Unser famously won the Indy 500 in 1968, 1975 and 1981, marking him and Rick Mears as the only drivers to win the event in three different decades.
He also made one Formula 1 start for BRM in the 1968 US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, when he retired with a blown engine. The charismatic legend died of natural causes on 2 May, at his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Roger Penske – owner of IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway and founder of the American motorsport giant Team Penske – labelled Unser as a unique racer and larger than life personality.
Unser spent the last three years of his Indycar career driving for Penske, and despite being in his mid-40s, he remained phenomenally fast, racking up 11 wins – including an Indy 500 – and 14 poles in his 37 races for the team.
“There simply was no one quite like Bobby Unser,” read a statement from Penske. “Bobby was a ferocious competitor on the track, and his larger-than-life personality made him one of the most beloved and unique racers we have ever seen.”
“Bobby brought so much to Team Penske during his time with our team, including a memorable victory in the 1981 Indianapolis 500. Beyond his many wins and accomplishments, Bobby was a true racer who raised the performance of everyone around him.
“He was also one of the most colourful characters in motorsports. Throughout his time as a driver, a commentator and an ambassador of our sport, Bobby’s stories and his passion for racing were legendary.
“Our thoughts and condolences are with Lisa, the Unser family and Bobby’s many friends and fans during this difficult time.”
1981 Indy 500 and Bobby Unser celebrates what will prove to be his final Indy car triumph.
Photo by: Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Indianpolis Motor Speedway president J. Douglas Boles said that even aside from his driving skills, Unser had also been a loyal supporter of the Speedway and a charismatic draw for fans.
“When you mention icons in racing, and particularly the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Bobby Unser was a legend,” said Boles. “He could drive, and win, in any type of car and on any type of track. And he was magical at Indy.
“But driving was just a piece of what made Bobby so iconic. Over the last several years, I have seen the true Bobby Unser – the man who loved our sport, loved the Indianapolis 500 and loved to be with the fans.
“He would go out of his way to do whatever he could to be here in May to help us keep motorsports growing. He was always available to give speeches, to sign autographs or to just tell stories. His driving record speaks for itself.
“His lifelong passion for promoting auto racing and his enthusiastic, no sugar-coated opinions that continued after he hung up his helmet had such a meaningful impact.
“Everyone at IMS extends our deepest sympathies to Bobby’s family, friends and fans. He was one of a kind and will be deeply missed, but always cherished in the heart of every race fan.”
Bobby Unser, Al Unser Jr at IMS Museum
Photo by: Chris Owens, IMS Photo
Icons from world motorsport have also paid tribute, including his long-time rival Mario Andretti, the 1978 Formula 1 world champion and 1984 Indycar champion.
“I join the racing world mourning the passing of Bobby Unser,” Andretti wrote on Twitter.
“The best of times….. when a fierce competitor can also be a very very very good friend. RIP my friend. Thanks for the memories.”
Road Racing Drivers Club president and IndyCar team owner Bobby Rahal said: “We at the RRDC are saddened by the death of a national hero and icon, and one of our longtime members.
“Bobby Unser was a champion race-car driver, a beloved and charismatic curmudgeon and, above all, one of the rarest of breeds in the racing world. He’s done it all.
“He was a three-time Indy 500 winner, two time USAC national champion, an IROC champion, and won the Pikes Peak Hill Climb 13 times, 10 of them overall. He will be missed.”
Former F1 driver and American Motorsport Hall of Fame member David Hobbs labelled Unser a “true icon of American racing” as he paid tribute to the driver’s glittering career.
“Bobby Unser was a true icon of American racing in the 50’s, 60’s & 70’s. Super fast, tough, uncompromising and extremely successful,” Hobbs wrote on Twitter.
“In retirement his stories of his escapades were fascinating, giving us hours of entertainment. You’ll be greatly missed.”
Race winner Unser, All American Racers-entered Eagle 74 Offenhauser
Photo by: Motorsport Images
Four-time IndyCar champion and three-time Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti added: “Rest In Peace Bobby. Never a dull moment in a life well lived. We’ll miss you.”
Former Indycar racer Willy T. Ribbs posted on Twitter: “Cool as ice. RIP to a Man’s Man and I Love that Man..He treated me like one of his own. Forever Uncle Bobby Unser.”
IndyCar itself marked Unser’s passing with a special tribute of its own on social media.
“RIP to a LEGEND. Today, the racing world mourns the passing of three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Bobby Unser. He was the total package – adored by fans, funny and charming, and a true champion.
“An icon, always remembered. Godspeed, racer.”