Rick Mears is the third and most recent member of the three-man club of four-time Indianapolis 500 winners. With a record six Indy pole positions to his credit as well, the Bakersfield, California native is undeniably one of the greatest drivers in the one hundred year history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Yet Mears’ introduction to IMS gave no indication he would go on to such success at the legendary track. Driving a three-year old Eagle for Art Sugai, Mears failed to qualify for the 1977 Indianapolis 500.
But his performances throughout 1976 and ’77 running a limited schedule of USAC Indy car races in second-tier equipment caught the eye of legendary team owner Roger Penske.
Penske hired Mears to run a limited Indy car schedule in 1978, sharing a car with Mario Andretti as Andretti focused on Formula 1. Rick made the most of the opportunity; he qualified on the outside front row for his Indianapolis 500 debut, and while a blown engine ended his race, he shared Co-Rookie of the Year honors with Larry Rice.
Mears went on to win three USAC races in 1978 and when he returned to Indianapolis in 1979, he had a full-time ride at Team Penske. While teammate Bobby Unser elected to race the new Penske PC-7, Mears stuck with the proven year-old PC-6. Unser led a race high 89 laps but his car broke a gearbox with 18 laps to go, allowing Mears to claim victory from pole position.
“During the race I saw more of what the PC-7 was capable of,” Mears recalled. “But I ended up staying with the 6 because we knew that car, we knew where we stood with it, and it was kind of an ‘Old Faithful’ deal. And as it turned out, it worked very well.
“I felt we had enough to beat Bobby when it came down to it,” he added. “I was doing my typical deal - I wasn’t going to press it until the end. I made a couple of runs on him just to see what he had, and then he lost fourth gear and had to let us go. I’d have rather beat him outright by beating him in a shootout.”
As the defending Indy car series champion, Mears finished fifth in the
1980 Indianapolis 500. A year later, he had one of the scariest incidents of his career when he suffered burns to his face during a pit fire on Lap 59.
Mears’ 2.922-mph pole speed advantage over Kevin Cogan in qualifying for the 1982 ‘500’ was one of the largest in the history of the race.
Although he led six time for 77 laps, Rick failed to dominate the race as expected and the last part of the race boiled down to the shootout Mears had hoped for three years earlier, this time with Gordon Johncock.
Mears pitted from second place with seventeen laps to go, three laps before Johncock. The Penske team made a tactical error by filling Mears’ car with fuel, rather than executing a timed stop to take on only enough fuel to make the finish.
“When we came out of the pits, there was eleven or twelve seconds difference with about twelve laps to go,” Mears related. “We started reeling him in and I thought, ‘Whoa! There might be time here.’”
Sure enough, Mears caught Johncock as they took the white flag to begin the final lap. Mears tried diving to the inside in Turn 1, but Johncock defended the line and Mears had to lift. By the time Rick got back up to speed, he had one more chance at the finish line but he fell short by 0.16 second in what was then the closest finish in the
66 runnings of the Indianapolis 500.
“It was a fun race with Gordy and I was glad to see him win it,” Mears said. I enjoyed it because we made up a pretty good deficit and had a nice little battle in the end. I was very pleased with the way I drove and felt I did the best job I could.”
Mears finished third at Indy in 1983 and then secured his second Indy
500 win in 1984. On this occasion, the Penske team abandoned their own chassis early in the month of May in favor of chassis made by March, yet Mears was able to qualify on the outside of the front row and scored the easiest of his four Indianapolis wins, with a two-lap margin of victory.
“I think ’84 showed the depth of the team, switching over to the March three days before qualifying,” Mears said. “We took a car they had been working with for two years, set it on the front row and won the race with it. That showed the depth of the team and the organization.”
At Indianapolis in 1985 Mears was still recovering from severe foot injuries he suffered at Sanair Speedway in September 1984. He was back to his best in 1986, taking his third Indy pole, leading 76 laps and contending for the win before falling short by 1.881 seconds in the closest margin between first and third in Indianapolis history.
Rick failed to finish the 1987 race, but 1988 brought another classic Indy-winning performance. After nearly going a lap down to teammate Danny Sullivan in the first half of the race, pole man Mears dominated the second half, leading the last 78 laps.
A pole-winning effort in 1989 fell by the wayside with engine trouble, while Mears managed only fifth place in the 1990 ‘500,’ the fastest in the history of the great race.
Mears counts victory from the pole in 1991 as his favorite out of his four wins. He was passed on the outside in Turn 1 by Michael Andretti on a late restart, but he audaciously pulled the same move on Andretti a lap later and cruised to the checkered flag.
“The fourth win was the most significant to me, absolutely,” Mears said. “The first one was special because it was the first. But the fourth one…I never dreamed of winning one, let alone four. And as years go between each win, you realize the number of people who never got the opportunity to win it period. The odds are pretty slim of winning it more than once. And with each win the odds of doing it again are even slimmer. Plus you’re getting toward the end of your career and you don’t know how much longer you’re going to be running.
It all just means more as time goes on.
“Also, it was the 75th running of the race that year, qualifying on the pole after my first time I’d ever spun a car or touched the fence here, and then to have Mario Andretti and AJ Foyt - two of my heroes - on the front row with me. And then to win the race by having that shootout that you always plan for. I never went into a race without planning for that shootout, but that’s the only one of the four wins where it actually happened. That to me made it a much more satisfying win.”
For the second year in a row, Mears had a practice accident prior to the 1992 race, and he was also eliminated from the ‘500’ in a wreck.
At the end of the season, he surprised friends and team members by announcing his retirement at the Penske Christmas party. Mears has remained an active member of Team Penske ever since, serving as a driver coach/engineering consultant.
Mears achieved his four Indianapolis 500 wins in 14 years, fewer than
Foyt (20) or Al Unser (22). His six pole positions
(1979-82-86-88-89-91) are an Indianapolis record, as are his marks for front row starts (11) and consecutive front row starts (6). Mears led nine of his fifteen Indy starts for a total of 429 laps. In his Indy car racing career, he won 29 races under USAC and CART sanction as well as the 1979, ’81 and ’82 CART series championships.
Mears is perhaps more proud of his six Indianapolis poles than he is of his four wins.
“Qualifying at Indy is the pressure cooker of anything I’ve ever done,” he related. “The race is 500 miles to get it sorted. But qualifying is intense - that is, if you’re in the hunt. If you aren’t, you just go out there and put four laps in and get it done and put it in the show. But we’ve been fortunate over the years with good equipment and good cars and good people that we’ve kind of been in the hunt, and that puts the pressure on you.
“Now you’ve got to take advantage of it. You have to run four laps - not just the best of two. You’ve got four laps and there’s no doing it over. If you blow one corner, you’ve blown all four laps. So it’s figuring out what the tires are going to do for four laps, what the fuel load’s gonna do for four laps, and how to set the car to where it’s going to be the best average for four laps, and to get the most out of it without making a mistake. That’s the pressure cooker, but I loved it. It’s the most pressure but the most fun. In the race, you just see what you have and then dial it from there.”
Rick Mears was known as a gentleman on and off the race track. He never chopped, blocked or crashed a competitor, and he signed “Thanks” with every autograph. In short, he is not only one of the greatest drivers, but one of the greatest people in the history of the Indianapolis 500.