Who, What, Where, Now!
Road Tested: A Profile of Local Resident and Race Car Driver Johnny Unser
There are people who defy death every day—jumping out of airplanes, summiting Nepalese peaks or riding angry bulls. For them, there is no fear complicit in the act, just a thrill. They assume a natural calm when faced with personal peril, and there’s a guy who lives right here in the Wood River Valley who is one of them.
In the last few minutes before the flags were waved and the Indianapolis 500 began, Johnny Unser used to find peace. “I’d become totally focused on what I was about to do and everything else just went away—it was just me and the car.”
Today, Unser, who is retired from professional car racing, still likes to go fast, but finds happiness in being outdoors in Idaho—hiking, mountain biking, fishing, skiing and snowmobiling. A self-described low-key, regular guy, he and his family have lived in Hailey largely under the radar for the last 28 years. Unser first visited Idaho with his future wife Shauna while still in college at Sacramento State University, where he earned a degree in Education. “I just fell in love with the place,” remembered Unser. “And I actually taught school for a couple of years in Hailey in the 80s. It was kind of a short-lived career, but it was a great experience and I was really glad I did it.”
But professional car racing’s deafening roar called Unser, and he listened: “It would have been easier for me not to race because my dad was killed when I was about a year old, so it wasn’t expected of me. But I really loved it and I knew I needed to give it a try.”
Over the course of his career, Unser drove in a number of different races, from the ALCAN 5000 across Alaska, to the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France, to Mexico’s Baja 1000. But his favorite race was always the Indianapolis 500. “The Indy was so challenging and physically demanding because you have to be so mentally sharp. There’s a lot of G force in these tracks, especially the oval ones, so the better shape you’re in, the more clearly you’re going to think. When you’re out there, it’s hard to believe that you’re actually racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It’s like a dream.”
Thirty-three racers are chosen each year to race at Indy, averaging speeds of 220 mph for about three hours. This is the mother of all endurance races, where drivers log 200 laps, equivalent to 500 miles around a 2.5-mile, oval track with tightly banked turns. It’s a dangerous track that takes its toll on drivers, who must be in excellent physical condition. Unser is no exception: “Living in Idaho made being fit pretty accessible. I mountain biked and hiked in the summer and cross-country skied in the winter.”
Heir to a driving dynasty that includes his father Jerry (killed in an accident at the Indy 500 in 1959), Uncles Bobby Sr., and Al Sr., and cousin Al Unser, Jr., Johnny still keeps a hand in the racing business, though retired, as an official in the Indy Car Series races around the country. A spokesperson for Cooper Tires, he helps develop tires for street cars; is a partner in Unser Racing, an indoor high speed Go Kart venue in Denver that holds corporate events and sponsors youth racing; and owns Unser Hay, a Fairfield company which produces and ships hay for cattle to places as far away as Japan.
On the road working often, Unser can be found the last weekend of July right here in Ketchum, helping with the fourth annual Sun Valley Road Rally. A fundraising event to benefit the Blaine County Community Drug Coalition, the Road Rally offers drivers the chance to get in their cars—Ferraris, Porsches, Lotuses and even the odd Prius—and drive as fast as they can on a closed, 3.5 mile stretch of Highway 75. Since its inception, the Rally has grown to include a Ketchum Cruise Parade, a gala dinner and auction at the River Run Lodge, a drawing for a Porsche Cayenne, and for some, the chance to hang out with a racing legend. Unser will be at the Sun Valley Auto Club throughout the day on Friday, July 27, meeting participants and providing technical inspections on the cars to ensure their safety in the Rally. At last year’s event, Porsche North America raffled rides on the course with Unser in a Panamera.
So does he speed on Idaho’s back roads on the sly when given the chance? “I’ve gotten a ticket or two, but for the most part I think I’m a pretty mellow driver,” he said.