There's another Unser in the driver's seat, and she's just getting started
When Loni Unser reflects on why she is driven to add her own accomplishments to her famous family's motorsports legacy, an early childhood memory comes to mind.
"It was one of the last years my dad was racing Indy cars, and I must have been 1 or 2," she recalled. "He sat me down in his purple car, and I remember looking at him and looking around the cockpit and thinking that was the coolest thing in the world."
Loni is 19 now, a sophomore at the University of Colorado, and after years of being gently rebuffed by her parents, Johnny and Shauna, she has taken the first steps toward becoming a full-time professional driver. She had a promising season driving a Spec Miata in the NASA Rocky Mountain Region, and along the way she won a Sportscar Vintage Racing Association event on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.
Indianapolis has a deep personal connection to Loni. Her grandfather, Jerry Unser Jr., was the first Unser to race there and died at 26 following a crash before the 1959 race. In the decades that followed, Jerry's brothers Al and Bobby won the Indy 500 four and three times, respectively, and Al Unser Jr. won it twice. Johnny and his cousin Robby also made multiple starts, giving the Unsers a combined Indy 500 ledger of 73 starts, nine victories and 27 top-5 finishes.
The family's fame extends far beyond Indianapolis to race wins and championships in practically everything that rolls and a legendary record in the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, a white-knuckle race up the 14,110-foot Colorado mountain. Loni's great grandfather, Jerry Sr., and his two brothers (Louis Jr. and Joe) first scaled the mountain with a motorcycle and side car in 1916. Louis Jr. and his nephew, Bobby, later claimed more than 20 victories in the famed race.
Even Jeri Unser -- the daughter of Bobby and his second wife, Norma -- contributed to the Unser success at Pikes Peak, earning Rookie of the Year honors in 1998 and winning the electric car class in 2003 with a then-record time. There's a lot of family history to absorb.
"We have some of the coolest old racing pictures at our house," Loni says. "My dad this year actually took me up to Pikes Peak and told me the history of our family on the mountain and all these stories about my uncles and great-uncles, and I've always been curious. In fact, in about fifth grade, we had to impersonate someone successful, and I did my Uncle Al [Sr.]. I learned a lot about him through that and through my dad and pictures and stories."
Loni says she would have started racing sooner except that Johnny, cognizant of the obstacles, steered her to alternate activities. So she made National Honor Society and swam, ran cross country and skied while at Wood River High School in Hailey, Idaho. Her best sport was skiing, and she spent eight years competing in multiple disciplines of Alpine skiing and four in Nordic skiing.
"I wouldn't say I didn't want her to race, but I didn't encourage her because of where we live," says Johnny, 59, a five-time starter in the Indy 500 and accomplished endurance racer who now is race director for the Pro Mazda Series. "There, you have to go 150 miles to get to the closest track, and that's a really tiny go-kart track. With her in high school, it would have been very difficult. And on top of that, I know how difficult it is for a guy, let alone a girl, to become successful in racing."
Loni was patient. She knew she would eventually race cars. She also knew she had aptitude.
"There would be times when my ski team would go to go-kart tracks for fun and I, for some reason, had a knack for it that nobody else seemed to have, and I was able to do really well even though I had no coaching at that time," she says. "So I always had it in the back of my mind that I had a talent for it and that I loved it. Growing up, I'd be like, 'Dad, is there a way I could get into go-karting?' And it was hard because there were no tracks. Of course, we weren't going to move our entire lives. So I found a way to get out my need for competition through skiing and swimming and running."
Johnny always promised to reevaluate if circumstances warranted. That happened last year, after Loni started college and found success racing at the indoor Unser Karting & Events center in Denver. She wanted to see what she could do in a car, so Johnny sent her to the BMW Performance Driving School at the Thermal Club track near Palm Springs, California. The end assessment was she clearly had talent, so from there, Johnny sent her to a three-day racing school at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. Again, she stood out as one of the top students.
"I was really impressed with how well she did and with her ability," Johnny says. "So at this time last year, I made the decision that we needed to try to give her the opportunity to sort of follow her passion and dreams, and racing is what she wants to do. College is very important, and she knows she needs to get her degree, but at the same time, she's doing everything she can to race."
Plans call for Loni to compete in a World Racing League endurance race in early December at Circuit of the Americas, the Austin, Texas, race course that hosted the U.S. Grand Prix this past weekend, and to race in Spec Miata again in 2018. If sponsorship comes through, she could take a step up and run some Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge races as well next year.
Loni has the advantage of her family name, her dad's contacts and knowledge, and their close bond. Robby Unser has been around as well to provide additional coaching. But eventually, Loni's prospects will rise or fall with whether she can forge the relationships needed to provide funding. She has made headway already, joining her dad, a consultant and technical adviser for Cooper Tires, as a spokesperson for the company's Tread Wisely app.
But racing is very, very expensive.
"It's not like stick-and-ball sports where, if you're really good, you've got a good chance of making it," Loni says. "Back in the days my dad and uncles raced, they were able to make it on the merits of their driving ability. And there are still situations where drivers will make it purely on their driving ability. But in order to get to the level where people might notice you, it takes hundreds of thousands of dollars."
Loni's ultimate goal is IndyCar, which is hardly surprising, but she says she is open to any and all avenues to a professional racing career. She looks up to Katherine Legge, the popular and respected British driver who has competed in the Indy 500 twice and currently drives an Acura NSX GT3 in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
Whether Loni makes it to the major leagues or not, she already has added to the Unser lore at Indianapolis with her Father's Day weekend vintage car victory. It was quite a weekend, in fact. Johnny finished second in a Pro-Am event on Saturday, and Loni teamed with Marcus Pillion, CEO of TriTec Seal, in a classic 1960 Porsche 956 in Sunday's Enduro.
Loni did so well during her half of the race that Pillion decided to keep her in the car. She won their class.
"Just being on that track that I've been going to for so many years and knowing how important it was to my family and our history, crossing that finish line was something I'll never be able to replicate -- that feeling that I got," she says. "Just being able to race at that track was incomparable to anything."