How Easily a 40 Year Old Can Of Chiles Can Remind Us Of a Forgotten Indy 500 Tradition

The can of chiles, with a quick history. The note reads: “1976 Chile can from the 1st Annual Mom Unser Party for INDY Mechanics, 5/28/1976. I [picked] up this can when I was there. I have photos of that event. T Geer.”. Photo: Stephen Knell

The Indianapolis 500 is forever steeped in tradition. “Drivers, start your engines.” The Purdue Marching Band. The singing of Back Home Again (In Indiana). The etching of the winner’s face on the Borg-Warner trophy. But, each May, Indy is too the place for creating and trading oral histories — the thousands of “I was there when” stories — told by drivers, teams and race fans that keep smaller traditions alive. This is one of those, and it all starts with an old can of chiles.

Bobby and Mom Unser from an Ortega advertisement, 1975. From the Collections of The Henry Ford. Gift of Bobby Unser.

The Unsers

The Unser name at Indianapolis is forever steeped in history. Seven different members of the Unser family raced at Indianapolis, and between them, they won the 500 nine different times. The first Unser to race was Jerry, who after surviving the crash that would kill Pat O’Connor in the 1958 Indianapolis 500, was killed in practice for the 1959 race.

Jerry’s sons won the race seven times — Al, who is one of only three four-time winners, and Bobby, who won the race three times. Al’s son, Al Jr. won the race twice. But, this story revolves around as big a legend as any of the other Unsers, Al and Bobby’s mother, and Jerry’s widow, Mary, affectionately known as “Mom”.

Mom’s Chili

“Mom” Unser looked after her kids, and, well, just about everyone else in the garage. And she made some darn good chili too.

The chili tradition started when Mary, already a beloved figure at the track, asked firefighters, safety crews and mechanics if they would like to try her chili, made with lean pork, tomatoes, onions and hot chilis that she’d sweat at her home in Albuquerque, N.M.

“She always said without the safety crews, there wouldn’t be a race,” Unser said. “They kept her boys safe.”

That first year, she cooked 10 gallons right in the pit, “and they just loved it,” her son said. “Every year since, it kept growing and growing until at last she was cooking 50 to 75 gallons of chili at each race. She never had any leftovers.”

Ortega calls

They called the day when Mom fed the crews Chili Day, and the legend gained a life of it’s own. It also led to the signing of Mom, and the Al and Bobby Unser families to an endorsement deal with Heublein, Inc, the then owners of Ortega canned chiles in 1975. Her chili recipe appeared in newspapers nationwide, with coupons for Ortega chiles, of course. The Ortega deal meant that there would be plenty of Ortega chiles available on hand for Chili Day, as well.

A tradition continued

But, it was not to be. Sadly, Mom Unser died unexpectedly at the age of 1968, during the winter of 1975. “It’s just not the same without her,” shared saddened Bobby Unser. Neither he nor Al would talk much more about their mother’s loss to an AP reporter who covered the event. But, in her memory, the tradition continued.

Bobby Unser and his wife Marsha spoon out chili to Indy legend Parnelli Jones in 1976. From the Collections of The Henry Ford. Gift of Bobby Unser.

Yes, he can

It was here that race fan and collector, Tom Geer picked what was just an ordinary can of Ortega green chiles out of the trash. He knew that it was special, but it took until today, 40 years to the day, of that 1976 Chili cook off, that a missing piece was added — the signatures of both Bobby and Al Unser obtained during the festivities for the 100th Indianapolis 500.

Racing Memorabilia collector Tom Geer and his 40 year old can of Ortega green chilies. Photo: Stephen Knell

Not surprisingly, and always one to appreciate a good story, according to Geer, when asked to sign the can, Bobby said, “Where in the heck did you get this?”. He knew exactly what it was and where it was from.

The Chili Day tradition at the track ended some years later, as the Ortega deal with the Unsers expired in 1980. But Mom’s recipe has lived on, being featured as part of a fundraiser in 2015, and a cookbook produced as part of the 100th race celebration.

It’s pretty funny what can old, rusted chili can can spawn for an Indy 500 story. And at Indy, you never know where the good stories will come from.

Special thanks to Tom Geer and family for letting me tell his story and Stephen Knell for gathering the interview. 

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