Albuquerque and the Unser Racing Museum

I had at least two more hours of driving ahead of me before I would reach Albuquerque.  It gave me time to see some more of the New Mexico countryside.P1090880

After an hour or so I decided to take a short break and stretch my legs.  The view was inspiring.

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Back in the P71 I continued my travels north. Of course I was disappointed with T or C not having the museum any longer, but surely the Unser museum would still be there?

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It was.  What a relief.  I found a parking spot with as much shade as possible and headed in.

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Well, all most.  This wall behind the Indy car is an actual piece to the wall that Al Jr. hit.  When IMS rebuilt the walls he bought the section that he had been bumped into and lost his chance at a win that day.

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This is the doorway you enter through after walking across the bricks in the front of the museum.  These bricks are from folks who have supported the museum and many of the names on them are from racing drivers.

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This rotating race car is at the center of rooms that spoke off of its hub.  It is a beauty of a car and is a great way to greet people that come to visit this place.

The first room goes into the cars that the Unsers used to compete in the Pikes Peak Hill Climb.  But it is more than that.  It is actually an introduction to the racing family and their connection to racing.

They had originated from Switzerland and settled in the area near Pikes Peak.  Immediately taking a liking to cars and motorcycles the Unsers road a motorcycle and sidecar to the summit of the “unscalable” peak in 1915.  That would not be the last time an Unser would drive up the mountain.

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The really unique thing about this museum is that where you typically would find an information poster you instead find a flat touch-screen where you can call up a video with an interesting story to tell about the car and the Unsers.  The interviews contain some very interesting stories and comments, not only from the Unsers, but also from other racing drivers and friends.

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The cars on display are in beautiful condition.  There are no ropes around them either.  While you know that you can’t get in them or touch them you can get as close as you want.

One of my favorites was the famous Novi powered Indy roadster.  This was the peak of the front-engined race cars.  The Novi engine had been developed in 1946 as a twin cam V-8 that was supercharged.  Its sound was a real crowd pleaser as it would shriek as it blasted by the crowds.  The front-engined race cars would be replaced by the mid-engined layout that Lotus pioneered.

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That would be followed with wings and downforce as racers began to understand aerodynamics.

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I moved on to another spoke of the museum and saw the many cars of Al Jr.  The son of Al Sr. had really taken to race cars and racing.  At age 11 he was racing sprint cars.  He progressed to Super-Vees, and Can-Am in the early 1980’s.  He quickly moved to CART (the racing series that would eventually merge with Indy).  He won the Indy 500 beating his father to the finish line in 1992.

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I checked out the other spokes of the museum that featured racing engines and racing tires.

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Then I walked back to the spoke with the pink iROC car as I wanted to spend some more time looking at the 442 and the Excalibur roadster.  To my surprise, there was Al Sr. and his wife.

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I enjoyed eavesdropping as Al related some very interesting stories and perspectives on the cars there and his experiences.

Al went off with the three local dignitaries and I took the opportunity to say hello to his wife.  She was very cordial and invited me to see the educational aspects of the their facility.

I had no idea.  I thought this facility was just a museum, but it is far more than that.

I had heard of the Challenger Learning Centers, but honestly, had not paid much attention to it other than reading an article on the program a few years ago.  Boy, what I missed.

My tour showed me how the children were saturated in the experience of managing and participating in a very realistic simulation of a shuttle mission.  With briefings and real assignments including the manning of mission control and participating in a trip to the space station where they would have research activities to perform.

Over a million dollars has been invested to bring this to the Unser Discovery Campus.  It is part of a nationwide program and from what I’ve seen provides and experience that is unforgettable and inspirational for children.  It is clear that the Unser family really cares about the future adults of their state.

After being truly impressed I returned to the museum to continue my exploration.

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As I walked around to the hub of the museum there was Al Sr. and his wife, who introduced me to Al.

Here I was face-to-face with a giant of racing, a four-time Indy 500 winner!

Like most champions he was just a very honest and regular guy that was easy to talk to , and had some extraordinary skills behind the wheel.

We had a great conversation.  I talked about my visit to Midland, TX, and looking at the Chaparrals and he filled me in on the Indy car of 1978.  His insights on how the car handled and what needed to be done to set it up to be a winner were priceless.  I got to understand how tough it can be to get things right as people’s personalities can impede success.

We were able to talk about some of the more technical aspects of chassis setup and the changes that aerodynamic downforce made to that process.

I asked him if he enjoyed watching racing now that he could not be behind the wheel.  You could see the passion on his face as he talked about how he wished he could peel away twenty years and jump back in a race car.

Driving a car at speed in a competition is like nothing else.  Especially if you are winning.  The demands on your body and your concentration are… well, like nothing you can imagine.  The reward is intense.  Of course Al would want to be back there again.

He does enjoy watching races..but.  But there is the frustration of knowing as much as he does and listening to commentary that isn’t as complete as it should be told.  Of having to watch as mistakes are made and knowing what should be done and not being able to do it.

A docent nearby was anxiously waiting to do her duty and tour me around the rest of the museum.  There was also another couple waiting to meet Al.  I shook his hand and thanked him for his time.  It had been a moment of a lifetime for me.

The questions I would have asked had I the opportunity would be to get his opinion on the changes to the Indy series, how it has become so much like a spec race.  His feelings about Formula One and the current crop of driving talent.   Where he thought automotive technology should be heading.  Questions about his racing contemporaries.  So many questions.

I only hope I can return again.

You have got to admire what these folks have done in their passion and professional life as well as what they are doing to invest in the future generations.  So I invested in a brick for Jim’s Garage.

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This entry was posted in Automobiles, Car Museums, Car Stuff, Cars, Great Drivers, Great Roads, Life and Cars, Racing, Road Trips and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Albuquerque and the Unser Racing Museum

  1. Kevin says:

    Great write up and great experience Jim – so good that you back tracked.

  2. What a museum! Even better that you had the opportunity to meet a legend! I’ll bet the engine exhibit was something to see.

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