The Unser Racing Museum

Sometimes, the best thing a writer can do is push outside of his or her comfort zone and try something completely new.

Automobile racing is one of many things that I’m aware exists but know almost nothing about.  However, when Michael Wester suggested that we go check out the Unser Racing Museum here in Albuquerque, I was willing to give it a try.

Built for Speed

Built for Speed

I first heard about the Unser family when I moved to Albuquerque and asked what Unser Boulevard was named for.  That was when I learned that New Mexico was home to a racing dynasty that had been notable in the sport for going on four generations.  Even then, my only thought was that the name explained the way some people drove down that particular road – as if they were in a race.

As for the Unsers,  before our trip, I couldn’t have named a single Unser, although “Al” and “Bobby” swirled up out of my subconscious as possibilities.  Our visit began with Jim taking pictures of a couple of cars — one antique, one ultramodern – on display outside.  We then progressed to the double door that led into the museum proper, the handles of which were shaped like a steering wheel, split down the middle.

The main museum is round with six “spokes” off a central hub.  The central hub is designated the Winner’s Circle and features a brilliant yellow racing car – one of those that won the Indie 500.

The first spoke contains the gift shop and some small displays, including a family tree of four generations of Unsers.  Flags designate those who have been involved in auto racing.  There is also a magnificent piece of stained glass that I found myself thinking I wouldn’t mind having, even if the subject was a racing car.  The first hub has a few displays, but most are reserved for the other five hubs.

The displays in the first hub center around the Pike’s Peak race.  This is the race that infused the Unser family members with their enthusiasm for racing.  Rather than going around and around a track, this race goes up a very steep mountain and features some hairpin curves that nearly double back onto themselves.  As if this isn’t terrifying enough, until recently, the track was dirt.

The Unsers have won this race so many times that in racing circles Pike’s Peak is often called “Unser’s Mountain.”  Nor do they always compete in the same type of car or class of race.  One of the more recent victories was by Jeri Unser (a fourth generation and the only female to take up racing) in an electric car.  Her time was so good that she beat many gas-fueled vehicles.

The second spoke was devoted to the Indianapolis 500.  What was really cool about this room was that it didn’t just focus on the race, it focused on the technology of the cars.  It’s one thing to look at a low slung, smooth-tired car and admire its lines.  It’s much more fun when there are displays (and all the displays at the Unser Museum were excellent) to explain why the cars are built that way and what advances have been made over time.  An added flourish for a novice like myself was an explanation of what pit crews do and how crucial their contributions are to success or failure in the race.

The third spoke was called Jerry’s Garage.  When the Unsers first came to New Mexico, they ran a gas station and garage.   This garage is where the “boys” not only learned to drive, but often built their own cars.  I was really impressed to find out that many of the Unser drivers were also mechanics and engineers, so they understood their cars from the tires up.   In one anecdote, am Unser associate talked about seeing the flash of a diamond Indie ring on the finger of the Unser who was, at that moment, helping him grub through the engine of his car.

Throughout the displays, there had been a lot of stress laid on the competitive spirit of the Unsers, both with other drivers and with members of their own family.  It was rather nice to see this balanced by some less competitive qualities as well.

The fourth spoke was devoted to racing fans.  The walls were lined with handmade quilts, and the displays included gifts made by fans and given to the Unsers.  Particularly flashy was a black and white checked guitar from Nashville.  However, just in case you forget that this museum is all about cars, a Model A Ford in beautiful condition dominated the center of the room.

The fifth centered around some very cool educational displays, including an array of engines with explanations about how they worked.  There were interactive touch screens on which you could quiz yourself on race car lore – including how the tracks are set up, the technology, and even the role played by the weather.  The crown jewel of this room was a high class racing simulator, realistic enough that I found myself jumping whenever the car got a little too close to the walls or another vehicle.

After Jim and Michael both had a chance at the racing simulator, we went over to Unser Two.  This building contains a selection of both racing and antique cars.   I haven’t mentioned something really special about this museum.  The vehicles aren’t behind ropes.  You can walk right up to them and peer inside the cabs.  Visitors are asked not to touch the cars – which are polished to a perfect gloss.  Given the lack of fingerprints, I think this wish was respected.

Unser Two also contained a display room containing hundreds of racing trophies – and these were only some of those earned by the members of the Unser family.  In addition to the usual cups and engraved plaques, there were some beautiful works of art, including a miniature Japanese samurai helmet and race cars sculpted from what looked like gold wire.  There were a selection of champagne bottles and a milk bottle…  This last would have puzzled me greatly, but I’d learned that a bottle of buttermilk is traditionally presented to the winner of the Indie 500.

There was also a small gallery of racing related art, some of which was surprisingly good.  I think my favorite there was a painting with repeated renditions of the Indie “Marlboro” car that made me think of folded origami figures, rather than automobiles.

After we left, we all agreed that the museum had been a lot more fun than any of us had anticipated.  I found myself wanting to read a book about the Unsers and wishing that I’d had energy to stand and read some of the longer touch screen presentations.  As a writer, I was reminded how good it is to push my limits.  Too often it’s easy to only do things you know in advance you’ll enjoy.  Far more creatively stimulating is pushing your horizons.  Maybe what you learn won’t show up in a story right away, but someday it will, making you very glad you made the effort.

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2 Responses to “The Unser Racing Museum”

  1. Paul Says:

    Thanks for the tour! It sounds like an interesting attraction, indeed. In fact, I could see it being used as part of a setting if you do another novel set in New Mexico in the future.

    • janelindskold Says:

      It was cool… Very…

      One of the things I love about NM is that despite being a state with a relatively small population, there’s a rich and diverse culture.

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