King of the Hill
By Drew Hardin
Photography: Ray Brock, Petersen Publishing Company Archive (right)
Photography: Bob D’Olivo, Petersen Publishing Company Archive (below)
Whenever the words “Unser” and “Pikes Peak” are spoken, the word “dynasty” is never far behind. A member of the Unser family has been the overall winner in a quarter of the nearly 100 times that the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb has run. Bobby Unser, who passed away in early May at age 87, earned 10 of those overall wins, eight of which set course records. His first was in 1956, in only his second start up the mountain. He won six times in a row between 1958 and 1963, then won again in 1966. (His brother, Al, won in 1964 and 1965.) Unser finished his two-decade streak with a win in 1968, setting a course record that wouldn’t be broken for 11 years. He returned to the Peak in 1986 to earn his final win and course record, a run that made him the winningest Unser on the Peak.
In 1958, the year these photos were taken for Hot Rod, Unser won driving his father Jerry’s Jaguar-powered Unser Special. His record over the 12.42-mi. course was 13:47.900. Twenty-eight years and technological leaps later, wheeling a turbocharged, all-wheel-drive Audi Quattro, Unser powered past the checkered flags at the Peak’s 14,110-ft. summit in 11:09.220.
Unser’s talent behind the wheel wasn’t limited to the unpaved path up the Peak, of course. He began racing in the late ’40s and was a successful stock car, sprint car and midget racer in the ’50s and ’60s. He first raced at Indianapolis in 1963—where, ironically, he came in last—and won the first of his three Indy 500s in 1968. He is one of 10 three-time Indy winners and one of just two men (he and Rick Mears) who won at Indy in three different decades. When his IndyCar career ended in the ’80s, Unser transitioned to TV and radio broadcasting, where his decades of experience and outspoken nature made him one of racing’s most popular color commentators.
“I used to go to bed at night and dream, when I was 10 years old, of winning Pikes Peak and becoming the so-called King of the Hill,” Unser said in a documentary about his win in 1986. “And I pursued that, more than any other thing in my life, a lot more than I ever thought about going to Indianapolis or driving any type of car. I was just possessed with it.”