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Mears Broke Through Pain Barrier, Outdueled Andretti for Masterful Fourth Indy Win

Rick Mears’ fourth Indianapolis 500 victory in 1991 is well known as one of the most spectacular of the modern era, but it was also one of the “500’s” most rugged performances.

Mears was in severe pain from a broken foot suffered when he crashed due to a suspension failure near the end of the first week of practice. Mears and team owner Roger Penske kept the injury a secret from race officials, and despite intense pain, he was back in action again later the same day in his backup car.

“We came back from the hospital and had fractured a couple of bones,” Mears said. “We didn’t let it out because we didn’t want anybody to have an excuse to say we couldn’t run. We obviously wanted to get back on the track, but I couldn’t push on the throttle. It was killing me.”

Mears, Penske and the crew assembled inside the Penske garage around the backup car. They changed the springs and linkage on the throttle system to make the pedal as light as possible.

“I sat there and I still couldn’t push down on the throttle,” Mears said. “Roger said: ‘Come on! Let’s try it.’ I said: ‘Roger, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do this. But let’s go out there, and we’ll see.’ I stayed in the car in the garage, and we rolled it out into the pit lane. The car was working great and it was no problem to get up to speed, but I found out that it hurt most when I was moving my foot, either lifting it or pushing it back down.”

The following day was Pole Day and despite his broken foot, Mears did the job perfectly, setting a track record and qualifying on the pole at Indy for a record sixth time. A.J. Foyt qualified second for his 34th “500” and another legendary veteran, Mario Andretti, qualified third fastest. Comprising the second row was Bobby Rahal qualifying fourth, Michael Andretti fifth and Al Unser Jr. sixth.

At the start of the race, Mears took the lead, with the Andrettis in hot pursuit. For a few laps he looked good, but his car was understeering badly and he was passed first by Mario, then Michael. During the race’s first two pit stops, Mears and his crew adjusted the car’s setup, and by the race’s halfway point he had the car handling to his satisfaction. Things were looking good, but Mears’ biggest problem at this stage of the race was the searing pain in his right foot.

“It was like somebody sticking a hot knife in the side of my foot. The only time it wouldn’t hurt was when I held it wide open. Every time I’d lift, it was like somebody stabbing me.”

Mears discovered he could take the pressure off his broken foot if he put his left foot on top of his right foot. He could operate the throttle and reduce the pain by pulling back with his right leg and pushing down with his left foot, and that was the way he drove most of the race.

Despite his problems, Mears ran near the front all the way. His primary competition came from Penske teammate Emerson Fittipaldi and from Michael Andretti’s Newman/Haas Lola. Andretti was the man to beat that year, and at one point he punctured a tire while enjoying lead of half a lap. Late in the race, Fittipaldi dropped out with gearbox problems, so the ‘91 “500” had come down to a shootout between Mears and Andretti.

What looked like the race’s final restart took place with 14 laps to go. The lapped cars driven by Al Unser Jr. and Michael’s cousin John Andretti were directly ahead of Mears in the restart line, with Michael on his tail. Immediately after the starter waved the green flag again, Michael used the lapped cars to pass Mears in Turn 1. Mears went underneath John Andretti and Unser on the run into Turn 1, and Michael seized the lead by whistling around the outside of them in an impressive move that brought the fans in the Turn 1 grandstands to their feet.

“We went across the short chute, and he gave me a little bit of a chop,” Mears said. “I dropped back a little bit through Turn 2 and then I got back after it. From that point on, I didn’t lift again and I used my right foot only. But the adrenaline was so high I forgot about my foot hurting.”

Where Andretti had used the draft to help him pass Mears in the first turn, the same effect now helped Mears through the next lap. He ran flat out into and through Turns 3 and 4, all the while closing in on Andretti thanks to the draft and his precision driving. As the two cars dove into Turn 1 together at more than 230 mph, Mears went to the outside to pass Andretti.

“He was probably thinking the same as I was thinking the lap before,” Mears said. “He saw me coming. He knew I had a run on him and was going to go by him, so he figured he’d make me take the long way around. I thought he was watching which way I was going to go and if he saw me going to the high side he would then swing out to set up to go into the corner. To Michael’s credit, he could have very easily blocked me right there. But he didn’t, and I was glad he didn’t block me.”

Mears had built up plenty of momentum and was now flat out on the outside of the corner at a speed he’d never seen before.

“When you choose the outside, you’re wide open and you’re hitting the corner harder than you ever have,” Mears said. “You’re just kind of hoping you’re going to make it through to the other side. Luckily, Michael pulled down, because he had a little understeer in his car, as well. He pulled down and hooked the apron a little bit to get the front end to work, and that allowed me to pull down with him, which made my front end stick better.

“Had he stayed up and ran the high line all the way around, I would probably have had to lift a little bit. But with him pulling down, it enabled me to pull down a little bit and the tires were cool enough that I didn’t have to lift.”

Mears duplicated Michael’s move from the lap before, zooming around the outside to retake the lead with just 12 of 200 laps to go in one of the most memorable passes in the Indianapolis 500’s long history.

“You’re a little bit in unknown territory because of the draft and the speed, but now’s the time to do it,” Mears said. “You put it in there and you’re saying, ‘I’m going to do this and then I’m going to deal with whatever happens, but hopefully nothing’s going to happen!’ And the car stuck and I stayed wide open, and from that point on it was just a matter of getting through Turn 2 flat. I knew when I passed him in Turn 1 that if I could make it through Turn 2 without lifting, I’d have enough on him that he couldn’t draft back by me down the straightaway.”

Once Mears was in front, he pulled away. But then Mario Andretti’s engine blew up, bringing out another yellow, and the field closed up for what would be the race’s last restart with just six laps to go. Mears was sure he had a faster car than Michael, but he knew he had to keep him behind on the restart.

“I wasn’t too worried about it because I knew that if I could get the jump on Michael and get into Turn 1 first, we could stretch it on him again. The main thing was to not let him get a run on me. I never believed in brake-checking guys, but I kind of did a little bit there. I didn’t really brake-check him. I just didn’t speed up when he thought I was going to.”

Mears motored home cleanly, turning his fastest lap of the race on Lap 196 and beating Michael by 3.1 seconds. Mears says his fourth win at Indianapolis was his most satisfying for many reasons, not least because he’d come back from an accident and prevailed over the pain and impediment of a broken foot, but also because he got his car working better than ever when it most counted.

“It’s great if you can roll up your sleeves like we had to that day and make changes and not show your hand so the quick guy doesn’t work any harder on his car because he thinks he’s got everybody covered,” Mears said with a grin. “Don’t show your hand until after the last stop. Then he has no time to change it, and that’s what we did. When it came down to the end, there was a shootout, and we had the car to win the race. All that really made it satisfying.

“That was definitely the most special of my four wins at Indy. After hitting the fence for the first time at Indy and fracturing a bone in my foot and having to drive three-quarters of the race with my left foot on top of my right foot for the throttle, and then for it to come down to the end and playing your cards right, all these things made it a very satisfying win. We won the race at the end against the fastest car all day. He didn’t fall out. We did battle with him and beat him. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.”

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