It’s been a little quiet in Indianapolis the last several days. That’s because we are mourning the loss of one of the greatest auto racers of all time. Bobby Unser passed away earlier this week, last Sunday, and the entire racing community will miss him beyond words. As one person phrased it, “There are drivers and there are racers.” Bobby Unser was a racer, no question about it. He could drive, and win, in almost any car on any sort of track and, thankfully, he passed away at home in Albuquerque, NM where his family moved from Colorado when he was a youngster. Bobby lived the rest of his life in New Mexico.
Thankfully, he died of natural causes and not in some accident on a track as so many others have done. Always colorful, Bobby was a member of the Unser family dynasty and had three Indy 500 wins to his credit, along with four for his younger brother, Al, Sr. and two more for his nephew, Al, Jr. He was the first racer to win the Indy 500 in three different decades (1968, 1975, 1981). By the way, he and his brother, Al, Sr. are the only pair of brothers to have ever won the race.
I have seen Bobby countless times at the Speedway. He was a true ambassador for motor racing and did everything he could to accommodate the request of fans, both during his time as a competitor and also later in life when he was a broadcaster and commentator. I didn’t know Bobby personally, but he is a member of the old guard that includes his brother, Al, Sr., Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, Gordon Johncock and so many others that were my race heroes when I was a youngster.
Each Memorial Day in the sixties, Dad assigned me jobs in the yard. I had to prune the iris plants in the bed along the side of the house and then paint the front stair railing with beige Rust-Oleum, after I wire brushed the old paint off, of course. It was the same every year and Dad would listen to the race with me on a portable Toshiba transistor radio that he took out in the yard with him when he worked. I loved those days and the memories that I still hold dear.
In fact, our son, Andrew, and I have carried on that tradition to this day. Although Dad is long gone, the father/son tradition continues – only now, I am the father. And we listen to the race on a transistor radio that I got as a child. It still works great and I wouldn’t have it any other way. We don’t even have to call one another to confirm anything – it’s an unspoken date – Race Day, every year…
I did happen to meet Bobby’s younger brother, Al, Sr. one year at the airport. I’m not one to get starstruck and I wouldn’t stand in line to meet any celebrity. However, one time I was leaving on a flight and happened to be wandering the concourse well before my arrival time at the gate. I recognized Al’s voice – after all, I had heard him interviewed for years as a kid. I wandered over to him and asked if he was Al Unser – it sure looked like him. Well, it was…
I was almost speechless. I was literally overcome with emotion and memories of days gone by with Dad listening to the Indy 500 on that transistor radio. I shook Al’s hand, told him how much he had impacted my life as a child and what those memories still meant to me – those race days with my Dad – trimming the iris and painting the railing. Al and I were alone – sharing a private moment at an empty gate – in an otherwise crowded airport. I will never forget it.
In fact, I called Janet right after our encounter ended and she was worried that something bad had happened to me. I could hardly talk. I had just met one of my important childhood heroes. And now, I’m sure he is suffering as they lay his older brother to rest.
Our verse for tonight comes from the wisdom of Solomon in the third chapter of his book of Ecclesiastes. Solomon tells us, in Ecclesiastes 3:1-2, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die… Life marches on. This week, we lost a great one in Bobby Unser.
My encouragement this evening is that while time marches on, we have our memories of the important events in our lives – many of them helped shape us and who we are today. My prayer is that we will all appreciate the gifts of memory that, God willing, we will have throughout our lives. And may we cling to those as we revel in the love of God for His people! Have a great day in the Lord, grace and peace… and Godspeed, racer Bobby Unser.