March 10, 2004
Louis (Louie) Jefferson Unser, the second of the four brothers who made their surname synonymous with auto racing excellence, passed away in California March 2. He had been afflicted with multiple sclerosis for over 50 years and died of complications from the degenerative disease at the age of 71.
The younger twin brother of Jerry (by ten minutes) and elder sibling of Bobby and Al, Louie did not become a legendary Indianapolis 500 competitor. Still, he carved out an impressive career as driver and mechanic in his own right. Born in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on November 15, 1932, he moved with his family to Albuquerque, New Mexico four years later. In Albuquerque the boys launched their driving careers as teenagers, at Speedway Park and other local short tracks.
In 1955, father Jerry Sr. took his three eldest sons back to Colorado Springs for rookie attempts at the notorious Pike's Peak hillclimb. At that time Louie worked as a tour bus driver, shuttling tourists up and down the treacherous mountain while also working in a machine shop with his namesake, nine-time Pike's Peak winner uncle Louis Unser. The elder Louis, arguing that his nephews were too young to tackle the mountain (and perhaps fearful they would usurp his place atop it), successfully scuttled the younger Louie's deal to drive a local owner's Offy. Louie responded by taking over brother Bobby's Jaguar for race day and placing third overall.
At his brothers' urging, Louie put his driving career on the back burner in mid-1956 to concentrate more on his innate talent turning wrenches. When Jerry moved to California to begin his USAC stock car career with DePaolo Engineering, his twin brother found a job next door as a mechanic with Bill Stroppe's factory Mercury team. When the factories yanked their support in mid-1957, the twins decided to join forces and campaign for the championship with equipment purchased from Ford.
"We were a couple of hillbillies from Albuquerque," Louie recalled in Joe Scalzo's 1971 book The Unbelievable Unsers. "We were going to see if we could whip the world." With Louie overseeing the shoestring effort against drivers still receiving clandestine financial support from the factories, Jerry won four races (including the stock car class at Pike's Peak) and clinched the 1957 championship. Jerry presented Louie with the champion's ring, and Louie himself earned "Mechanic of the Year" honors.
This partnership remained in place during Jerry's rookie efforts at Indianapolis the following May; as Jerry hopped from one failed ride to another throughout practice, Louie invariably came along as chief mechanic despite the owner and crew's initial misgivings. Louie's valiant efforts eventually saw Jerry become the first of the half-dozen Unsers who have up to now competed in the 500. But it all came to naught on the opening lap when Jerry went over the turn three wall during Pat O'Connor's fatal multi-car pileup.
Louie was on his way to Indianapolis the following May 2 when Jerry crashed in practice -- he would succumb to his injuries 15 days later. "When he hit the wall... since Jerry's my twin, when he'd get hurt, I'd feel it," Louie recalled in 2000. "I could tell from 3,000 miles away. The minute I got going, I felt something wrong, and they put me in the hospital in Albuquerque. They couldn't find anything wrong. That night I found out Jerry had hit the wall. Jerry and I were twins, so I felt everything."
After a period of mourning, Louie got back behind the steering wheel that summer at Pike's Peak, placing a disappointing eight seconds out of first in the stock car class his brother once dominated. He rectified the situation in the following two years, 1960 and 1961. His picture, taken of him racing through the "W's", gained him accolades worldwide, as he set class records both times (first in a Johnson/Metropolitan Pontiac, then in Cady Daniels' Chevrolet). He also dabbled in sprint cars throughout the Southwest, but increasing fatigue and blurry vision caused him to curtail his on-track activity again. Meanwhile, his reputation as a master mechanic grew.
From 1961 to 1964 Louie worked for Stroppe, Carroll Shelby's AC Cobra team and others, building motors and doing machine work in the shop while changing tires and refueling cars during races. Just prior to leaving the States for the East African Safari Rally in early 1964, a medical exam revealed the root of his unexplained long-term physical ills -- he had developed multiple sclerosis. Louie left for Africa anyway and did not return until the rally finished, four exhausting months later.
"When the doctor told me that I had MS, I said, 'What the hell is that?'" he told Gordon Kirby in 1988's Unser: An American Family Portrait. "I said, 'Give me a shot and let's get rid of it.' He said, 'No, it doesn't work that way.' He told me to slow down to one or two hours a day or else I would kill myself. Well, I'd always worked 16 hours a day, every day of the week, so I just kept going. I was going to let them know I was here before I went. And I'm still doing it. It takes longer. It's a little harder but with the right help you can get anything done."
After reprising the chief mechanic's role he played with Jerry seven years earlier by getting baby brother Al into his first 500 in 1965, Louie retired from trackside work and concentrated on building his engine business in Santa Ana and later Fullerton, California. His engines powered brother Bobby and Mario Andretti to Pike's Peak victories along with numerous sprint, sportscar and speedboat wins. Despite being confined to a wheelchair by the early 1970s and gradually losing the use of his upper body, Louie kept active in his shop until he could no longer work, in 1990.
A longtime resident of Anaheim, Louie and his wife Laverne participated in numerous MS-related fundraising and research efforts over the decades. In 1982 he was named the MS "Father of the Year," and he, Laverne, and daughter Lynn had the opportunity to visit with President Reagan in the Oval Office. He was also inducted into the Orange County Hall of Fame in 1987. Their last visit to Indianapolis came during the Brickyard 400 weekend in 1999.
Louie is survived by Laverne, his wife of 32 years, daughter Lynn, three
grandsons and his two brothers, Bobby and Al.
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