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
Auto companies often justify their participation in auto racing by quoting the slogan, “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.” When Henry Ford raced in “Sweepstakes,” it was a case of win on Sunday to start another company on Monday. On October 10, 2021, we commemorate the 120th anniversary of the race that changed Ford’s life—and ultimately changed the course of American automotive history.
In the summer of 1901, things were not going well for Henry. His first car company, the Detroit Automobile Company, had failed, and his financial backers had doubts about his talents as an engineer and as a businessman. Building a successful race car would reestablish his credibility.
Ford didn’t work alone. His principal designer was Oliver Barthel. Ed “Spider” Huff worked on the electrical system, Ed Verlinden and George Wettrick did the lathe work, and Charlie Mitchell shaped metal at the blacksmith forge. The car they produced was advanced for its day. The induction system was a rudimentary form of mechanical fuel injection, patented by Ford, while the spark plugs may have been the first anywhere to use porcelain insulators. Ford had the insulators made by a Detroit dentist.
The engine had only two cylinders, but they were huge: bore and stroke were seven inches each. That works out to a displacement of 538 cubic inches; horsepower was estimated at 26. Ford and Barthel claimed the car reached 72 miles per hour during its road tests. That doesn’t sound impressive today, but in 1901, the official world speed record for automobiles was 65.79 miles per hour.
Ford entered the car in a race that took place on October 10, 1901, at a horse racing track in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. The race was known as a sweepstakes, so “Sweepstakes” was the name that Ford and Barthel gave their car. Henry’s opponent in the race was Alexander Winton, who was already a successful auto manufacturer and the country’s best-known race driver. No one gave the inexperienced, unknown Ford a chance.
When the race began, Ford fell behind immediately, trailing by as much as 300 yards. But Henry improved his driving technique quickly, gradually cutting into Winton’s lead. Then Winton’s car developed mechanical trouble, and Ford swept past him on the main straightaway, as the crowd roared its approval.
Henry Ford behind the wheel of his first race car, the 1901 "Sweepstakes" racer, on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, with Ed "Spider" Huff kneeling on the running board. / THF116246
Henry’s wife, Clara, described the scene in a letter to her brother: “The people went wild. One man threw his hat up and when it came down he stamped on it. Another man had to hit his wife on the head to keep her from going off the handle. She stood up in her seat ... screamed ‘I’d bet $50 on Ford if I had it.’”
Henry Ford’s victory had the desired effect. New investors backed Ford in his next venture, the Henry Ford Company. Yet he was not home free. He disagreed with his financiers, left the company in 1902, and finally formed his lasting enterprise, Ford Motor Company, in 1903.
Ford sold “Sweepstakes” in May of 1902, but eventually bought it back in the 1930s. He had a new body built to replace the original, which had been damaged in a fire, and he displayed the historic vehicle in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. Unfortunately, Ford did not keep good records of his restoration, and over time, museum staff came to believe that the car was not an original, but a replica. It was not until the approach of the 1901 race’s 100th anniversary that the car was closely examined and its originality verified. Using “Sweepstakes” as a pattern, Ford Motor Company built two running replicas to commemorate the centennial of its racing program in 2001.
Ford gifted one of the replicas to us in 2008. That car is a regular feature at our annual Old Car Festival in September. Occasionally, it comes out for other special activities. We recently celebrated the 120th anniversary of the 1901 race by taking the replica to the inaugural American Speed Festival at the M1 Concourse in Pontiac, Michigan. The car put on a great show, and it even won another victory when it was awarded the M1 Concourse Prize as a festival favorite.
The “Sweepstakes” replica caught the attention of Speed Sport TV pit reporter Hannah Lopa at the 2021 American Speed Festival. / Photo courtesy Matt Anderson
Bob Casey is Former Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford. This post was adapted from our former online series “Pic of the Month,” with additional content by Matt Anderson, Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.
Tiny Lund in the pit at the 1965 Daytona 500 / THF117040
“Rubbin’ Is Racin’” — Robert Duvall as Harry Hogge in Days of Thunder
Stock car legend Dale Earnhardt once said, “The winner ain’t the one with the fastest car—it’s the one who refuses to lose.” This form of racing blends innovation, teamwork, and a bit of “trading paint” with rivals along the way.
Stock car racing is famously close-fought—often a contact sport. Few cars come out of a race, particularly on the shorter tracks, without at least a scrape, scratch, or dent from “trading paint” with another car. NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) is an extremely popular stock car series that evolved from Southern moonshine-running during Prohibition. The spectacle is characterized by the color and noises of high-speed, ultra-close racing, highly efficient teamwork during pit stops, and the added conflict of long-standing rivalries among auto manufacturers.
The term "stock car" originally meant a car from a dealer's stock—one that was unmodified. When NASCAR ran its first series in 1949, it was called “Strictly Stock,” and for many years racing stock cars were indeed based on real production automobiles. By 1987, however, racing stock cars only looked stock, and since then, further rules changes have given NASCAR stock cars only a passing resemblance to their production counterparts, with just a few design cues to make the connection. Underneath the bodywork is a purpose-built steel tube frame chassis, racing suspension and brakes, and a pure-bred racing engine.
The Stock Car Racing section of our new exhibit, Driven to Win: Racing in America presented by General Motors, will delight people who enjoy real, hands-on pit crew teamwork with an activity for four or five people to see how fast they can change the tires and work the gas can. You’ll also see an actual stock car and other related artifacts.
This car, driven by Trevor Bayne, won the Daytona 500 in 2011. His was a milestone victory in several ways. It was Ford’s 600th win in NASCAR’s premier Cup Series, scored by a legendary team that has been involved from NASCAR’s beginnings. It was the fifth Daytona 500 win for Wood Brothers Racing and the twelfth by a Ford car (Wood Brothers also scored Ford’s first, in 1963). For Trevor Bayne, who had celebrated his 20th birthday the day before, it was his first victory in NASCAR’s top series, making him the Daytona 500’s youngest winner. (Coincidentally, in Wood Brothers’ first Daytona 500 win in 1963, it was also driver Tiny Lund’s first NASCAR cup win.)
The Wood Brothers are celebrated for revolutionizing NASCAR’s pit stops. They pioneered the fast, meticulously choreographed and coordinated actions of the team’s “over-the-wall” crew, who jack up the car, change the tires, and fill the gas tank with blinding speed. Their pit stop fame prompted Ford and Team Lotus to hire Wood Brothers to service Jim Clark’s car in the 1965 Indy 500.
This car also benefits from safety advances instituted following Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s fatal crash at the end of the 2001 Daytona 500. That tragic event launched a revolution in NASCAR’s safety regulations and procedures. Arguably the most important of these is the mandatory use of the HANS (Head and Neck Support) device that restricts the movement of a driver’s head in a hard crash. In addition, SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) barriers, mandatory crash data recorders in the cars to advance knowledge of crash dynamics, and more energy-absorbing deformation zones were introduced into the next generation of NASCAR stock cars.
Barney Oldfield and Lincoln Beachey Racing, Columbus, Ohio, 1914 / THF228829
In racing, a skilled driver means everything, but if that person is blessed with charisma and an ability to attract attention, then the fruits of promotion are close at hand. Ability behind the wheel is essential for winning races. But from the sport’s earliest days, success in auto racing also has been augmented by a driver’s ability to attract attention and build a relationship with fans. This helps generate public awareness, fundraising, and sponsorship. In our new racing exhibit, Driven to Win: Racing in America presented by General Motors, two exceptional examples—one from the early days of the sport and one from today—are featured, along with their cars.
In the early 1900s, Barney Oldfield made himself larger than life with his widely publicized exploits on racetracks. Oldfield had a reputation as a fearless bicycle racer, and the very first automobile he ever drove was Henry Ford’s “999.” That was about a week before he raced it in the Manufacturers' Challenge Cup on October 25, 1902. Oldfield won handily, which launched his colorful auto racing career. It also produced the first of many opportunities for Henry Ford to promote Oldfield’s exploits to continue building his own reputation on the way to founding Ford Motor Company a year later.
Ken Block has successfully used his charisma, along with his unquestionable car-control skills, to create a name for himself and to build public awareness for his sponsors and their products. Barney Oldfield was largely limited to personal appearances, posters, and newspaper stories and ads to build his brand and those of his backers, but Ken Block has been able to add video, television, the Internet, and social media to his arsenal for attracting attention. His viral “Gymkhana” videos alone have generated hundreds of millions of views around the world. The car you’ll see in Driven to Win was used in “Gymkhana FIVE: Ultimate Urban Playground; San Francisco.”
Festival Queen with the Borg-Warner Trophy at the 52nd Indianapolis 500, May 30, 1968 / Indy50005-68_1096
The Greatest Spectacle in Racing
Say "Indianapolis" and everyone immediately thinks "500." Yes, we’re talking about the greatest spectacle in racing.
The Indianapolis 500-mile race and its venue, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, are the grandparents of American races and race tracks. The 2.5-mile rectangular oval was constructed in 1909 and paved with 3.2 million bricks, which prompted the moniker, “The Brickyard.” A three-foot strip of bricks remains today at the start/finish line. The first Indianapolis 500 ran in 1911, and Ray Harroun won, driving a Marmon Wasp on which Harroun installed a rear-view mirror he had designed—the first ever used on an automobile. His average speed for the 500 miles was 74.602 mph. At present, the fastest 500-mile average speed was set by Tony Kanaan in 2013 at 187.433 mph.
As the 500 grew in importance, it soon became America’s most famous auto race and attracted interest globally. Out of the track’s fame, the name "Indy Car” soon was applied to the open-wheel cars that toured the United States (and much later were included in races in Canada and Mexico), but the Indianapolis 500 always has been the biggest, most important event on the calendar: “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
For the 1935 Indy 500, Henry Ford entered a factory team of cars, designed by Harry Miller and powered by modified Ford V-8 engines. This car is one of ten that were built. Miller was the most important American racing designer before World War II. His legacy includes the 4-cylinder Offenhauser engine (for an example, check out the Meskowski-Offenhauser, which you’ll also find in Driven to Win), plus innovation, superb craftsmanship, and artistic touches like the aerodynamic, cast-aluminum suspension arms that could be pieces of sculpture. This car is lower and more streamlined than any other 1935 race car, with four-wheel drive and independent suspension, front and rear—unheard of back then. Unfortunately, the project had insufficient development time, and the car had a flaw that abbreviated testing didn’t reveal until it was too late. The steering box was mounted too close to the exhaust manifold, and eventually the exhaust heat caused the steering to seize up. All the Miller-Ford cars that qualified for the 500 dropped out.
This collection of parts is the remnants of one of the most horrific crashes in Indianapolis 500 history. It reminds us that auto racing, while much safer than it used to be, will always be dangerous. In a melee of cars on the front straight at the start of the 1973 Indy 500, this car, driven by David "Salt" Walther, crashed into the outside wall and flipped into the retaining fence. A fuel tank ruptured and the methanol fuel burst into flames. The front of the car ripped off, and videos show Walther's feet dangling outside. He was badly burned, and some spectators also were burned, but there were no fatalities. In spite of his severe injuries, Walther came back to race again in 1974. Safety equipment like a helmet, fire-resistant clothing, a roll bar, and rubber fuel tank liners helped Walther survive, but the crash also triggered some changes to safety rules. Smaller fuel tank capacity reduced the risk of fire, smaller rear wings were mandated to reduce speeds, and the track updated many of its rapid-response procedures.
Tom Sneva qualified on the pole for the 1984 Indianapolis 500 in this car, with a four-lap average of 210.029 mph. He was the first driver ever to qualify at more than 200 mph. The car is powered by a 159-cubic-inch Ford/Cosworth V-8 engine that produces some 740 horsepower. This car’s design and engineering follow trends that began in the 1970s and are still seen in today’s Indy Cars. The front and rear wings generate aerodynamic downforce to help the car’s tires grip the road. Its cooling radiators are mounted in the side pods, and the bodywork under the pods is shaped to create a low-pressure area that adds more downforce to essentially suck the car down onto the track. The monocoque chassis is made with both aluminum and magnesium. Today’s Indy Cars still have wings and side pods, but the monocoque chassis are now fabricated from carbon fiber.
Along with all of that planning, we did some serious collecting as well. Visitors to Driven to Win will see more than 250 artifacts from all eras of American racing. Several of those pieces are newly acquired, specifically for the show.
Shoes worn by Ken Block in Gymkhana Five. Block co-founded DC Shoes in 1994. / THF179739
The most obvious new addition is the 2012 Ford Fiesta driven by Ken Block in Gymkhana Five: Ultimate Urban Playground; San Francisco. The car checked some important boxes for us. It represented one of America’s hottest current motorsport stars, of course, but it also gave us our first rally car. The Fiesta wasn’t just for show—Block drove it in multiple competitions, including the 2012 X Games in Los Angeles, where he took second place (one of five podium finishes Block took in the X Games series). At the same time, we collected several accessories worn by Block, including a helmet, a racing suit, gloves, sunglasses, and a pair of shoes. The footwear is by DC Shoes, the apparel company that Block co-founded with Damon Way in 1994.
Racing toys and games are prominently represented in Driven to Win. We have several vintage slot cars and die cast models, but I was excited to add a 1:64 scale model of Brittany Force’s 2019 Top Fuel car. Force is one of NHRA’s biggest current stars, and an inspiration to a new generation of fans.
Charmingly dated today, Pole Position’s graphics and gameplay were strikingly realistic in 1983. / THF176903
Many of those newer fans have lived their racing dreams through video games. We had a copy of Atari’s pioneering Indy 500 cartridge already, but I was determined to add newer, more influential titles to our holdings. While Indy 500 didn’t share much with its namesake race apart from the general premise of cars competing on an oval track, Atari’s Pole Position brought a new degree of realism to racing video games. Pole Position was a top arcade hit in 1982, and the home version, released the following year, retained the full-color landscapes that made the game so lifelike at the time. I was excited to acquire a copy that not only included the original box, but also a hype sticker reading “Arcade Hit of the Year!”
Another game that made the jump from arcade to living room was Daytona USA, released in 1995 for the short-lived Sega Saturn. Rather than open-wheel racing, Daytona USA based its gameplay on stock car competition. The arcade version was notable for permitting up to eight machines to be linked together, allowing multiple players to compete with one another.
More recently, the Forza series set a new standard for racing video games. The initial title, Forza Motorsport, featured more than 200 cars and encouraged people to customize their vehicles to improve performance or appearance. Online connectivity allowed Forza Motorsport players to compete with others not just in the same room, but around the world.
One of my favorite new acquisitions is a photograph showing a young racer, Basil “Jug” Menard, posing with his race car. There’s something charming in the way young Menard poses with his Ford, a big smile on his face and hands at his hips like a superhero. His car looks worse for the wear, with plenty of dents and an “85” rather hastily stenciled on the door, but this young driver is clearly proud of it. Menard represents the “weekend warrior” who works a regular job during the week, but takes on the world at the local dirt track each weekend.
When we talk about a racer’s tools, we don’t just mean cars and helmets. / THF167207
Drivers may get most of the glory, but they’re only the most visible part of the large team behind any race car. There are folks working for each win everywhere from pit lane to the business office. Engineers are a crucial part of that group, whether they work for the racing team itself, the car manufacturer, or a supplier. In the early 20th century, Leo Goossen was among the most successful racing engineers in the United States. Alongside designer Harry Miller, Goossen developed cars and engines that won the Indianapolis 500 a total of 14 times from 1922 to 1938. We had the great fortune to acquire a set of drafting tools used by Goossen in his work. The donor of those tools grew up with Goossen as his neighbor. As a boy, the donor often talked about cars and racing with Goossen. The engineer passed the tools on to the boy as a gift.
We could not mount a serious exhibit on motorsport without talking about safety. Into the 1970s, auto racing was a frightfully dangerous enterprise. Legendary driver Mario Andretti commented on the risk in the early years of his career during our 2017 interview with him. Andretti recalled that during the drivers’ meeting at the beginning of each season, he’d look around the room and wonder who wouldn’t survive to the end of the year.
Improved helmets went a long way in reducing deaths and injuries. Open-face, hard-shell helmets were common on race tracks by the late 1950s, but it wasn’t until 1968 that driver Dan Gurney introduced the motocross-style full-face helmet to auto racing. Some drivers initially chided Gurney for being overly cautious—but they soon came to appreciate the protection from flying debris. Mr. Gurney kindly donated to us one of the full-face helmets he used in occasional races after his formal retirement from competitive driving in 1970.
And speaking of Dan Gurney, he famously co-drove the Ford Mark IV to victory with A.J. Foyt at Le Mans in 1967. We have a treasure trove of photographs from that race, and of course we have the Mark IV itself, but we recently added something particularly special: the trophy Ford Motor Company received for the victory. To our knowledge, Driven to Win marks the first time this trophy has been on public view in decades. Personally, I think the prize’s long absence is a key part of the story. Ford went to Le Mans to beat Ferrari. After doing so for a second time in 1967, Ford shut down its Le Mans program, having met its goal and made its point. All the racing world had marveled at those back-to-back wins—Ford didn’t need to show off a trophy to prove what it had done!
Janet Guthrie wore this glove at the 1977 Indy 500—when she became the first woman to compete in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. / THF166385
For most of its history, professional auto racing has been dominated by white men. Women and people of color have fought discrimination and intimidation in the sport for decades. It is important to include those stories in Driven to Win—and in The Henry Ford’s collections. We documented Janet Guthrie’s groundbreaking run at the 1977 Indianapolis 500, when she became the first woman to compete in America’s most celebrated race, with a glove she wore during the event. I quite like the fact that the glove had been framed with a plaque, a gesture that underlined the significance of Guthrie’s achievement. We’ve displayed the glove in the exhibit still inside that frame. More recently, Danica Patrick followed Guthrie’s footsteps at Indy. Patrick also competed for several years in NASCAR, and in 2013 she became the first woman to earn the pole position at the Daytona 500. She kindly donated a pair of gloves that she wore in 2012, her inaugural Cup Series season.
Wendell Scott, the first Black driver to compete full-time in NASCAR’s Cup Series, as photographed at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1974. / THF147632
Wendell Scott broke NASCAR’s color barrier when he battled discrimination from officials and fans to become the first Black driver to win a Cup Series race. Scott earned the victory at Speedway Park in Jacksonville, Florida, in December 1963. We acquired a photo of Scott taken later in his career, at the 1972 World 600. Scott retired in 1973 after sustaining serious injuries in a crash at Talladega Superspeedway. In addition to acquiring the photo, we were fortunate to be able to borrow a 1966 Ford Galaxie driven by Scott during the 1967 and 1968 NASCAR seasons.
Wendell Scott’s impact on the sport is still felt. Current star Darrell “Bubba” Wallace is the first Black driver since Scott to race in the Cup Series full-time. Following the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, Wallace joined other athletes from all sports in supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. He and his teammates at Richard Petty Motorsports created a special Black Lives Matter paint scheme for Wallace’s #43 Chevrolet Camaro, driven at Virginia’s Martinsville Speedway on June 10, 2020. We acquired a model of that car for the exhibit. The interlocked Black and white hands on the hood are a hopeful symbol at a difficult time.
Our collecting efforts did not end when Driven to Win opened. We continue to add important pieces to our holdings—most recently, items used by rising star Armani Williams in his stock car racing career. There will be more to come: more artifacts to collect, more stories to share, and more insights on the people and places that make American racing special.
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.
Bobby Unser Crossing the Finish Line, Winner of the 1956 Pikes Peak Auto Hill Climb Race / THF140569
King of the Mountain
What does it take to “race to the clouds”? Power, handling, endurance—and a spirit to conquer the summits of nature. Hill climbs were one of the very earliest forms of automobile competition. They test a car’s power and handling capabilities, and the car-control skills, focus, and endurance of the driver.
Today, there are many local amateur hill climbs, but the most famous one is the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb in Colorado, which has been running since 1916. Its tortuous 12.42-mile course has 156 turns and rises from an elevation of 9,390 feet at the start to 14,115 feet at the finish. For good reason, it’s known as the race to the clouds. Bobby Unser is probably the best-known racer to conquer Pikes Peak. He won the overall event a record ten times—in 1956, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1966, 1968, and 1986—which earned him the title “King of the Mountain.”
1958 Moore/Unser Pikes Peak Hill Climb Car
1958 Moore/Unser Pikes Peak Hill Climb Racing Car. On Loan from Bobby and Lisa Unser. / THF91311
Bobby Unser won seven of his ten Pikes Peak overall victories in this car, including five straight (1959–63), along with 1966 and 1968. In this section of our new racing exhibit, Driven to Win: Racing in America, presented by General Motors, you can "meet" Unser while he tells you what it took to win all those Pikes Peak races. Learn how he continually improved the car, making it lighter by modifying the frame and suspension and switching to an aluminum radiator, transmission case, and fuel tank.
Armani Williams. (Photo courtesy Team Armani Racing.)
Grosse Pointe, Michigan, native Armani Williams is at the start of a promising career in auto racing. He competes in multiple professional truck and car racing series, and is honing his skills with an eye toward joining NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series—one of NASCAR’s three national series and among the highest professional racing series in the United States. This is an impressive goal for any young driver, but especially so for Mr. Williams, who is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.
Autism generally is characterized by difficulty in focusing on and processing multiple stimuli and tasks simultaneously. “Focusing on and processing multiple stimuli and tasks simultaneously” is also a pretty fair description of what a competitive driver does behind the wheel, which makes Williams’s achievements all the more impressive.
Helmet worn by Armani Williams, Scorpion EXO. / THF186734
Like most racing drivers, Armani Williams developed his love for motorsport as a young boy. That passion was fostered by toy cars, televised NASCAR races, and a memorable trip to see NASCAR’s Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2010. Eager to get behind the wheel himself, Williams began racing go-karts at age eight. He then advanced to Bandolero racing, a type of motorsport in which young drivers pilot scaled-down versions of stock cars capable of speeds better than 70 miles per hour.
Williams made his competition debut in Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA) Pro Series pickup truck races in 2016. He set ARCA records by becoming the highest-finishing African American driver in a series race, and by posting the best finish for an African American driver in the ARCA Truck Pro Series championship.
Racing suit worn by Armani Williams, Alpinestars. / THF186736
NASCAR invited Armani Williams to compete in its Drive for Diversity combined tryouts in 2016 and 2017. Established in 2004, the Drive for Diversity program is intended to create a more inclusive culture in NASCAR on the track, in the pits, and in the stands. The program provides training and support to people of color and women pursuing careers as drivers, crew members, sponsors, or team owners.
In 2017, Williams made his debut in the Pinty’s Series, NASCAR’s Canadian stock car racing series. To date, he has earned eighteen wins and two championships in the Pinty’s Series. In 2018, Williams joined the K&N Pro Series East. This American NASCAR series serves as an important development pipeline, building and supplying new talent headed toward NASCAR’s upper levels. Williams earned his first K&N Pro Series top-ten finish at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where he finished ninth on September 22, 2018. Williams earned another top-ten finish—this time in ARCA’s Menards Series for stock cars—on August 9, 2020, at Michigan International Speedway, his “hometown” track. By competing in the Pinty’s and K&N Pro racing series, Armani Williams became the first driver in any NASCAR series with openly-diagnosed autism.
Race 4 Autism car driven by Armani Williams. (Photo courtesy Team Armani Racing.)
Throughout his growing career, Armani Williams has used his platform in racing to raise autism awareness. He established his Armani Williams Race 4 Autism Foundation in 2015. He also covered one of his race cars with a special Race 4 Autism paint scheme featuring the jigsaw puzzle motif that is widely used as a symbol for autism spectrum disorder.
Racing shoes worn by Armani Williams, Alpinestars. / THF186733
Mr. Williams recently donated pieces of his equipment to The Henry Ford. They include a helmet, a racing suit, and a pair of shoes used by him while racing in the ARCA Truck Pro Series. We are delighted to add these artifacts to the museum’s racing collections, and we look forward to incorporating some of them into our newest exhibit, Driven to Win: Racing in America Presented by General Motors. We also look forward to following Armani Williams’s competitive driving career. He’s already made history—and he’s just getting started.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.
The multisensory theater in Driven to Win at The Henry Ford.
American innovation knows no bounds, and racing, which combines technical excellence with the human endeavor, speaks to our constant need to push the limits of what’s possible. That’s why Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation has gathered one of the finest collections of innovative, powerful, record-busting race cars and automotive artifacts in the world.
Building on this unparalleled collection, The Henry Ford’s newest exhibition, Driven to Win: Racing in Americapresented by General Motors, gives guests a visceral sense of just how thrilling it is to “go faster and push the limits of racing.” BRC Imagination Arts partnered with The Henry Ford to help bring its incredible collection to life through emotional storytelling, and to get guests excited about “the lives of those who invented their way into the winner's circle and often changed the world in the process.”
The result: Fueled by Passion, the exhilarating, immersive experience at the heart of the new exhibition. The 15-minute sensory-filled experience shares the stories of five people who have empowered themselves to push their personal limits, and ignites the drive we all have to power our passions.