RAMSEY: Unser won't let injured hand stop his return to Hill Climb
January 31, 2012 10:55 AM DAVID RAMSEY THE GAZETTE
When Bobby Unser Jr. regained consciousness at the hospital, he immediately thought about driving. This makes sense. He’s a member of an Unser family that has triumphed 38 times at the Pikes Peak Hill Climb along with multiple Indy 500 victories.
In 2009, Bobby Jr. was stricken with a flesh-eating disease that claimed the index and ring finger on his right hand. He refuses to complain; he’s just thrilled to be alive. Doctors told him he was hours away from death.
“It’s fine,” Bobby Jr. says, reporting on the condition of his right hand. “It’s really strong, good on a steering wheel and good on a shifter. That’s all I worried about, to be honest.”
He’s eager to test his hand, and there’s no better place for a challenge than Pikes Peak, the mountain of his youth. He’s been driving the curving road his entire life.
“My first time up there,” Bobby Jr. says, “I was in my mother’s stomach. I think a lot about my heritage and how much I love that mountain and love that race and love that road.”
He will return July 8 to compete in the vintage class of the Hill Climb. He’s part of a wave of returning Unser racers. His sister, Jeri Unser and brother, Robby, will return to compete in hybrid cars.
Bobby Jr., 56, calls Pikes Peak “Unser’s mountain.” Excuse his bravado because there’s substance behind it. In 1915, Bobby Jr.’s grandfather, Jerry, rode a motorcycle with a sidecar to the top of the peak alongside his brothers, Louis and Joe. This courageous ride was taken before the completion of Spencer Penrose’s Pikes Peak Highway.
Since 1926, an Unser has been at the start line of the Hill Climb 113 times. Bobby Unser, Bobby Jr.’s father, collected 13 Hill Climb titles.
Bobby Jr. made his name primarily as a stunt driver. He has not competed in the Hill Climb since 1985. He enjoyed his years of competition at Pikes Peak, even though he often struggled. He usually excelled in the days leading up to competition. On race day, his cars often failed him.
“I was told by a lot of people I was too hard on my equipment,” he says.
He hopes 2012 will be different. He will drive a 1968 Mustang High-Country Special Coupe. The High-Country, which was sold primarily in Colorado, features a special options package.
Todd Landon, a research scientist in Minneapolis, is preparing the Mustang for Unser. They met last summer at the Hill Climb, and started talking about the possibility of Unser returning for this summer’s race.
“He can still handle the steering wheel,” Landon says. “I think he’s quite a driver.”
For years, Bobby Jr. has yearned to return to The Hill Climb. Last summer, he worked at the summit as a broadcaster and watched as Nobuhiro “The Monster” Tajima ripped across the finish line with a course record.
Bobby Jr. knew he needed to again race up the mountain. His return became a virtual requirement.
“It’s an adrenalin kick like you can’t believe,” he says. “You’re huffing and puffing when you get to the finish line. I’m looking forward to it. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
Bobby Jr. declines to talk much about his right hand. He’s not focused on what happened at the hospital in 2009. He refuses to limit himself as he prepares for another battle with his – and his family’s - favorite mountain.
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