• Bobby Unser

Racing Roundup: Horse Racing Could Learn from Car Racing 

Bobby Unser’s crazy life, another one for Hamilton and all the news

Norris McDonald By: Norris McDonald May 10, 2021
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Before we get under way, I want to draw your attention to a column click here for link I wrote that was published in Saturday’s Toronto Star Wheels.

Everybody seems to be worried about golfers these days. Oh, woe is me. No golf balls are being lost on the weekends and that will never do. The pressure is on, though, and when that gets settled, trust me, the next group to get the attention of media and then government will be the tennis players. Then soccer. And so-on.

See anything missing?

After – maybe – the Toronto Blue Jays, motorsport attracts more people than any other sport in the province and, when you break it down, the number of participants is way up there too. And since racing is a commercial sport, all of it is supported by millions of corporate dollars.

But motorsport gets no respect. Please read the column and climb aboard the bandwagon. We have to tell the government how we feel; otherwise, nothing will change.

HORSE RACING VIS-À-VIS MOTORSPORT 

The Kentucky Derby is in trouble again. Last year, the winner was DQ’d because the jockey got careless and let the horse interfere with the progress of another. This year, the winner, Medina Spirit, allegedly tested positive to excessive amounts of betamethasone, which masks pain. His famous trainer, Bob Baffert, whose horses have been caught with stuff in their blood that shouldn’t be there before, said it was a mistake.

Motorsport does not want to become anywhere near as notorious as the infamous fight fixing that’s gone on forever in boxing or as scandalous as horse-racing is becoming.  When other drivers complained about one stock-car racer in particular, NASCAR instituted a drug-testing-drug-treatment program that caught, for instance, A.J. Allmendinger, who made a successful comeback. Others were not as disciplined and after trying other forms of racing where drug testing was absent – one young man injured himself so seriously he hasn’t been able to race since and maybe never will again – pretty much disappeared from the scene.

F1, the FIA, IndyCar – they all have drug testing programs. IMSA focuses on the best-known drug, alcohol, more than the others but is still vigilant.

Of the two types of racing, motorsport has been proactive in seeking out drivers who are drug abusers and offered them either rehab or a one-way ticket out of town. Horse racing could take a lesson.

REMEMBERING BOBBY UNSER 

The first time I saw Bobby Unser in the flesh was in Gasoline Alley at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1969. He had his back to his team’s green and white garage doors and was surrounded by press (every newspaper in the world, it seemed, covered Indianapolis in those days). Although he was just a tad over six feet, he seemed to tower over all those reporters. Handsome, tanned and tough, he was the epitome of the Indy racing driver of the day – tons of talent but also ready to take on all comers. To say I was impressed would be an understatement.

The last time I saw him in the flesh was in Indianapolis at Mo’s Steak House in 2016. I was having dinner with fellow Canadian motorsport writers Jeff Pappone and Stephanie Wallcraft and we’d been joined for a short while by ex-IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard, who’d stopped at our table en route to a cocktail party upstairs. As Bernard left, I watched as he moved through the dining room and in the vestibule, I caught a quick glimpse of Bobby. My heart sank; he was being pushed along in a wheelchair. It’s tough seeing one of your heroes grow old.

He died last week on May 2 at age 87. He packed a whole lot of livin’ and a whole lot of racin’ into that life. From Pikes Peak to Indianapolis and dirt-track speedways from Ascot in California to Eldora in Ohio and road courses like Mosport Park (now Canadian Tire Motorsport Park) in Ontario, he was a winner every step of the way.

In fact, he won his first Indy-car race at Mosport, the Telegram Trophy Race for U.S. Auto Club Indy Cars, on July 1, 1967. He was laid back and relaxed at the post-race press conference, where he explained that he’d planned to head over to Buttonville Airport after the race and fly his Cessna to Indianapolis to gas up for a flight to Bakersfield, Calif., for a midget race there the next day. But the weather was terrible, and he’d rather wait for it to clear before taking off.

During that press conference, he and his brother Al both spoke about the importance of having planes: 1) You didn’t have to wait around airports for commercial flights that may run late and; 2) You were better rested and ready to race when you arrived at a speedway. (NASCAR drivers took note, although they own jets instead of Cessnas.) Another reason, which was probably the most important, was that with the distances involved, competitors who had to drive from track to track in those days could only do a couple of races a weekend while those with a plane could often double the number they ran.

Bobby died last Tuesday and just about everybody has written the stories about his all-round racing talent. When he retired from the cockpit at age 48, he went into the broadcasting booth in both the U.S. and Canada as a colour commentator and that worked well as a second career. Said veteran Canadian broadcaster Brian Williams, who worked with Unser on CBC Indy car telecasts when races were held in both Toronto and Vancouver: “He was outstanding at his job because he was always so well-prepared. Preparation is the key when it comes to broadcasting and Bobby left nothing to chance. And he was such a student of the sport. I would get a message that a car was preparing to pit on the next lap, and I’d say that. Bobby would have been working away with a pad and pencil and I’d hear him say, ‘No Brian, he should be good for another six laps.’ And nine times out of ten, he’d be right. He’d be figuring fuel mileage and be better than the computer.”

Here are some things you might not have known about Bobby Unser.

He had an unlikely friendship with – of all people – Liberace. In 1968, he’d won the (USAC) Stardust 150, which took place on a road course carved out of the desert behind the old Las Vegas Strip hotel. He’d met Liberace during the Victory Lane celebration and when the famed entertainer died, there were several photos and other mementoes among his belongings, suggesting the two had kept in contact over the years.

As well, Unser had shown up to drive in the Tony Bettenhausen 100 Memorial Race at the Illinois State Fair the following year where Liberace was tinkling the ivories as the star attraction. There is a photo (below) of Liberace sitting in Unser’s car before the start. As Richie Murray (@indyrichie) said in his caption: “Unser finished 10th; Liberace was a DNQ.”

Okay, let’s get something straight. With the possible exception of sports car champion Ron Fellows and the late F1 star Graham Hill – and I mean possible – race car drivers have the emotional maturity of a six-year-old. Listen to what the late Lloyd Ruby had to say about his old pal Unser in an interview once with Motor Trend magazine.

“One time, Bobby Unser put an M80 firecracker in a salad at a buffet. (An M80 is equal to about one-fifth of a stick of dynamite). That salad went everywhere. But you had to know Bobby, he enjoyed pulling those pranks, even if it did a little damage. Whenever he turned in a rental car, I don’t see how they ever rented it again to anyone else. We’d be going down the road at 35 or 40 miles an hour, and he’d just pull it into reverse, spinning the wheels backwards. A few times, the car didn’t make it back. Something about transmission failure. One time, we checked into a motel, and he was blowing up M80s in the toilets, which didn’t help the plumbing. Then he’d be playing with the fire extinguishers out in the hallways. Needless to stay, we didn’t stay there the following year. I love being with Bobby. He’s a good friend.”

Then there was the time he was “testing” a BMW Formula One car.

Paraphrase, but close: “I broke my ankle the night before the test playing basketball (between Indy drivers and press for charity),” he told journalist Gordon Kirby. “The team doctor gave me some really strong dope pills to take. I’d gone in to get a novocaine shot so I wouldn’t feel my ankle – it was my right ankle and they use that one on the throttle and the brake on those cars. And instead of giving me the novocaine, he gave me these pills and said to take four or five. I didn’t know what it was but he said just take them. I wrecked that car so-o-o-obad. It was bad totaled, it’s a wonder it didn’t kill me.”

Speaking about nearly being killed . . . Before he hit the big time, back in the late-1950s, early 1960s, he’d been driving from his hometown of Albuquerque to Indianapolis and stopped off in Tulsa to see his friend John (Jack) Zink, who was a sponsor. Zink had put a motor on a child’s wagon and Bobby got bombing around the parking lot at the Zink factory and slammed head-on into a brick wall. The wagon stopped but Bobby didn’t and flew forward off the wagon, pile-driving his head into the wall and fracturing his skull. Zink paid the hospital bill or Bobby’s career might never have gotten off the ground.

But Unser didn’t always do foolish things and frequently made incredible sense.

In an interview I did with him at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park 10 years ago, Unser said something at the end that was intriguing. Why doesn’t Mosport promote a second IndyCar race in the Toronto area?

Unser said improvements made to the Mosport circuit over the years would make it a natural venue for the Indy cars. “I’d forgotten how pretty it is here,” he said. “The track is wider now, it’s a whole lot nicer, it’s safer and the pit is plenty wide. They need to start talking.”

But wouldn’t there be a problem trying to promote two races in the Toronto area?

“They’ve done it in California,” with two races in the Los Angeles area,” he said. “So why not here?

I’ve never been in the racing-promotion business. I just write about it (although there are some people who maintain the two aren’t all that far apart). But in conversation with friends, we’ve often thought the same thing. The IndyCar race at Exhibition Place is a city race aimed at city dwellers; the CTMP race would be for campers – and there would be spillover.

As I said, intriguing.

Bobby Unser

WEEKEND RACING 

Lewis Hamilton won his 100th pole at the weekend’s Spanish Grand Prix, which also happened to be Max Verstappen’s 100th Grand Prix start.  Hamilton won the race for Mercedes, stopping for fresh tries twice, out-strategizing his Red Bull opponent who finished second. Valtteri Bottas was third for Mercedes.

For a complete story, please click here

The next race is Monaco in two weeks where, by the way, Formula E ran on the exact same course this weekend, turning laps about 16 seconds slower but drawing a good crowd and attention. Which means the Prince was there. Antonio Felix da Costa was the winner.

Meantime, here is what our two Canadians had to say at the checkers:

Lance Stroll (Aston Martin): “It’s a bit frustrating not to get the point at the end,” Lance said. “We fought hard with the Alpha Tauri (Pierre Gasly but just didn’t have enough to get P10. We also raced hard against Fernando (Alonso) and the moment at Turn 1 and 2 was a racing incident: I braked deep into the corner and he was late on the brakes. We made some contact and he pushed me wide.”

Nicholas Latifi (Williams): “As we expected, it was a challenging race out there. However, even though the pace isn’t where we want it to be, I’m happy that the most important session of the weekend was the one that the car felt best in. With a strong strategy and some good overtakes on track, we also managed to get in front of both the Haas cars. I think we’re ending the weekend on a high.”

Latifi had a faster race lap than his teammate, George Russell. Latifi’s fastest lap was 1:22:905, which was good for 16th fastest, one position better than Russell’s 1:23:208 mph.

Nascar: Martin Truex Jr. won the NASCAR Cup race in Darlington Sunday (click here for a full story), and Justin Allgaier won the Xfinity race (Click here for full story.)

By Norris McDonald  /  Special to wheels.ca 

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