Exclusive: 10 Questions with Robby Unser

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If it has wheels, there’s a good chance that Robby Unser has raced it.

The New Mexico native (pictured right) and a member of an American premier racing families is a nine-time Pikes Peak International Hillclimb winner and posted top-10 finishes in both of his starts in the Indianapolis 500. Unser was also the 1998 Indy Racing League rookie of the year.

Nowadays, Unser competes for Team Speedway with cousin Al Unser Jr. in the highly competitive Goodguys autocross circuit where in 2016 Robby captured the series championship.

The autocross competition features a low-speed, tight course marked off by a series of cones that drivers must negotiate. It requires incredible precision because if a driver misjudges a single corner, his or her run is essentially ruined. And with up to 60 cars per event, the competition is tight.

PopularOpenWheel.com caught up with Robby at the Goodguys Southeastern Nationals at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where he’s racing this weekend.  Following are excerpts from our exclusive interview.

POPULAR OPEN WHEEL: What’s the autocross like?

Robby: The autocross is really neat. People get a chance to run their cars. We have different groups. We have the pros, which I’m in — guys who have won or run well or been running for years. It’s also set up for companies like Speedway Motors, DSE … all of us that are building stuff for these people get to use it as a test ground. So I’m out here testing parts for Speedway Motors and other sponsors that they built. We use this as a test bed to give back information for our customers.

What’s the most fun about autocross?

Robby: I’ve raced my whole life now. I’ll be 50 next year and I started when I was about 7. Ironically, it really is one of the toughest driving things I’ve done.  It demands a lot out of you — quick timing, quick reactions. You really can’t overdrive the car. It takes a lot of discipline driving.

I’ve got to say, though, the most fun part has to be the crowd and the people. This is the one competition I’ve been in in my life where it’s not cutthroat competition. There’s so much help out here. … We’re in a niche deal. It’s people who love cars and love the history of cars. The Meadors family (Goodguys founders Gary and Marilyn Meadors) has done an incredible job and thank God they did. It’s a blessing to all of us who enjoy this kind of stuff.

How many drivers are in your class?

Robby: About a dozen. But with that said, anyone can come up and be fast and be right there and run with me. So really, I’m racing everyone who goes out on the track.

1952_SEN_16-2--AutoCross_previewIn autocross, which is more important, driver or car?

Robby: People keep debating that on and on, but it’s still the same thing: The good guys are up front and they have good cars. So, are you a good driver because you can drive the car well, or are you a good driver because you can communicate with your team and get the car (set up) well? It’s tough (laughs). Yes, driving is very important, and, yeah, you’ve really got to have a good car.

Are their rules for the cars?

Robby: Mainly safety (rules). Otherwise, no. (The series) vision for this is to see what people are coming up with, what they’re inventing, what their art is, how creative they want to be and give them a chance to come out and see whatever they dreamt up and how does it feel? I think that’s the neat thing. You can’t do that anywhere else.

What was racing Pikes Peak like?

Robby: Pikes Peak was a big part of my life, my learning, a big part of my career. … For a driver, it’s the one place that I never got out of the car or never ended the day at Pikes Peak where I wasn’t sweating and going, “Thank God I’m out of this thing and on the ground.” It was literally the one type of racing that when I got out, I went, “Whew! Glad I’m driving home in my car today.”

How dangerous was it to race there?

Robby: Pikes Peak isn’t as dangerous as it is scary. The fear factor is way up there. The reality of it is, I’d much rather go off at Pikes Peak than hit the wall here at Charlotte in an Indy car. That hurts. You’re doing 220 (miles per hour) into concrete. Those are crashes. They hurt.

How much did the altitude (14,110 feet at the top) at Pikes Peak affect you?

Robby: You get dehydrated quickly so I’d always have a Tic Tac or something in my mouth. … It wasn’t an issue for me, but I lived in New Mexico and back in forth in Colorado Springs, so I would say I’m an altitude person anyway. Now I’ve taken some of my mechanics who were flatlanders and they’ve fallen right over. Literally. You have to take them down with an ambulance. The altitude will mess you up.

What was racing in the Indy 500 like?

Robby: Indy was amazing. For me, Indy is like church. Even today, Indy is like — you cross under any of the tunnels into the track and you’re in church. You can feel the reverence, the history, the people.

What’s the favorite moment of your racing career?

Robby: When I think back about the things that were fun, that I was blessed enough to do in this lifetime, the best moments were  when I was working with a team and a car and we were making things better. So it’s not like a lot of guys say, “Oh, when I won this race or I did this.” That’s not it for me. In my career, the joy came from learning different things about a car, from changing and taking a situation that might be halfway and winning in that car. Those felt good. To me, those were the great days.

It was more than just driver and car, it was actually bringing the crew into it. Every now and then, you get camaraderie going and communication going with a group of people and you really can make things happen that shouldn’t be happening. Those are the times. If I’m at home reminiscing, that’s what I’m reminiscing about, not what trophies I have.

Tom Jensen

Tom Jensen is a veteran motorsports journalist. He spent 13 years with FOXSports.com, where he was Digital Content Manager. Previously, he was executive editor of NASCAR Scene and managing editor of National Speed Sport News. Jensen served as the president of the National Motorsports Press Association and is the group’s former Writer of the Year.

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