UNSER "ROYAL FAMILY" OF PIKES PEAK
by Tony Sakkis
June 12, 1998
Gordon Kirby, the guru of American open-wheeled racing, wrote a book a several years ago and I recently had occasion to review it again. As before, I was astounded at the amount of information inside this multiple biography titled "Unser: An American Family Portrait".
Written in 1988, the book is terribly dated: it doesn't even tell the story of Al Unser Jr's road to the 1990 and 1994 CART Championships or his 31 CART victories, for instance. But it is remarkable in that it gives you an understanding of the Unser raison d' etre. What comes through that the motivation for the Unser family was Pikes Peak.
Pikes Peak, according to Kirby, was an untraversable mountain when the three young Unsers first moved to Colorado with their family. Joseph, Louis, and Jerome, the second generation Unser brothers were smitten with speed. So much so that they took a stock motorcycle and sidecar and rode it up to the top of Pikes Peak -- before there was even a road. Their feat was so significant that the Colorado City Police Department hired the three brothers to teach their officers to ride motorcycles.
The road to the top of the hill officially opened in 1916 -- a year after the Unsers rode the hill on their bike. In that year a local gentleman donated the funds to create a proper road to the top of Pikes Peak. Following its construction, he created a race to the summit -- the "Race to the Clouds".
The 12.4 mile event was not contended by the Unsers, although from that first race in 1916 it was a dream of the second generation brothers to conquer it like they had done a year earlier. It was, after all, their mountain, and they had been the first to take a motorized vehicle to the top.
The race was canceled the following three year due to the war, and the next shot any of them had was 1920. They became competitors in 1920 and, beginning in 1926, began finishing well up in the field. In the years from 1926 to 1929 an Unser finished 2nd each year. Still, they failed to win. In 1929, the hill claimed its first member of the Unser family, when Joe crashed and was killed.
The Unsers continued without Joe, and finally in 1934, Louis won the "Race to the Clouds." With a canceled race again in 1935, the Unsers truly began their string of wins as it returned to the motorsports calender. Louis won again in 1935, '36, '37, '38, '39, '40, and '41. The war caused the cancellation of the race from years '42 through '45, but when they resumed in '46, Louis continued where he left off, winning the next two years. Louis ended his career in 1956 with nine wins on the mountain.
The year before he retired, however, the three younger sons of Jerry Unser took a shot at the hill. In 1955, the three brothers -- Bobby, Al, and Louis -- finished third fourth and fifth. In 1956 the torch was passed to the younger generation forever when Bobby won his first Pikes Peak, and started on a string of wins of his own -- which finally stopped at 13.
Bobby won that first race in a Jaguar-powered car, and reflected to Kirby in the book, "That was what got me into racing -- not to win the Indianapolis 500 three times but to beat Uncle Louis. That was my whole motivation. I told Uncle Louis I would break all his records. I was going to be the King of the Hill. I was going to beat him head-to-head. I wasn't going to stop until I'd broke all his records and that's exactly what I did."
Robby Unser, Bobby's son, won his first Pikes Peak "Race to the Clouds" in 1990 and is now contesting the IRL Pep Boys Championship finishing fifth this year driving for the Eddie Cheever team. But if he finally follows his father, uncle and cousin into the winner's circle, I doubt that it will be as big a thrill as when he took his first win at Pikes Peak to become that year's "King of the Hill."