Auto racing legend – and snowmobile enthusiast and designer – Bobby Unser died on May 2 after an extended illness, causing many in the mainstream media and automotive press to pen strong remembrances of the multi-time Indy 500 winner.
What most of those recaps don’t include, though, is Unser’s love of snowmobiling and the role he played in bringing snowmobile suspensions into the modern era. In fact, he was inducted into the International Snowmobile Hall of Fame in 2018 for his many accomplishments in our sport.
Truth be told, the Unser family had been tied to the snowmobile market since the late 1960s, and Bobby still very much enjoyed snowmobiling into his later years in Chama, New Mexico, where we rode with him and Dick Decker of Decker Sno Venture Tours in 2011.
Race Cars To Handlebars
Unser, 87 at the time of his death on Sunday, was most famous internationally as a three-time winner of the Indy 500 – earning victories in 1968, 1975 and 1981. In fact, the Unser family won an incredible nine Indy 500 races in all. Aside from Bobby’s wins, his brother Al Unser took open wheel racing’s most prized trophy in 1970, 1971, 1978 and 1987, and Al’s son Al Unser Jr. won in 1992 and 1994.
Bobby Unser’s incredible prowess with four wheels extended far beyond Indy, however. He was a 13-time winner of the Pikes Peak Hill Climb in various classes, set land speed records on the Bonneville Salt Flats and also had a nice career as a racing announcer. He was inducted into multiple halls of fame – including but not limited to the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame, Motorsports Hall of Fame, American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association Hall of Fame – and, most recently, the International Snowmobile Hall of Fame in 2018. Click here to read his induction statement.
Truly, anything that turned gas and air into speed and competition was thrilling to Unser, and that included snowmobiling. He was crucially involved in some of the very first independent front suspension (IFS) designs for the sport – most notably the 1972 Chaparral system that broke the ice for the design. It was taken over by Polaris when Chaparral went under and was the basis of the dominant 1977 RXL that led to the Indy heritage for the brand.
In his 2018 Hall of Fame Induction, he was also given credit for other snowmobile designs, from shocks to plastic skis and beyond. His personal website states that he was the “first to put shock absorbers and design independent front suspensions for snowmobiles.”
Beyond Chaparral and Polaris, when paging back through old snowmobile magazines, you’ll also see the Unsers tied to several brands, including a strong relationship with Bombardier/Ski-Doo.
Chama, Eagle River and Beyond
That Ski-Doo relationship led Bobby Unser to Eagle River, Wisconsin, in the mid 1980s, as a color commentator for ABC Wide World of Sports coverage of the World Championship Snowmobile Derby. And there, he struck up a strong and lasting friendship with Dick Decker, who had then just recently purchased the Derby Track.
“By talking to him about being an announcer at the track and then that night over a few beers, I found out that he really was an avid snowmobiler – he was famous, but he was a motorhead just like we all are,” Dick Decker remembered Tuesday when recalling his relationship with Unser.
The two snowmobiled together many times over the years near the Unser vacation land in Chama, New Mexico, as well as other locations. Whether carving backcountry powder or zooming down groomed trails in the Wisconsin Northwoods, Decker said you could tell immediately that Unser knew what he was doing on a snowmobile.
“He was a real good rider, both in the mountains that he rode back home and on the trails up here – and he liked speed, no question about that,” Decker said. And it was through Decker that we got to ride with Bobby in Chama in 2011. To see the story, click here.
Decker and Unser stayed close friends through the years. Aside from snowmobiling and ATVing together, Decker had spent time in Bobby Unser’s large museum of artifacts in New Mexico, which of course included all sorts of auto racing paraphernalia but also early drawings and materials related to the Chaparral IFS design.
Decker led the effort to get Unser inducted into the International Snowmobile Hall of Fame, and then when Unser was too weak to fly to the ceremony in Wisconsin in 2018, Decker flew to New Mexico to present his friend the plaque. And, despite the many honors that Unser had been awarded over the years, Decker said Bobby took great pride in accepting the snowmobile recognition.
“He did love snowmobiling – it was his second love, after car racing of course,” Decker said.
When riding with Unser in 2011, Bobby pointed toward a point in the towering San Juan Mountains on the horizon and said to us with pride, “That’s called Unser Saddle. It’s called that because we were the first ones to get there on snowmobiles.”
Decker said he and one of his son’s, Allan Decker, returned recently from a visit to Unser’s New Mexico home after hearing from Bobby’s wife, Lisa, that Bobby’s days were perilously numbered.
“We saw him three days, and one of the days he wasn’t doing so hot, but we had two really good days together,” Decker said.
Aside from his racing prowess, Bobby Unser was also known on some level for his intensity – something we saw on our visit to Chaka with Decker 10 years ago.
In fact, another Snow Goer staffer (at the time) got to ride with Al and Bobby Unser back in 1994 in Chama, and came back with a story of the two brothers almost coming to blows after the two crashed together in a corner, where one accused the other of “dive bombing” and taking away the other’s line.
Asked about Bobby’s nature after his passing, Decker said with a laugh, “Yeah, he was always competitive, that’s for sure!”
Editor’s Note: This review was originally published in the October 2020 issue of Snow Goer. Every issue of Snow Goer magazine includes in-depth sled reports and comparisons, aftermarket gear and accessories reviews, riding destination articles, do-it-yourself repair information, snowmobile technology and more! Subscribe to Snow Goer now to receive issues delivered to your door or your computer for a low cost.