A Memorable Ride

May 4, 2021

"Penske Material" provides an inside look at some of the personalities, stories and moments that make Team Penske so unique.

The racing world lost one of its greatest champions and true characters this week when three-time Indianapolis 500 winner and former Team Penske driver Bobby Unser passed away peacefully at his home in New Mexico.

One of the most accomplished drivers and biggest personalities in racing, Unser competed for Team Penske over the course of three seasons – from 1979-1981. While he delivered impressive results on the track for the team, posting 15 pole positions and 11 wins – including the 1981 Indianapolis 500 for Team Penske’s third Indy 500 victory – across 37 starts, Unser also left an impression off the track as well. From his relentless quest to find more speed and generate more wins, to his practical jokes and legendary storytelling, Unser’s time with the team provided a memorable ride.

Some of the team members that worked closely with him and knew him best shared some of their indelible memories of the man and the driver they called “Uncle Bobby.”

“Bobby was always looking for an edge,” recalled longtime Team Penske employee Jerry Breon, who worked as a fabricator for the team during Unser’s three-year run. “Because of his upbringing and his background, Bobby had a good understanding of the mechanics of the race car and he always wanted to put that understanding to good use for Team Penske.”

Because INDYCAR testing was unlimited back then, the team was able to try different parts and pieces to increase its speed. Breon recalled how Unser helped develop the ground effects on the Team Penske cars and he was never shy about trying something different to gain an advantage.

“With me being the only fabricator on the team, Bobby spent a lot of time lobbying to try and have me build something different or unique to make the cars faster,” said Breon. “He was always looking to take our performance to another level.”

Unser wasn’t just full throttle in racing – he took his pranks with the team to a higher plane as well. Longtime Team Penske team coordinator Tim Lombardi recalled a time when he fell for one of Unser more famous practical jokes.

Team Penske Bobby Unser“He had this box with a tube sticking out of it and he said it would test your lung capacity,” said Lombardi. “Well, I guess I fell for it and I blew into the tube and it pushed carbon out onto my cheeks, but I didn’t know it. Then Bobby came over and started rubbing the carbon into my face. He got more than a few people with that one.”

Unser’s hijinks wasn’t just limited to the ground. Lombardi recalled a time that Unser offered to fly some crew members home from a test on the small private plane that he owned. “There were probably six or eight guys on board and someone was sitting in the passenger’s seat right next to Bobby. He liked to fly at a higher altitude than he was supposed to. I remember Bobby just looked at the guy next to him and said he was just going to put it on auto pilot because he  wanted to rest for a while. So he closed his eyes and that was it.”

Former Team Penske General Manager Clive Howell also had a vivid memory of a flight on Unser’s plane. “We had to fly from Indy to Milwaukee and Bobby said ‘Well. Let’s just go on my plane.’ We’re going down the runway to take off and I remember Bobby holding the door open on the plane so the windows wouldn’t steam up. A blower or something wasn’t working on the plane so he just opened the door so he could see.”

Unser’s ability to spin a good tale was almost as legendary as his driving abilities and fearlessness on track. Uncle Bobby loved a good story and he knew just the right amount of drama and humor to keep his audience entertained. It’s one of the many reasons why he made a seamless transition to the ABC announcing booth after he retired from racing.

“Bobby had a story for almost every situation,” recalled Breon.

“His stories were great. It’s part of what made him so much fun to be around,” said Lombardi. “The stories were always entertaining – and most of them were factual.”

A unique personality that had an undeniable passion for racing and a burning desire to win, Unser made a lot of memories and certainly left his mark on North America’s most successful racing organization.

Roger Penske said it best this week when he looked back at Bobby Unser’s career and the impact he made on the sport, the competitors, its partners and fans.

“There simply was no one quite like Bobby Unser,” said Penske.

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