The name is as synonymous with Indy Car Racing as Jordan is to basketball. For racing fans in Albuquerque, it means much more.
Albuquerque was the hometown of Al Unser after the family moved to the Duke City in the 1920s. The family set up shop, quite literally, building garages in town with the goal of building cars and competing in the racing circuit. Rising to prominence as a family in races such as Pike’s Peak, the family legacy grew.
After a wildly successful career, Al and Susan Unser decided that they wanted to share their collection and love of racing with the city and its residents. In 2005, the Unser Museum opened off of Montano where the family ran it as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. Before the museum even opened, there was a need to get the word out about the facility.
Bob Brown, the former radio host for ESPN Radio 101.7 The TEAM, was there at the beginning. “Back when I worked at Channel 7 as the sports director, the station donated $20k to the museum and I was out there doing weekly stories as the museum was being built. We thought it was a great opportunity for the station to get a leg up through our association with the Unsers.”
Over the years, Bob would form a friendship with both Al and Susan and even after retiring from the public eye and traveling, he walked into the museum one day and asked about possibly working as a docent.
“I walked in and talked to Janet, who knew who I was, and she immediately handed me a docent’s jacket and asked when I could start,” said Brown. Taking on a part-time role volunteer role with the museum, Brown began working four-hour shifts on Saturdays, guiding tours and sharing stories with museum-goers. “I just wanted to give back to the family and the community.”
Even prior to the announcement that the museum was going to move, Al and Susan had been preparing for the inevitable.
“Both of them knew that they wanted the collection to go to a generational home after Al passed. With no other family members interested in managing the collection or the museum, Al and Susan were looking for a new home for it so that race fans could continue to enjoy and appreciate it.”
Enter the Speedway Motors Museum of American Speed.
Owned and operated as a 501(c)3 by the family of “Speedy” Bill Smith, the 150,000-square-foot facility has long been known as the number one attraction for car lovers around the world. The Lincoln, Nebraska museum was originally opened in 1992 before moving to its current location on the Speedway Motors campus in 2001. “Speedy” Bill founded Speedway Motors in 1952 as a speed shop that was frequented by service members looking to soup up their hot rods during leave.
As the need for the base dwindled and then shut down, Speedway Motors transitioned to parts manufacturing and its reach greatly expanded. The family’s love of cars and the fact that it was a family affair is what led the Unsers and the Smiths to connect.
Speaking as the Spokesperson for the Unser Museum, Brown reiterated the Unser’s desire for the collection to go to a place that would be capable of maintaining it for years to come.
“The Speedway Motors Museum of American Speed was just what Susan was looking for. The Smith family’s love affair with cars and racing is well known and it just made sense for them to take over the curation of the collection. As a result, the Unser collection will be the centerpiece of the museum.”
The new home for the Unser collection will allow a much larger population of fans to be able to experience it, perhaps for the first time.
“Some pieces of the Unser collection are already there, such as one of Bobby’s cars,” said Brown. “It’s a much bigger facility that draws over 100,000 visitors per year compared to the 20,000 drawn in Albuquerque.”
The City of Albuquerque made a last-minute effort to try and keep the Museum, but Susan Unser wasn’t sold.
“The city offered the Unser family $4 million to keep the museum in Albuquerque but wanted to move it to the area of Central and Unser. There just weren’t any solid plans for what the city wanted to do or how they wanted to design a new facility,” reported Brown. The Unser Museum is partly known for its unique design and the old site would essentially have just been lost to time.
With both museums being classified as 501(c)3 organizations, no money changed hands for the collection as the assets are set to be transferred from the Unser Museum to the Museum of American Speed. Albuquerque residents only have until Monday, May 29 to visit the Unser Museum to see the collection before it all gets shipped to Nebraska.
“Susan wasn’t sure how or when to close the doors for good on the Museum,” said Brown. “Then the decision was made to make the last day May 29, which would have been Al’s 84th birthday.”
Once the Unser Museum closes its doors for good, the Unser Collection will be packed up and sent to Nebraska, where the full collection will be on display beginning in 2024. For more information on the Speedway Motors Museum of American Speed, click the link below.