Bobby Unser already had achieved everything imaginable in his legendary auto racing career. He had won the Indianapolis 500 three times, standing alone as the first driver to capture that race in three separate decades (1968, 1975, 1981). He had retired from racing, content on the sidelines as a TV race day commentator and a respected authority throughout his sport.
Then came one last opportunity for the Colorado Springs native. He had dominated the Pikes Peak Auto Hill Climb throughout his young-adult years, before sharing his expertise to help others in his family pursue their dreams in the Race to the Clouds. But after European rally driver Michele Mouton broke Al Unser Jr.’s overall Pikes Peak record in 1985, suddenly it wasn’t Unser Mountain anymore.
Audi, which had provided the car for Mouton, approached Bobby Unser and offered him the chance to make one last encore — driving a specially prepared Audi Sport Quattro in the 1986 Hill Climb.
Unser accepted, setting the stage for a remarkable one-race comeback. Amid heavy fanfare, the 52-year-old competitor once again drew on his decades of knowledge about the Pikes Peak Highway’s 150-plus turns and sharp corners, applying all that to Audi’s engineering and rally car expertise. But nobody knew if Unser could turn all that into one last historic performance, five years after his retirement.
The result was unforgettable. Unser flawlessly rocketed to the 14,110-foot summit in 11 minutes, 9.22 seconds — more than 16 seconds faster than Mouton’s previous record, giving Unser 13 victories on the mountain over a span of 30 years, 1956-86.
Even after that triumph, Unser continued returning to Pikes Peak every year, helping other family members in their quests. After all, the race had served as the annual cornerstone for the entire Unser family, starting with Bobby’s uncle, Louie Unser.
From the 1930s into the late ’60s, until retiring from the race at the age of 71, Louie Unser was the hill climb’s patriarch, winning nine times on Pikes Peak. His accomplishments made him the first Unser inducted into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame, in the class of 1980.
Following in his uncle’s footsteps, Bobby Unser’s fiery spirit and determination sometimes put him at odds with the Hill Climb’s organizers, but underneath it all, there’s a unanimous admiration and respect for Unser
“Volumes have been written about the man who tamed the spirit of Pikes Peak,” said Phil Layton, longtime race director for the event now known as the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. “Many have tried; few have succeeded.”
“Historians will talk about his records. Factory engineers will talk about his tenacity and will to win. Competitors and fans alike will remember his seemingly effortless performances in the Race to the Clouds.”
“Louis Unser has always been referred to as the Old Man of the Mountain. I think Bobby was the modern-day patriarch of the Unser family. He was always an ambassador for the race, and it is an honor to call him friend… We raise our glasses to a class act.”
Bobby Unser, now 79, lives in Albuquerque, N.M. He also has been inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, and the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame.
Desire! That’s the one secret of every man’s career. Not education. Not being born with hidden talents. Desire.