THE HOUSE OF UNSER
May 8, 2012
The Unser Racing Museum is a wonderful treat for anyone interested in engines, fast cars, high-speed thrills and marvelous race cars of every kind. The excitement jumps out at you. I’m not a race fan, yet I found it to be a fabulous experience. The museum is not the history of racing, but the history of a family of racers, the Unsers.
You know rather quickly from looking at and hearing about these cars, it takes a lot of money to develop a body and engine that can compete in the Indianapolis 500. A lot of money. The Unsers did not start out rich. Swiss immigrants, Louie Unser was a butcher but he had a knack for tinkering with engines. Mechanics was what he loved. They settled near Pikes Peak in Colorado and his sons Louis, Joe and Jerry began building race cars and tried to get a car up to the top of Pikes Peak. Joe was always promising himself he was going to build a car that would make it to the top. The road at the time was dirt. And, he did.
Jerry Unser Sr. inherited his father’s knack for mechanics and opened up a garage in Albuquerque because it was on Route 66, where he knew he could make money. His kids, his brother’s kids, they were all into racing. at a young age. When they qualified for a race, they competed against each other, or each others records more than the other racers in the game. Jerry Sr. was constantly putting race cars together from parts he’d acquire. He’d modify and customize them for speed and endurance. When the Indianapolis 500 speedway opened up, big money began funding development of the expensive race cars that are on the track today.
This car was one of the last of the front engine racers. Now all race cars have engines in the back. This one never won a race. And, in racing, it is all about winning because winning brings in the big money. The Unsers, were big winners.
Al Unser pictured with his son, Al Jr. got his big break through a fluke. He was hanging around the track, basically fired when someone got pulled from the race and they needed a driver. He got the shot and won the Indy for the first time. His son, Little Al, like most of the Unsers, started out on go-karts and raced as long as they could keep up their grades. He’d bring his son to the track and they’d refuse to let him in because he was too young. He’d have to prove that Little Al was on the racing ticket to get him through the gates.
The four brothers, Al, Bobby, Louis and Jerry Jr. were successful competitors in racing circles. Jerry died in a fiery crash in his second attempt at the Indy 500. Now, their kids are racing.
Another Jeri Unser has put herself at risk on the track. Not the first female, but one of the few women in the field.
And 800 pound car you can pull around with one hand, so perfectly balanced and easy to handle. The floor in the museum, by the way, is made of ground up tires.
I couldn’t help but notice the difference in tires, and they make a big difference in the race. The rubber is as thin as a credit card. The driver wants those tires to heat up to about 200 degrees to make them sticky so they grip the road. It seems to me it would also slow them down, but, what do I know? Our docent was knowledgeable and told us many stories about the cars development and racing experiences. This was very much a family museum.
This pace car was driven by five different drivers that each won their race in it. It was like a mystery. No one could figure out why this car always won races.
Could it have been the tires?
I won’t pretend to know anything about mechanics, but I found it fascinating. These “spokes” or maybe they are shocks, resemble airplane wheels. Some cars have fins which is designed to keep the car from sliding sideways.
I saw only one rear-view mirror on a race car, mounted so close to the tire it didn’t look like it belonged there.
One section of the museum has a small collection of old cars like this Phaeton, and a room full of trophys. These trophies and qualifying rings, shirts, racing uniforms et al. Another salute to the generations of Unsers who raced to the top and the big money.
Jerry Unser Jr. once hit this wall and during the Indy 500 remodel, they gave a section of the old wall to the Museum. It is called the Milliion Dollar wall. I enjoyed the fabulous story and a fabulous museum.
On the way home we stopped at the Chauma River brewery for cool one. I like dark stouts and porters and when I go to a microbrewery, I like to hoist one to Ken and Laurie.