HALL OF FAME EDITION
LOUIS UNSER FIRST DRIVER INDUCTED TO PPIHC HALL OF FAME
Colorado Springs, CO – The Broadmoor Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, brought to you by Gran Turismo, has a long and storied history dating back to the early days of the twentieth century. Drivers and riders, race organizers, promoters, officials and ambassadors who have left their indelible mark on this iconic race have been enshrined in the Pikes Peak Hill Climb Museum Hall of Fame beginning with the inaugural group of six members in 1997.
The first driver to be inducted, notably with a racing history dating back to 1926, was Louis Unser, also known by “Uncle Louie” as he was referred to by his four nephews, Jerry, Louis J., Bobby and Al Unser, and “The Old Man of the Mountain” as it was rumored that after being told he was too old to race, at age 71, he claimed to have paid his entry fee with his Social Security check.
Unser competed for decades capturing nine King of the Mountain crowns and notching six overall course records. His accomplishments on Pikes Peak made him a legend and paved the way for the next generation in this racing family.
Before the Race Began
Full of adventure, the Unser brothers, Jerry, Louis and Joe took the first motorcycle sidecar to the summit of Pikes Peak in 2 hours, 15 minutes on September 12, 1915. At the time, the existing carriage road to the top of the mountain was being improved by Colorado Springs businessman and creator of the race, Spencer Penrose. The inaugural race would be contested the following year, during three days in August, 1916.
Roaring into the ’20s
Unser first entered a Studebaker in the Open Wheel division in 1926, but would score a DNF on his rookie run. His brother, Joe, also entered, and claimed second place. The following year, behind the wheel of a Paige, Louis would finish 4th with a time of 20:37.00. Again, Joe finished second. In 1928, Unser would drive the Graham Paige Special (pictured below) to a 5th place finish. His brother Joe bested him again, claiming second.
Joe and Louis were back in 1929, along with brother, Jerry, when Joe captured his familiar second place spot. Louis finished 5th, followed by Jerry in 6th. By the end of the 1920s, Louis Unser would shave more than a minute from his finish times, clocking a 19:34.00 in 1929. All three brothers drove cars backed by the Coleman Truck Company that year.
Thriving in the ’30s
Unser would race in the Open Wheel division every year during the 1930s with the exception of 1935 when Spencer Penrose relinquished the lease on the highway. Chevrolet took that opportunity to use the road as a proving ground for their heavy-duty trucks.
Louis would claim the overall win five times and set three course records during this decade, the first in 1934 with a time of 16:01.80.
In 1938 and 1939, Unser proved he was a force to be reckoned with when he earned back-to-back course records in 15:49.90 and 15:39.40, respectively. Unser was the first to record a time under 16 minutes.
More Success in the ’40s
In 1940, Unser entered the Indianapolis 500, but failed to qualify. Back on Pikes Peak, he would take second that same year behind rival, Al Rogers. In 1941, driving the #42 Burd Special Miller, he claimed another win and overall course record of 15:35.20.
The race was suspended from 1942 through 1945 as World War II made headlines. When auto racing returned to Pikes Peak in 1946, Unser picked up where he left off by clocking a new course record of 15:28.70. This was the first of four consecutive years that Unser would compete in a Maserati 8. Perhaps his most spectacular finish of the decade came in 1949 when he spun out just before the checkered flag, and backed across the finish line. He finished second, just 12 seconds behind Al Rogers.
Federal Engineering in the ’50s
Unser would race for Federal Engineering for seven years during the 1950s. They felt strongly about his talent and built a $32,000 race car (approximately $370,000 today) designed specifically for Pikes Peak. He raced the open wheeler for three years with podium finishes second and third before doing what most thought impossible in 1953. At the age of 57, Unser smashed his own course record, one that many believed to be unbeatable. With a time of 15:15.40 he had shaved 13 seconds from the overall mark.
It’s interesting to note that with the arrival of his nephews on Pikes Peak in the 1950s, Unser’s times remained fast, but not as fast as those of the next generation. In 1955 Louis’s time was 15:24.40, only good enough for 11th place behind Bob Finney who won in 14:27.20. Three members of the next Unser clan would best Louis in the Open Wheel division that year.
Stock Cars in the ’60s
For the first half of the decade, Unser continued to compete in the Open Wheel division. In 1966 he made a move to the Stock Car division and the Oldsmobile Toronado, which was popular at the time. Finishing in fourth place on Race Day in 15:51.70, Unser would race one more year. At the age of 71, he ended his days of competition on Pikes Peak – America’s Mountain, but not his involvement with the race.
Unser became the Official Pace Car Ambassador and driver from 1971-1974, and is pictured below with the 1971 AMC Javelin Pace Car at the Summit of Pikes Peak.
Looking to the Past
Unser and his wife, Mildred, made their home in Cascade, Colorado where they lived since the late 1940s. They could see the famous Pikes Peak Highway from their living room window. Operating a machine shop for many years in downtown Colorado Springs, Unser’s connection to the racing community remained strong as he advised fellow racers, machined parts and offered brake lining services. Michael Collins, long-time Colorado Springs resident, retired architect, and winner of the PPIHC Sports Car Group 3 Class in 1960 shared, “As a kid, I visited that shop with my dad. It wasn’t just a machine shop, they did brake work too. Louis was the magnet that drew people to that shop. Many years later, I bought that building, and if you know where to look, you can still see the old machine shop sign.”
Remembering a Remarkable Man
Louis Unser was born in Alton, Illinois in 1896. He raced 37 times on Pikes Peak, captured 9 overall wins and set six course records. He shared his huge smile and love of the event wherever he went. Unser passed away in Colorado Springs in 1979 at the age of 83. His devoted wife, Millie, died in 2002 at the age of 95 in Colorado Springs.
Photos by: PPIHC Archives, Stan DeGeer, PPIHC Staff
Communications Manager / Historian