It’s been a banner year of remembrance for Bobby Unser. He’s been roasted by his peers, celebrated the 50th anniversary of his first Indianapolis 500 victory and honored with the prestigious Louis Meyer Award during May’s Hall of Fame banquet in Indianapolis.
Each provided ample opportunity for Unser to share tales from his celebrated racing career. And there are few better storytellers than “Uncle Bobby.” He leaves the listener enthralled and bent over in laughter, if not a bit skeptical because of his equally acclaimed inclination to embellish.
There’s no better example than his infamous 1966 crash at Phoenix Int’l Raceway. During the March 20 Jimmy Bryan Memorial, his car pounded the guardrail, plowed under it and popped out the other side with Unser relatively unscathed.
When questioned about how he escaped the incident unharmed, for years he’d say, with a twinkle in his ice blue eyes and that Unser chuckle, “Son, I have excellent reflexes. I ducked.”
Well son, even Bobby Unser’s reflexes weren’t that quick and this year he admitted that, yes, possibly fate played a part in his survival. Still, the story is not without its own Bobby Unser twist.
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At the time, Unser was driving Gordon Van Liew’s Vita Fresh Orange Juice Special. During practice prior to the season-opening Phoenix race, a suspension part failed on the car, a Joe Huffaker rear-engined Offy, and it was destroyed.
Van Liew was easing out of Indy car racing and wasn’t interested in buying another car, so Unser contacted Huffaker and managed to get a replacement. “He didn’t try to sell it to me, or lease it, he loaned it to me,” Unser remembered.
“But I didn’t have a crew for it,” he continued. “So I had to get a couple of guys, just inexperienced guys, to help me at Phoenix. As it turned out one of them mounted a wheel wrong. The knockoff hub was tight, but the wheel wasn’t seated. That caused a big problem under braking later.”
Unser qualified sixth quick. On the 25th lap, the left-front wheel departed the car and he shot into and under the Armco barrier.
“You just can’t imagine how fast that happened,” Unser said with a shake of his head. “I must have been out for a short time and when I came to I couldn’t see a race track anywhere. I knew I had been in a race, but no race track!
“I was pointed up the hill away from the track, and the first thing I saw when I came around was two horses’ butts,” Unser added. “There were two Indians on horseback, dressed in cowboy hats and boots. I didn’t know what in the world was happening. Then I saw Roger McCluskey standing over me, I think it was McCluskey, I was still groggy, out of it. He was shaking my head and feeling around my neck … I think he was checking to see if my head was cut off.”
Unser was intact. Nothing broken, no cuts. He had a headache. He’d likely received a concussion. But concussions were given little consideration in those days.
How he passed under the guardrail without being seriously injured remains a mystery. Most likely the shape of the car acted as a wedge and pushed the guardrail up enough to allow him to pass under it.
“The car was white,” Unser recalled, “but had been yellow at one time. After the crash, I noticed yellow paint on my helmet. My head got pushed back so far that it rubbed yellow paint off the car from underneath the roll bar. An area that couldn’t even be seen.
“Let me tell you it was a bad deal all the way around,” Unser said. “The only thing that would’ve been worse is if those horses had taken a dump on me while I was sitting there.
“That was the second Huffaker car I’d destroyed in a few days,” Bobby continued. “I really was afraid I was going to get a bill from him. Hell, I didn’t have any money back then.”
A few weeks later, Unser did receive something from Huffaker, but it wasn’t a bill. It was a box. In the box was the twisted, mangled steering wheel from the car.
“I still have that steering wheel,” Unser concluded.