show at the 1975 race. With 174 of the 200 laps down, the skies let loose with a torrential downpour. Visibility fell to nil, the track flooded, and cars spun left and right. Officials called the race early with Unser in the lead. The race may have been abbreviated, but it was enough to give Bobby his second win.
If Unser’s 1975 win was his most dramatic, then his third Indy 500 win, in 1981, was his most controversial. The final lap saw Bobby cross the finish line five seconds ahead of Mario Andretti. But Andretti and his teammates protested that Unser had passed cars illegally while under a caution flag earlier in the race. After a night of review and deliberation, race officials ruled in Andretti’s favor, penalizing Unser one position and giving Andretti the victory. Unser’s team appealed the ruling and, after months of further investigation, officials reinstated Bobby Unser’s win. The whole affair soured Unser’s love for racing, and he retired from IndyCar competition in 1983.
Bobby Unser in his sportscasting days, 1985. / THF222929
Thirteen wins at Pikes Peak, or three wins at the Indianapolis 500, would be enough to put any driver on a list of all-time greats, but Bobby Unser had more achievements still. He earned USAC national championships in 1968 and 1974, and an IROC championship in 1975. Following his retirement, Bobby worked in broadcasting, providing commentary on auto races for ABC, NBC and ESPN.
We share the grief of racing fans everywhere at the loss of a true giant. At the same time, we celebrate Bobby Unser’s many achievements on and off the track, and we feel honored to have a role in preserving a significant part of his legacy.
Hear Bobby Unser describe his career and accomplishments in his own words on our “Visionaries on Innovation” page here.
Explore the Bobby Unser Papers, in the Benson Ford Research Center, through the finding aid here, and browse digitized photographs and other artifacts from the collection here.
See highlights from The Henry Ford’s Bobby Unser Collection here.
Every year, as we plan for Maker Faire Detroit behind the scenes, The Henry Ford’s curators think about what items from their collections might be brought out for special display during the event. At this year’s Faire, a new acquisition will make its public debut—items retrieved from the infamous “Atari Tomb of 1983” in Alamogordo, New Mexico.
As any good folklorist will tell you, urban legends usually prove to be fabrications of truth that have gone awry and gained their own momentum, spread by word of mouth and media publicity. But sometimes—urban legends turn out to be true. In April 2014, excavations at the Alamogordo, New Mexico landfill unearthed every video game fan’s dream: physical evidence that the legend of the “Atari Video Game Burial” of 1983 was indeed a very real event.
As we gradually work our way through digitizing the vast collections of The Henry Ford, we tackle many projects our staff enjoy: evening gowns, mourning jewelry, and Dave Friedman auto racing photographs, for example, all pose logistical challenges, but we generally look forward to the undertaking. The less glamorous side of digitization, though, is working with objects that are potentially hazardous or unpleasant to handle, like the metal corrosion found on many of the objects we’re remediating as part of our IMLS grant, or a collection of food packaging that had to be emptied and cleaned of decades-old contents. One such project we’ve just completed is material related to the Atari Video Game Burial, in which a struggling Atari, Inc. buried hundreds of thousands of video game cartridges and gaming equipment in a New Mexico landfill in 1983. The Henry Ford’s collection contains photos and other material documenting the excavation of the landfill in 2014, as well as recovered cartridges (like E.T., shown here) and equipment—and even some of the dirt from the landfill. We can now vouch that material recovered from a landfill continues to smell like a landfill for quite some time. View our digitized Atari Burial collection (sans the unpleasant odor) on our collections website now, and watch for an upcoming blog post by Curator of Communication & Information Technology Kristen Gallerneaux to learn more about this material.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.