He had unraveled his new car’s complexities but, he tells Adam Cooper, could never have anticipated the simple problem that cost him the race
The Unser family is synonymous with the Indianapolis 500. Between Bobby, his younger brother Al Snr and nephew Al Jnr; they have racked up nine wins. But they paid a heavy price for their place in the history books — eldest brother Jerry died after a fiery practice crash in 1959.
“We had our bad days at Indianapolis, but we had a lot of good days,” says Bobby. “Nine wins for the family is a bunch!”
Bobby’s contribution was three victories. The first came in 1968, and it earned him a little bit of immortality, since it led directly to a cameo role (and a much bigger one for his car) in the Paul Newman film Winning. He won again in 1975, and added a third success in 1981. The latter was a closerun thing: he was initially disqualified for a yellow flag infringement.
That proved to be his final 500 fling. While three wins in 19 starts is not a bad average, he still rues the near misses that could have given him a share of the record of four wins that brother Al shares with AJ Foyt and Rick Mears.
“In 1972, I raised the speed at Indianapolis by 18mph in one year,” he recalls, “and that was the biggest advantage anyone’s had in the history of the race. It should have been a runaway. I had the only car in its class in the whole race, and I lapped my brother inside 27 laps. The press all said I was killing the car, driving it too hard, but little did they know that I was just cruising. Nobody was running within a country mile of that car that year.”
An agonising ignition failure led to retirement after just 31 laps. But this is not the loss he regrets most: “I had a lot of unfulfilled possibilities, but 79 was the closest, when I lost it right at the last.”
That season saw the birth of the ground effect era. After Colin Chapman and Lotus had shown the way in Formula One the previous year, the Indycar boys took tentative steps in the same direction. Not everybody got a handle on the new technology as successfully as John Barnard, whose Chaparral design would upset the apple-cart.
One of the teams trying to keep up was Penske, but the new PC7 was proving so difficult to sort that Mears decided to switch back to the proven PC6. However, Unser decided to persevere with the new car, the new technology.
“We didn’t even have any time to do engine development, because we were heavy duty into the ground effects. They’d almost given up, but I knew the PC7, if I could make a few more breakthroughs on it, would be the fastest.
“The old car had new developments, because everything we developed for the PC7 aero-wise, with the exception of the ground effects, went to the PC6. So that made it a much better race car. But I didn’t want that, I knew that the PC7 would make a good car that day.”
The biggest problem Unser encountered was taming the ground effects.
“In those days, we had sliding skirts, and sometimes they would stick. When they would stick you wouldn’t know if they were laying on the ground or not And we were probably spending too much of the mechanics’ time working on these sliding skirts instead of the mechanical things, the engine and stuff like that.
“It was a new car, and we were developing it during the month. I got about five good breakthroughs in the latter part of April and May, and got the car handling good.”
Ironically, Mears put his PC6 on pole, but the writing was on the wall — Al Snr was third-fastest with the stunning Chaparral, and Bobby put the PO on the inside of the second rank. And after the first qualifying weekend, he had another week of practice in which to hone the car further. Come the race, he was confident
Al had the Chaparral to the fore in the first half, but eventually retired with a transmission oil leak. Bobby, meanwhile, played a typical waiting game, coming into his own around the 80-lap mark.
“I dominated the whole event, and I would have easily won it. When the race was over, we found I had seven cracks in the airbox, and yet I still led almost all of the race. I controlled it. That car was really good.
“And then of all the strange things, we had fourth gear strip its teeth. It was a very rare thing to have happen. In my whole career, I don’t ever remember a fourth gear going out First or second, maybe third, but never fourth. But it just flat broke, sheared the teeth off. There was no reason for it, as it takes the least amount of abuse. It was about 18 laps from the end.” And so it was that team-mate Mears swept into the lead to take his first Indy victory.
Bobby managed to select third gear and, for the remainder of the race, cruised helplessly around as one car after another went past — first Foyt, then Mike Mosley and Danny Ongais. Fortunately, a high attrition rate and a late yellow flag period meant he had slipped only to fifth, a lap behind winner, when the chequered flag fell.
“Nobody remembers who finished second! Penske won, but Roger Penske was still concerned about my loss. He was the team manager on my car, we were a team; Rick and someone else was on the other one car. Even though we were teammates, you don’t race for the other guy to win.
“That was a terrible one to lose. That one I had in the palm of my hand. I controlled the whole race, established everything, and then to lose it right there at the last… That one really bothers me, especially since the new car was going to be abandoned, and they were going to run the PC6s temporarily.
“It didn’t take Rick long to switch over from the the old car. Once I got it developed, he wanted it immediately. He ran only with the old car up to Indy, and then switched to PC7.”
Inevitably, just about every car in the following year’s 500 field featured huge sidepods and sliding skirts to match. It was reminiscent of the hurried transition from the roadster era to rear engines. As speeds began to spiral, and poor understanding of the technology led to crashes, the authorities realised it was time to rein in the aerodynamics.
Unser: `The problem is that techhology outstrips racing after a while. I think the amount of ground effects that we had then was the right amount, if you had some way to stop it there. Unfortunately, there was no way to stop it. Once you have the technology, once you know there’s something there, then technology doesn’t stop. It goes in leaps and bounds.”
But can be occasionally tripped up.