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Bobby Unser, three-time Indy 500 winner, dead at 87

In 1968, Unser claimed his first win at the Indy 500. He went on to win it again in 1975 and a controversial win in 1981.

INDIANAPOLIS — Robert "Bobby" Unser, a three-time Indy 500 winner, has died at the age of 87.

Unser first raced at the Indianapolis 500 in 1963. It was a tough go as he crashed early and finished in 33rd place. In 1968, Unser claimed his first win at the legendary track. He went on to win it again in 1975.

Unser was also at the center of the controversial 1981 finish where both he and Mario passed cars under caution after pitting. Unser won the race, was stripped of it a day later and the win was awarded to Mario Andretti. After a lengthy protest and appeals process, Unser was awarded the win. Unser received a lot of backlash after that controversial win and Unser ended up retiring at the end of the year. He had speculated at coming back at one point, but made the retirement official in 1983.

He is one of just 10 drivers to win the Indy 500 at least three times.

He was one of six members of the Unser family to race in the Indianapolis 500. Bobby and his brother Al, a four-time winner, are the only brothers to win the race.

Unser was inducted into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame in 1990.

He is survived by his wife, Lisa; sons Bobby Jr. and Robby; and daughters Cindy and Jeri.

Racing career

Unser started racing in 1949 at the Roswell Speedway in New Mexico. In 1950, he won his first championship in Southwestern Modified Stock Cars.

After serving in the U.S. Air Force from 1953-55, Unser and his brothers Jerry and Al got into professional racing. Bobby Unser raced successfully in USAC Sprint Car, Midget and Stock Car competition.

Unser's career in Indy cars started in the end of the 1962 season. He spent three years driving Novi-engined cars for Andy Granatelli. He qualified qualified 16th and finished 33rd and last as an Indianapolis 500 rookie in 1963. Unser's day was cut short after completing only two laps because of an accident. He completed just one lap in 1964 and finished the 500 in 32nd place.

By 1966, Unser got his first top-10 finish by placing 8th. In 1967, he moved to Bob Wilke's Leader Card team for a four-year stint. A year after, he won his first 500 driving the No. 3 Rislone Eagle/Offy, one of the most iconic and beautiful rear-engine cars in Indianapolis 500 history. Unser was in a spirited duel with Joe Leonard in one of Granatelli's famous STP Lotus cars powered by a Pratt & Whitney helicopter turbine engine. Unser led 118 of the first 191 laps, but was running second to Leonard when Leonard's fuel shaft broke and Unser got his first 500 victory.

Unser won his second and final USAC National Championship in 1974 after finishing runner-up to Johnny Rutherford in the Indy 500.

In 1975, he earned his second Indianapolis 500 win besting Johnny Rutherford on lap 165 and holding it until the race was ended by a downpour on lap 174 of the 200 schedule laps.

Unser joined Team Penske in 1979 for the start of a three-year stint in which he won 11 races and finished second in the CART standings in 1979 and 1980.

It was during that sting that the controversial 1981 win happened. Unser beat Mario Andretti to the finish by 5.18 seconds, but USAC officials ruled Unser passed cars illegally while exiting the pit lane during a caution on Lap 149. Unser was penalized one position, with Andretti elevated to the winner. 

Unser's penalty was rescinded months later after a protest and appeals process. Unser faced backlash and was even called a cheater after getting the 1981 victory. He sat out the 1982 season and decided against a 1983 comeback.

Unser retired with 35 career INDYCAR victories and two championships among his eight top-three finishes in the season points. He had 10 top-10 finishes in 19 career Indy 500 starts. Unser led in 10 races for a total of 440 laps, which is still 10th on the all-time list.

Post-racing career

After retiring, Unser became a popular broadcaster on ABC, NBC and ESPN INDYCAR telecasts and on IMS Radio Network race broadcasts.

According to the IMS, two of Unser's proudest moments in the TV booth came when he called the finish in 1987 with play-by-play announcer Jim Lampley as his younger brother, Al Unser, earned his record-tying fourth 500 victory and again in 1992 when he and Paul Page called the race when his nephew, Al Unser Jr., won Indy for the first time in the closest 500 finish ever.

In 1998 and 1999, he served as driver coach and assisted with race strategy on the radio for his son Robby Unser during his two starts at the Indy 500.

Reaction to Unser's death

Roger Penske, Chairman, Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Team Penske released a statement on Unser's passing:

“There simply was no one quite like Bobby Unser. Bobby was a ferocious competitor on the track, and his larger-than-life personality made him one of the most beloved and unique racers we have ever seen. Bobby brought so much to Team Penske during his time with our team, including a memorable victory in the 1981 Indianapolis 500. Beyond his many wins and accomplishments, Bobby was a true racer that raised the performance of everyone around him. He was also one of the most colorful characters in motorsports. Throughout his time as a driver, a commentator and an ambassador of our sport, Bobby’s stories and his passion for racing were legendary. Our thoughts and condolences are with Lisa, the Unser family and Bobby’s many friends and fans during this difficult time.”

Gov. Eric Holcomb issued a statement reading:

“The Unser name is synonymous with racing, and Bobby Unser carried that legacy proudly. Indiana loved watching him race and be a part of the largest single-day sporting event. He gave us some special moments at the Indianapolis 500. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Unser family today as they grieve the loss of an incredible man.”

The IMS posted

Today, the racing world mourns the passing of three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Bobby Unser. He was the total package - adored by fans, funny and charming, and a true champion. An icon, always remembered. Godspeed, racer. 

IMS President Doug Boles tweeted: 

Not enough space in a Twitter post to express what Bobby Unser has meant to @IMS. Everyone at IMS extends our deepest sympathies to Bobby’s family, friends & fans. He was one of a kind & will be deeply missed, but always cherished in the heart of every race fan. 

He also included images of a statement on Unser's death.