What Drives Her: Racer Loni Unser Is Honoring The Family Name While Carving Out Her Own Legacy

A Girls Guide To Cars | What Drives Her: Racer Loni Unser Is Honoring The Family Name While Carving Out Her Own Legacy - Loni Unser Featured

Loni Unser is on a quest to prove that young girls can do anything they put their minds to.

Loni Unser’s path to becoming a professional race car driver seemed written in the stars — pretty much from her birth. She remembers sitting behind the wheel of her dad’s IndyCar at the Indianapolis 500 when she was just 2 years old and thinking, “This is the coolest thing.”

Though she mostly grew up ski racing and doing other team sports, Loni remembers go-kart racing with friends and showing some natural talent on the track.

“I was like, ‘I was born for this,’” she says. “I definitely thought that I was destined to be a race car driver.”

It’s not surprising. After all, she descends from racing royalty.

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Loni'S Grandfather Jerry Unser Ran Number 92 At The 1958 Indianapolis 500. She And Her Dad Have Carried On The Tradition. Photo: Loni Unser

Loni’s grandfather Jerry Unser ran number 92 at the 1958 Indianapolis 500. She and her dad have carried on the tradition. Photo: Loni Unser

The Unser Racing Dynasty

To say that racing is in Loni’s blood is almost an understatement. The Unser racing name goes back four generations and carries a lot of prestige with it.

Her “crazy family tree,” as she calls it, starts with her great-grandfather, Jerome (Jerry Sr.) who was a racer himself. He had four sons — Al Sr., Bobby Sr., Jerry Jr. and Louis — and each of them raced as well. Tragically, Loni’s grandfather, Jerry Jr., was killed while practicing for the Indy 500. Louie got multiple sclerosis and became Al and Bobby’s mechanic. Al and Bobby each went on to win the Indy 500 multiple times (Al with a record-tying four wins, Bobby with three) and to this day, they’re the only set of brothers to do so.

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Loni With Her Uncle Al Unser Jr. Photo Courtesy Of Loni Unser

Loni with her uncle Al Unser Jr. Photo courtesy of Loni Unser

Loni’s father, Johnny, and her uncles, Al Jr. and Robby, also raced. Al Jr. won the Indy 500 twice, bringing the total Unser family titles to a record of nine. And that’s just the Indy 500. The Unsers also have a storied legacy of conquering the famous Pikes Peak International Hill Climb in Colorado Springs, among other racing titles.

“My Uncle Al was somebody that is like a grandfather to me. And my uncle Bobby,” Loni says. “I was always just kind of enamored by what they had done in the sport. And all the things that they could drive! They could get in any car and go fast and they could get in any car and win races. I just think that’s the coolest thing.”

But as for which Unser has been the most influential force in her life, that’s easy.

“My dad is my number one. He always will be. I’m just constantly inspired by him. He has taught me everything I know in racing and I have no idea where I’d be without him,” she says.

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A Young Loni With Her Dad Johnny Unser. Loni Says Her Dad Taught Her Everything She Knows About Racing. Photo Courtesy Of Loni Unser

A young Loni with her dad Johnny Unser. Loni says her dad taught her everything she knows about racing. Photo courtesy of Loni Unser

Pursuing a Forbidden Love

Despite her innate talent and love for the sport, Loni’s parents had reservations about their daughter becoming a professional race car driver.

“It was always something I really wanted to do because I thought my family were the coolest people in the world. Honestly, when I was younger, I was just honored to be an Unser,” Loni says. “But my parents discouraged me from going racing because it is a really challenging sport. In racing, the highs are really high and the lows are really low.”

But there was no denying Loni’s passion, so her dad Johnny signed her up for the BMW Driving School in Thermal, Calif., when she was a senior in high school. The idea was that it would help make her a better driver on the street. Little did they know that she’d one day become an instructor herself at the same school, teaching people how to drive and giving hot laps in BMW M3s every day.

“It’s really cool because it’s now come full circle,” Loni says. “Some of the instructors that I actually had when I went through the school, I now work with.”

Loni At The Bmw M4 Gt4 Experience At The Bmw Performance Center In 2020. Photo Courtesy Of Loni Unser

Loni at the BMW M4 GT4 experience at the BMW Performance Center in 2020. Photo courtesy of Loni Unser

Managing a Crazy Schedule

Though racing is the priority, Loni moved to California to start a side career in stunt driving, with the goal to someday do work for TV commercials and movies. She says her schedule is “always different” and “always a bit crazy.” When she’s not at work, instructing or stunt driving, she’s working on her racing program and trying to acquire new sponsors. She manages her social media accounts and business development. She spends time on the racing simulator. She stays physically fit. She watches video and looks at data — anything that might help her improve her craft.

And if there’s one person she credits for keeping her going, it’s her dad, who’s got a pretty impressive racing resume himself. Having raced in the IndyCar series, IMSA and the 24 Hours of Le Mans (where he placed second in 1995), among others, Johnny Unser is well qualified to show his daughter the ropes in the racing world.

“My dad helps tremendously with sponsorship and getting driving relationships,” Loni says. “He’s basically a driving coach and a life coach because he raced as well for many, many years. He comes to all my races. I couldn’t do any of it without him.”

Loni With Her Parents Johnny And Shauna Unser After The Pikes Peak Hill Climb. Photo Courtesy Of Loni Unser

Loni with her parents Johnny and Shauna Unser after the Pikes Peak Hill Climb. Photo courtesy of Loni Unser

Conquering Mountains

For Loni, her greatest achievement coincided with her greatest challenge. Following in her family’s footsteps (or tracks, if you will), Loni decided to compete in the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb in 2022, where she drove a Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsport.

“I put together my whole program and organized all the sponsorships and figured out the car and the logistics of the mountain. I really put my mind toward being the best I could as a rookie on the mountain and learning the mountain really well,” Loni said. “It was such a monumental year and my family is so well known for running up Pikes Peak that I wanted to give my all to this race last year and I did really well. I ended up second in my class. I was hoping to win, but we had some setbacks. Nothing good comes without some setbacks.”

The “setbacks” she’s referring to involved a big crash just days before the race. With her car in bad shape, Loni thought her first “Race to the Clouds” might have crashed with it. But thanks to what she calls a “heroic effort” from her team, they were able to get the car going and still pull off a second-place spot in her class.

“To be able to get in that car and race well was mentally one of the most difficult things that I had to overcome,” Loni explains. “But at the end of the day, I had to trust in the training that I had done and in the preparation that I had done. And I had to trust the people I was working with. It ended up being an incredible experience but it was definitely one of the most challenging things in my career that I’ve had to deal with.”

She admits that during these difficult experiences, it’s tempting to think, “Why am I doing this?” But failure has helped build up her resilience.

“It’s not about failing, it’s about how you recover from the failures,” Loni says. “It wouldn’t be life if there wasn’t failure involved. It’s about how you get up, dust yourself and do it again.”

As for Pikes Peak, that’s one race Loni can’t wait to do again. She hopes to win the “Queen of the Mountain” title and add to her family’s legacy.

Loni'S Porsche Gt4 Clubsport That She Raced In The Pikes Peak Hill Climb In 2022. Photo: @Rupertberrington Via Instagram

Loni’s Porsche GT4 Clubsport that she raced in the Pikes Peak Hill Climb in 2022. Photo: @rupertberrington via Instagram

Finding Her ‘Why’ for Racing

Loni acknowledges that racing, as with almost any sport, can be “inherently selfish.” So, she decided early on that she needed to find a reason for doing it that wasn’t just for herself.

“It really came down to the fact that I want to show young girls that they’re capable of anything that they put their mind to,” she says. She hopes that she and other successful women in the racing world can be an example of achieving dreams against all odds.

“I really just want to inspire young girls at the end of the day. And young boys, too!” she adds.

“I think racing is really cool and unique in the fact that men and women can compete equally because the car doesn’t know who’s behind the wheel. It doesn’t matter who’s pushing the pedals and steering the steering wheel. We can do it just as well as the men can.”

Loni feels lucky to be part of an organization called Shift Up Now, a group of female motorsport athletes who work to inspire young girls through webinars and other mentorship opportunities.

“I think it’s all about just elevating each other because the more that we support one another, the more we’re going to see women in the sport and women excelling in the sport,” Loni says. “There are certainly challenges we all face. If we can help one another out then it’s all going to be better for all of us.”

Belonging To An Organization Like Shift Up Now Allows Loni And Other Female Racers To Inspire The Next Generation Of Drivers. Photo Courtesy Of Loni Unser

Belonging to an organization like Shift Up Now allows Loni and other female racers to inspire the next generation of drivers. Photo courtesy of Loni Unser

So, What’s the Most Important Thing She’d Tell Young Female Racers?

“Be confident with yourself and what you know to be true. Work hard of course. Working hard will get you a lot of places,” Loni says. But there’s one more thing she says is “so important” for women and girls, especially.

“Stand your ground. I’ve had people in my career who’ve made me believe I’m doing something the wrong way even though in my heart of hearts I knew it was the right way and I knew it was the right thing to be doing. It’s important to be confident and stand up for yourself in a sport dominated by men.”

Getting Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

As for the best advice Loni ever received herself, it all goes back to her ski racing days in high school.

“Something that my coach taught me was the importance of being comfortable with being uncomfortable,” she says. “I think it translates really well to motorsports because there are times when I’m horribly uncomfortable and scared, to be honest. It can be scary and dangerous, but I do think it’s important in life to push yourself and to be uncomfortable.

“For some people, that may be having uncomfortable conversations but for me, it comes with my job in motorsports. But it’s important for people to apply that in life.”

Left To Right Sabre Cook, Erin Vogel, Loni Unser And Aaron Snair Make Up Part Of The Round 3 Racing Team. The Team Won The World Racing League Championship Last Year. Photo: @Lowshuttermedia Via Instagram

Left to right, Sabre Cook, Erin Vogel, Loni Unser and Aaron Snair make up part of the Round 3 Racing team. The team won the World Racing League championship last year. Photo: @lowshuttermedia via Instagram

The Legacy She Wants to Leave

Without question, Loni is grateful for her family name. She’s grateful to inspire other women. But there’s something else she hopes to be remembered for.

“I kind of tell people sometimes, and not to say this in a bad way at all, but I don’t want to be ‘an Unser.’ I don’t want to be ‘a girl.’ I just want to go racing. I just want to do it for the love of the sport and what I can bring to other people.”

For her racing career and beyond, there’s no doubt that the best is yet to come. Keep your eye on this woman — if you can.

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Allison is a freelance writer, a mother of two, and the wife of a car-obsessed husband who got her... More about Allison Bell