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Bobby Unser began his career in stock car events near Albuquerque. He became New Mexico champion in 1949 and again in 1951 while still a teenager. In 1951 in Mexico, with his father as co-driver, he competed in the second edition of the Carrera Panamericana road race. During the second stage from Oaxaca to Puebla, he was involved in the accident that cost the life of Mexican pilot Carlos Panini, a former aviator and airline director, a very famous and popular millionaire in his country. Teresa Panini, Carlos’ daughter and her father’s co-pilot, escapes the collision virtually unscathed. Bobby Unser explains the accident in his book: Winners Are Driven: A Champion’s Guide to Success in Business & Life.
In the mid-1950s, he shone in the Pikes Peak hillclimb, which he won multiple times.
He made his IndyCar debut in 1962, following in the footsteps of his brother Jerry, who was killed in an accident during practice for the 1959 Indianapolis 500. In 1968, after a long duel with Joe Leonard’s turbine-powered car that eventually broke down on the way to the finish, he won his first Indy 500, and at the end of the season he also won his first USAC championship.
1968 was also the year Bobby Unser made his debut in the Formula One World Championship. In September, he was called up by the BRM team to compete in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. Mario Andretti, his great rival from USAC, was also due to make his F1 debut on the same day in a Lotus. After a convincing first test, the two men flew back to the United States to compete in the Hoosier 100, a prestigious sprint car event. Returning to Italy at the last minute for the F1 Grand Prix, they were refused the start by the organisers who doubted their physical condition after such a long journey and could rely on a point in the regulations prohibiting them from taking part in a race less than 24 hours before a Grand Prix. The two Americans postponed their F1 debut until the US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen a few weeks later. Andretti shone, taking pole, while Unser was content with a more anonymous performance that ended in retirement. This was to be his only Formula 1 race.
In 1974, he won a second USAC title and won the Indy 500 again in 1975. His last appearance at the Indianapolis 500 was in 1981. He took pole position and battled with Mario Andretti until the final laps, but the race became confused when a stoppage occurred. Bobby Unser crossed the line first, but was penalised by a lap the following day, accused of illegally overtaking Entrant under yellow flag conditions. After a lengthy sporting and legal procedure, which was not completed until the following October, the penalty was lifted and Unser got his victory back. He decided to end his career at the end of the year.
Bobby Unser died on 2 May 2021 at the age of 87.
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