by Mike Magers
The Unser name is synonymous with auto racing and this article is intended as a brief overview of the lives of the senior Unser brothers. The first family members to be involved in national auto racing on any large scale were Louie Sr, Jerry Jr., Bobby and Al Unser. Their parents were Jerry and Mary Catherine Craven Unser.
Jerry Sr. was born in Switzerland but emigrated to the United States. One of the first competitive racing events in the family’s history was of Jerry Sr riding a motorcycle up Pike’s Peak. Jerry served in World War I after which he briefly lived in California while working for a volunteer fire department. He became known as a talented tinkerer who could fix anything that was mechanical. Jerry is said to have found an old abandoned 1917 touring car and turned it into the department’s first fire truck. Jerry later returned to Colorado where he married Mary Catherine where the couple had their first children, twins Louie Sr. and Jerry Jr. in 1932 with Bobby coming along in 1934.
The family relocated to Albuquerque in 1936 where Jerry operated a service station and repair shop on Central in the west side of town. Their fourth son Al was born in 1939. Jerry taught the sons to drive an old Model A Ford he had bought.
Louis Sr. was a race car driver and engine builder. Louis was a driver until 1964 when he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis after which he retired from driving and devoted the rest of his career building engines. He was gifted in that area building power plants for Carrol Shelby, Mario Andretti and other major racing teams, most of the time working from a wheel chair. Louis succumbed to the disease in 1995.
Twin brother Jerry Jr. was a talented race car driver as well, losing his life in 1959, as a result of burns received in a racing accident running practice laps at the Indianapolis 500. His car flipped over the wall and caught fire.
Younger brothers Bobby and Al were both also involved in national auto racing. Bobby competed from around 1955 to 1982, racing in the Championship series and briefly in Formula One. He also won 13 times at the Pike’s Peak Hill Climb. He competed in USAC, IROC and CART teams, running the Indianapolis 500 several times. His numerous wind include winning the Indianapolis 500 in 1968, 1975 and 1981. Bobby retired in 1982 after a controversy in which he won the Indianpolis 500 race, was stripped of the title and reawarded it over a claimed rules violation. He then served as a broadcaster for ABC, NBC and ESPN.
Youngest brother Al ran his first race at age 18, advancing to his first Indianapolis 500 a few years later in 1965. During his long active career, Al competed in some 322 Championship series races, often finishing high in the points standings. He also raced in the NASCAR circuit for a number of years. Al ran the Indianapolis 500 some 27 times, winning four of the contests. There were many notable races, including the 1970 contest in which he won after leading an incredible 190 of 200 laps, averaging just under 156 miles per hour. He retired in 1994 after a long and mostly successful career.
Several sons of the four brothers have continued the family racing tradition. The family is well known in the Albuquerque area and now operates the Unser Racing Museum on Montaño Road NW, a few miles north of the old service station run by Jerry Unser Sr.