IPS: IRL: Rick Mears' magic touch

IPS: IRL: Rick Mears' magic touch

Incredibly, it's been 25 years since Rick Mears notched his first Indianapolis 500 Mile Race victory en route to becoming one of only three four-time winners of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Practice session 2: Rick Mears. Photo by...

Incredibly, it's been 25 years since Rick Mears notched his first Indianapolis 500 Mile Race victory en route to becoming one of only three four-time winners of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

Practice session 2: Rick Mears.
Photo by Michael C. Johnson.
A Bakersfield, California native known for his technical prowess in adjusting a race car as much as for his innate skill behind the wheel, Rick Mears retains an active hand in the racing business with his dual jobs as driver coach for the Menards Infiniti Pro Series and his ongoing work with the only IndyCar Series team he ever drove for, Penske Racing.

"I still do a lot of what I always did even when I drove," Mears admitted, "because I always enjoyed the technical aspect of it. Working with the chassis, the setup of the car, working with my teammates, the other drivers and the engineers to help build a better mousetrap," he said.

"I still do a lot of that, and the promotional work with sponsors." The major difference is that he no longer sits in the cockpit of an IndyCar projectile. While he admits it doesn't always seem like 25 years have passed since his first Indy victory, "Sometimes when I wake up in the morning and try to get out of bed, it feels like 25 years," Mears laughed.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy 500 always have a special place in Rick Mears' heart. "This place, it's obviously special and always will be. It's our Super Bowl," Mears explained.

Like anyone who visits the Brickyard circuit, "Just the physical size of the place, the size of the track, all the grandstands, you know, even before all the people came in, always brings back the first time I came through the gates. I still definitely get that feeling" of the majesty of the physical plant.

While Rick never earned a diploma as a teacher, even when he drove for Roger Penske Mears had the reputation as a guy willing to assist new drivers. His current position with the Menards Infiniti Pro Series gives him the opportunity to assist young drivers as they contest the ladder series before moving up to Indy cars.

"When I signed on with Roger, I received a lot of help when I first started," from teammates Mario Andretti and Tom Sneva. "I really appreciated it and I've enjoyed trying to do the same with these guys. It's really a lot of fun to watch them grow, watch the wheels start turning when you're explaining things. You see them out on the track; try some of the suggestions you've made. You know," Mears explained, "if it's working with them, it's a lot of fun."

Rick Mears coaches true rookie Taylor Fletcher in his first Menards Infiniti Pro Series test.
Photo by Anne Proffit.
Working with young drivers, Mears meets many different sets of challenges. "Usually the common thread, probably the first thing and foremost for me is to emphasize patience, because this business is about going fast and going quick, as quickly as possible. That can be a detriment at times if it's not controlled or at the right time.

"Sometimes," he revealed, "You take bigger steps than you should. The main thing and the first thing is to use patience. There's no substitute for seat time, laps around a racetrack. Take your time and get up to speed, and it will come."

Rick Mears sees a lot of himself in new Marlboro Team Penske driver Sam Hornish Jr., who joined the squad late last season for the 2004 campaign. "One of the first things that really jumped out at me was he has a good understanding of the big picture. He realizes the race isn't won on the first lap. You've got to position yourself to be in the right spot at the right time at the end of the race to lead the last lap. That's the most important one," Professor Mears detailed.

The fact that Hornish always "looks ahead, he plans ahead, whether it be working traffic, looking ahead, trying to figure which way is the best way to go once you get there so things don't sneak up on him." Sam "just has a very good understanding of the big picture when the race is going on," Mears allowed.

The month of May hasn't been a time when two-time IndyCar Series champion Hornish managed to shine in his previous four appearances; his best finish was 14th with Panther Racing in 2001. One of the primary reasons Sam joined Marlboro Team Penske was to remedy that particular failure in his glorious career. Mears isn't about to push the issue as the team prepares for qualifying this weekend, particularly since Hornish is recovering from a spot of influenza.

"We'll talk more about it as time goes on here. Maybe [Hornish] hasn't had success here as in other places, but that can just be timing as it's worked out and not any particular reason," Mears said. "This business is ups and downs and peaks and valleys. You go through those things constantly.

"The main thing for him is that this is another race on another track and that he keeps it that way and no different," Rick allowed. "Every time we come to this race, I know myself, it wouldn't matter if we had won it once, twice, never, whatever. We come into this race and it's a new day. We've got to try to win this race today. That's part of the things that we'll be talking about."

Rick Mears.
Photo by indyracing.com/Ron McQueeney.
Team owner Roger Penske has 13 Indianapolis 500 victories on his resume but Mears believes The Captain tries, as Mears does to consider the month of May just another race. "He wants to win every race, just as we all do. That's the common thread through everybody in our team. We're all here to win the race, whatever race it is."

It's tough to consider Indy as one of 16 races that needs to be reduced to practice, qualifying and 200 laps around the historic 2.5-mile oval. "It's tough to do," Mears recognizes. "I guess maybe your focus becomes a little sharper, a little crisper. You try to dot your I's, cross your T's a little bit more. I don't know how to explain it."

The most recent American driver to win the Indy 500 was Eddie Cheever Jr. in 1998, but Mears understands that "we go through cycles, things change. I remember when I first started racing motorcycles, the Europeans in motocross were kicking the US [riders'] tails. By the time I got into cars, I remember watching some motocross racing, and it turned around after some years. Maybe the same thing will happen here?" he suggested.

Rick Mears retired at the height of his abilities and, most likely could have been the first five-time winner of the Indianapolis 500. Of course he has some regrets about failing to bring home that fifth victory, but Mears' focus of that remorse is for the team, not himself. "I knew how much the team would like to have had that fifth win. That was the hardest part of my decision because I felt like I was letting down the team by not going for the fifth win," the ever-gracious Mears stated.

"But then," he continued, "I would try to get realistic with myself and say if the desire's not there, I'm not going to put out the effort needed to get that fifth win anyway. That's not fair to the team either. All in all, it was the right time. I wanted to get out before I leveled off," he declared.

Whether Rick Mears left the driving arena before it was time for him to go, well, it's always easier to look back at what could have been. But one thing is certain about this sensitive, smart former driver, he casts a long shadow over the sport and commands respect wherever he goes and whatever he does. The sport of racing is better for his contributions and eager to accept his ever-increasing knowledge.

"You get distracted at times going through your career and don't realize how you touch people. It's a warm feeling," when people outside the open wheel arena recognize Mears' contributions. "It makes you realize the things that you've done in the past and how you've helped, it kind of puts things into perspective."

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About this article
Series IndyCar , Indy Lights
Drivers Eddie Cheever , Mario Andretti , Rick Mears , Tom Sneva , Taylor Fletcher , Roger Penske
Teams Panther Racing , Team Penske , Team Penske