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‘Uncle Bobby’ Unser turns 83 today

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February 20 is quite a day for birthdays in the North American racing world. “The Captain,” Roger Penske, turns 80, and the Shaker Heights, Ohio native continues at the head of his incredibly successful race team and automotive group without so much as a sweat.

One of Penske’s longtime drivers has his birthday today, as well. Bobby Unser, or “Uncle Bobby,” turns 83.

A member of the famed Albuquerque family, Unser won three Indianapolis 500s (1968, 1975 and 1981) before moving into broadcasting after he retired, working with ABC at the ‘500 and throughout the IndyCar schedule. A legend on Pikes Peak as well, Unser has more than a dozen wins there.

As time has passed, Unser’s forthright, candid insights have really stood out in a time where fewer drivers have properly spoke their minds.

Last May at Indianapolis ahead of the 100th Indianapolis 500, I had the opportunity to chat with “Uncle Bobby” about his life and career at the Speedway. A selection of those quotes are below:

“I’ve been here a long time. I’ve been coming every year since 1959. I saw the lights blinking on track and wonder what just happened!” he said. “This place has been going 100 years, and I’ve been a part of it for a long time.

“There’s been too many changes and I couldn’t remember them all in my head anyway. I don’t like the changes I’m seeing, but it doesn’t mean they’re all bad.

“I don’t know why I got into TV; I didn’t even go to high school. Yet I’m an engineer! Who’d ever thought Bobby Unser would do television? I ended up with a really good group at ABC. I didn’t think I could ever do it – but I did! I enjoyed myself.

“I lost a brother here. And I lost an uncle who was preparing to come here. My brother Jerry was killed here, and my uncle Joe was killed preparing to come here in a car. We were testing it in Colorado. We’ve lost two Unsers here – we don’t need a medal – but it hasn’t all been peaches and roses.

“The evolution of cars was easy. It was better to do it when we’re young! I’m not kidding. One of my heroes was Don Branson. He was a dirt track legend for sure, but he was good here too. He was the upper end of years, and I was gonna get his car. I didn’t know he’d get himself killed… we had it preplanned. But he was gonna quit driving and work for Goodyear as field manager for their racing tires. That was a big step for me.

“Don, I’m not gonna tell you I’m better than him. But he didn’t like the rear-engined cars. I’m young. He’s older. So I stepped into a rear-engined car and it feels fine to me! Some of them couldn’t hack it going from the roadster to rear-engined car. But it was easy for me, and for my brother Al. I think a lot of that is the experience you have, and the age.

“This is a tough place. Arguing about the cars now could be another deal. Most anyone could run the cars today… but I don’t want to go down that road and take up more of your time.

“Mario (Andretti) was one of my closest friends in those days. We’d fly together as I had a junky old airplane that barely made it, but it beat driving to races!

“Foyt’s Foyt. He’s a grouchy old fart, you know? But he’s a hell of a race driver. I wish the younger generation would have seen him when he was young… he was a fireplug. He was fast, he was a chassis man, and he understood engines. He was so good.

“It’s ’68, obviously (my favorite ‘500 win). You never know you can do it. There’s so many guys in this race that could be leading, two laps or 10 from the end the car quits. There’s so many of them like that. How many times are you’re leading Lap 150, and then ain’t gonna win it?

“You don’t know you can win it until checkered flag falls. The next one’s easier.”

Street race in Vietnam could lead Formula One’s Asia expansion

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TOKYO (AP) — Formula One is expected to add more races in Asia, including a street circuit in the capital of Vietnam, a country with little auto racing history that is on the verge of getting a marquee event.

“We think Hanoi could come on in the next couple of years, and we’re working with the Hanoi government to that end,” Sean Bratches, Formula One’s managing director of commercial operations, told the Associated Press.

There is even speculation it could be on the schedule next season, which Bratches rebuffed.

Vietnam would join countries like Azerbaijan, Russia and Bahrain, which have Grand Prix races, little history in the sport, and authoritarian governments with deep pockets that serve F1 as it tries to expand into new markets.

“This (Hanoi) is a street race where we can go downtown, where we can activate a large fan base,” Bratches said. “And you have extraordinary iconography from a television standpoint.”

A second race in China is also likely and would join Shanghai on the F1 calendar. Bratches said deciding where to stage the GP will “be left to local Chinese partners” – Beijing is a strong candidate.

Bratches runs the commercial side of Formula One, which was acquired last year by U.S.-based Liberty Media from long-time operator Bernie Ecclestone.

Formula One’s long-term goal is to have 24-25 races – up from the present 21 – and arrange them in three geographical segments: Asia, Europe and the Americas. Bratches said the Europe-based races would stay in middle of the calendar, with Asia or the Americas opening or ending the season.

He said their positioning had not been decided, and getting this done will be slowed by current contracts that mandate specific places on the calendar for several races. This means eventually that all the races in Asia would be run together, as would races in Europe and the Americas.

The F1 schedule is now an inefficient jumble, allowing Bratches to take a good-natured poke at how the sport was run under Ecclestone.

“We’ve acquired an undermanaged asset that’s 67-years-old, but effectively a start-up,” Bratches said.

Early-season races in Australia and China this year were conducted either side of a trip to Bahrain in the Middle East. Late in the season Formula One returns to Asia with races in Japan and Singapore.

The Canadian GP this season is run in the middle of the European swing, separated by four months from the other races in the Americas – the United States, Mexico and Brazil. These three are followed by the season-ending race in Abu Dhabi, which means another trip across the globe.

“With the right economics, with the right structure and cadence of events across territories, 24 or 25 is probably where we’d like to be from a longer-term standpoint,” Bratches said.

Big changes are not likely to happen until the 2020 season ends. This is when many current rules and contracts expire as F1’s new owners try to redistribute some income to allow smaller teams to compete.

“There’s more interest than we have capacity in the schedule,” Bratches said, firing off Berlin, Paris or London as potentially attractive venues. “We want to be very selective.”

“Those cites from an economic impact standpoint would find us value, as do others around the world,” Bratches added. “It’s very important for us as we move forward to go to locations that are a credit to the Formula One brand.”

An expanded schedule would have to be approved by the teams, which will be stretched by the travel and the wear-and-tear on their crews. The burden will fall on the smaller teams, which have significantly smaller revenue compared with Ferrari, Mercedes or Red Bull.

Bratches also envisions another race in the U.S., joining the United States Grand Prix held annually in Austin, Texas. A street race in Miami is a strong candidate, as are possible venues like Las Vegas or New York.

“We see the United States and China as countries that could support two races,” he said.

Liberty Media has reported Formula One’s total annual revenue at $1.8 billion, generated by fees paid by promoters, broadcast rights, advertising and sponsorship. Race promotion fees also tend to be higher in Asia, which makes the area attractive – along with a largely untapped fan base.

In a four-year cycle, F1 generates more revenue than FIFA or the International Olympic Committee, which rely almost entirely on one-time showcase events.

Reports suggest Vietnamese promoters may pay between $50-60 million annually as a race fee, with those fees paid by the government. Bratches said 19 of 21 Formula One races are supported by government payments.

“The race promotion fee being derived from the government … is a model that has worked historically,” Bratches said.