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National News / Auto Racing

Friday, 6 April, 2012 8:23 PM

Legendary race car driver Bobby Unser honored in Riverside, Calif.

Women in Racing also recognized as part of the 'Legends of Riverside IV' gala


Three-Time Indy 500 Winner Bobby Unser chats with Motor Trend Radio Co-Host Ed Justice, Jr. at the Riverside International Automotive Museum on March 31, 2012.


by Jason Rzucidlo



RIVERSIDE, Calif. -- The Riverside International Automotive Museum held its fourth annual "Legends of Riverside" racing film festival and legends gala over the weekend. This year's honoree was Mr. Bobby Unser, 13-time winner of the Pikes Peak Hill Climb and three-time winner of the Indianapolis 500. He was the first driver to surpass the 190 mph average speed at the Indy 500. In addition, Unser was the USAC IndyCar Champion in 1968, 1974 and the IROC Champion in 1975. Racing runs in the family as he is the brother of Al Unser, Jerry Unser and Louie Unser, the father of Robby Unser, and the uncle of Al Unser, Jr. and Johnny Unser.

"I started racing when I was 15 years of age," the motorsports legend told the crowd. "It was Parnelli that thought I should go to Indianapolis. I didn't think I was good enough. In those days, innovation was gladly accepted by the world. I was in the right place at the right time. I was with Goodyear, Al was with Firestone. We were very close. It was good that way. We were on different teams. The good lord blesses you. He thought I should win the Indy 500. Luck always has a lot to do with it."

Unser won many races over his career. But which one meant the most to him?

"Well, the '68 winning car, that's this one right here," he answered in an exclusive interview. "But that was because it was my first win ever at Indianapolis. That always has to be the big one."

Some of the race tracks told me they have trouble attracting fans to their IndyCar series races. What do you think needs to be done?

"I don't know who that would be," Unser replied. "I mean you always want more fans. I don't know that that's a proper deal. A lot of the race tracks are very busy and are doing very well. The economy is bad right now so naturally it's going to go bad a little bit. I don't think it's in any disaster zone."

What do you think is the future of IndyCar as a sport?

"IndyCar has always been very high and it will stay that way," the legendary driver said. "It goes through some dips. We're in a bad economy again right now. They change the rules constantly, which is good. Hopefully, they make them better this next time and better for the fans. I hope they will get rid of the Spec cars."

Roger Penske announced he is switching from Dodge to Ford in NASCAR for the 2013 season.

"It's a business decision with Roger always," Unser added. "You can't outguess him. He's a very smart man. If he returned to Ford, he had a reason for doing it. It probably had to do with some money and going fast. The two things of what's important to him."

What do you think of drivers like Danica Patrick and Juan Pablo Montoya who recently moved up from IndyCar to NASCAR?

"Montoya has been there for a little time already," he explained. "But Patrick is really just there now. I have no special feelings for her. She's got a long ways to go. She won't win any races this year. You've got to give her a little time to get into it."

The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach is coming up in less than two weeks. Can you give us a preview?

"The fans are going to see a good race," Unser said. "Long Beach is always really good. There's a lot of good drivers there. It will be IndyCar, it will be fast, it will be good."

In 1994, Unser was inducted in the Motorsports Hall of Fame in Novi, Mich. The museum has since moved inside the Detroit Science Center.

"He was very good," said Ike Smith, an attendee from Pacific Grove, Calif. "I've done IndyCars and Can-Am Cars and things. I've followed his career for a long time. He was very good. No, he was not my favorite driver, but he was a good driver at the time. I'm not planning on going to the Long Beach Grand Prix. I'm restoring an old Can-Am Car. I haven't had time to go out and watch other races."

Michigan International Speedway renamed the pole for Bobby Unser's seven time pole qualifying record in 2003. It is now known as the Bobby Unser Pole Award.

"It was typical Bobby," said Dick Woodland, an attendee from Paso Robles, Calif. "You know exactly where he's coming from. He was one of my favorite drivers for sure. He is a good friend. He had a fantastic career. He's definitely one of the best, if not the best. I make it to quite a few different races around the country. No, I won't be going to Long Beach. I'll probably be chasing some stock car racing for a little bit. I have a son involved in stock car racing so we'll be headed back east pretty soon."

Proceeds from the special event went to support the Tony Stewart Foundation to help critically ill children.

Women in Racing were also recognized at the special event

Linda Vaughn was known as Miss Hurst Golden Shifter and the First Lady of Drag Racing. She won trophies in all types of auto racing including NASCAR, IndyCar, Formula One and others. She entered a beauty contest and won the title of Miss Atlanta Raceway and Miss Pure Firebird. Although she was not one of this year's honorees, she attended the event the support her friends who were.

"The first race I did at Riverside meant the world to me," she said. "This particular picture was taken after the IROC race. We invited the entire world. We had Mario Andretti, James Hunt, Jackie Stewart, Emerson Fittipaldi and my NASCAR boys. That meant a lot to me. That's why I had their signatures on my t-shirt."

I'm from the Detroit area. Can you talk about your past racing in the Motor City?

"I'm at Woodward Avenue every year," Vaughn added. "I work with General Motors and I still do. I do the Woodward Avenue cruise and I still go to the Michigan race and I still cover all of the types of racing I can. I'm there for the Hall of Fame just like we're here for the Hall of Fame in Riverside. It's wonderful and it's nostalgic. A lot of my friends are still there. I enjoy it."

Some of the race tracks told me they have trouble attracting fans to their IndyCar series races. What do you think needs to be done?

"What I think needs to be done in IndyCar racing is run what you run," the legendary driver explained. "Go back and run Ford, Chevrolet, Buick, Cadillacs. Invite the world to come and compete in the Indy 500 and put the snake pit back where it was. Go back to tradition. Tradition is what sold the Indianapolis 500 and it will again. My girlfriend owns the track so if you're listening Nancy George, I love Indy."

Do you think the sport needs to have drivers slow down from their average of 200+ mph?

"No, I don't think there is anything wrong with the speeds," she answered. "You just work together on the safety and work together on the chassis. Chevrolet is back for the first time in many years. They won the first race in St. Petersburg. Invite America to come back in and run and go back to what built Indy in the first place. I'm very fanatic about the Indianapolis 500 and invite the world to compete."

Roger Penske announced he is switching from Dodge to Ford in NASCAR for the 2013 season.

"Now your switching to NASCAR, he is a little fickle I swear," Vaughn said. "He should have gone with Chevrolet, myself. He's got a Chevy in his IndyCar. I haven't had a chance to talk with Mr. Penske as yet. I will find out that answer during the month of May. I'm sure it was a practical, business-made situation. I've worked with Roger for over 40 years and when he makes a decision, it's usually business."

Maggie Smith, Paula Murphy and Mary McGee were the female drivers who participated in the museum's "Legends of Riverside IV" panel discussion on Sunday.

"We had our own ladies races," said Mrs. STP Paula Murphy. "We drove whatever car you could scrounge up from your boyfriend. All of the guys would go to lunch. I was the first woman licensed to drive a funny car. We set over 360 stock car records. Bonneville [Speedway] is a wonderful place. I was the first woman allowed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I went back there in 2010 and got to drive the pace car. I drove Richard Petty's car at Talladega."

Maggie Smith-Haas started racing professionally in 1978. She competed at major race tracks in the United States including Daytona, Watkins Glen, Phoenix, Riverside and Portland.

"I raced at Riverside in a 914 Banger," Smith-Haas explained. "My last race was driving for Dan Gurney in a Toyota. Toyota was getting their feet wet in racing. I have many fond memories of Riverside [International Raceway]."

Mary McGee got her first chance behind the wheel of a race car in 1957. It was a time trial in Phoenix and she quickly got hooked on racing. She drove sports cars by Mercedes, Ferrari, Porsche, AC, Corvette, Elva, Jaguar and Lotus.

"I started in Motocross in Dec. 1965," McGee said. "Riverside was a great track. I got to race some cars and motorcycles there. The S's were wonderful. I'm still racing vintage Motocross. My last race was August 14 in Washington. I was supposed to be in Boise this weekend, but I came here instead."

Murphy described the secrets to being a successful race car driver.

"You have to be completely concentrated on what you're doing," she explained. "In drag racing, you've got to have extra good reflexes."

Tickets were priced at $199 and were limited at no more than 150.

For more information about the "Legends of Riverside IV" gala, visit their website at

Related Story: IndyCar drivers excited to return to Detroit and Fontana, Calif.




Unser's three winning Indy 500 race cars were on display inside the museum.



A silent auction was also part of the gala on Saturday evening.



Unser drove his No. 3 car in the 1968 Indianapolis 500 race.



More than 25 drivers participated in an autograph session on Saturday afternoon.



Women in Racing were also recognized as part of the 'Legends of Riverside IV' gala on Sunday.


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Copyright © 2012 All Rights Reserved.
Unauthorized duplication or use of Text, Photos, Videos, Site Template, Graphics and or Site Design is Prohibited by Federal and International laws. See our Notice/Disclaimer.