IRL: Rick Mears has no regrets after great career at Indy

INDIANAPOLIS, Tuesday, May 9, 2000 -- Rick Mears could have become the only five-time winner of the Indianapolis 500. It was hanging out there like a golden carrot after he earned his fourth Indy victory in 1991 at age 39 to match...

INDIANAPOLIS, Tuesday, May 9, 2000 -- Rick Mears could have become the only five-time winner of the Indianapolis 500. It was hanging out there like a golden carrot after he earned his fourth Indy victory in 1991 at age 39 to match the feat accomplished only by A.J. Foyt and Al Unser. Foyt was 42 when he became the first four-time champion in 1977 and Unser 47 when he picked up No. 4 in 1987. But it never happened for Mears. He had lost his drive ... not literally, but emotionally. "It wasn't so sudden on my part," Mears said about the stunning retirement announcement he made at the annual Team Penske Christmas party in early December 1992. "I had been thinking about it for a couple years. My desire was starting to go away." Still, Mears departed as one of the most dominant drivers in the history of the Indianapolis 500. He started on the front row a record 11 times, had a second-place finish and two thirds to go with his four victories and led 429 laps. He drove his entire Indy career for car owner Roger Penske. On Wednesday, May 17, Mears will be saluted as one of the Legends of the Speedway. He will return to the wheel of the Gould Charge that he drove to his first victory in 1979. His other victories came in 1984, 1988 and 1991. "I'm excited about it," said Mears, whose wife Chris will accompany him to Indianapolis from their home in Jupiter, Fla. "Indianapolis had been a home away from home in May for 15 years. It'll bring back a lot of old memories." In 1992, Mears felt stronger about retiring and expressed his thoughts to his wife, brother Roger and his father. Finally, he talked it over with Penske and was relieved when Penske told him he could remain with the team no matter what the decision was. "That's what I wanted to do," he said. "I love the sport. It took some of the pressure off. He asked me if I wanted five 500 victories. I said, 'No, I 'm ready to get out now.' It was quite a shock to everybody." That December night, a few days after his 41st birthday, he stood at the microphone and anguished through his announcement. He said it was the toughest thing he'd ever done, but by the time he returned to his table and sat down he knew it was the right decision. "I felt a big load had been lifted from my shoulders," he said. "I didn't let the record dictate my decision. When I was on the track I ran as hard as I could. I didn't do that for a record, I did it because I wanted to sit on the pole. "The hardest part was telling the team I wasn't going back for a fifth. I felt I let them down." Mears, Kansas-born but reared in Bakersfield, Calif., always said he never dreamed of going to Indy. Then when he won so quickly - in his second race - he didn't appreciate what it meant. That's why he said the fourth victory, in 1991, was most satisfying. Also, what made that one particularly special was his 220-mph duel with Michael Andretti in the closing laps. "It was a textbook race," he said. "We worked with the car and kept a little up our sleeve. Then we did get in a good shootout with Michael. It was fun. It's what racing is all about. It's why you do it. It has nothing to do with speed, it's the battle." Andretti flew around the outside of Mears in Turn 1 on a late restart. Mears said he then set up Andretti perfectly to do the same thing on the next lap because his tires still were cool enough from the caution period. Then it was flat out the rest of the way around for the win by 3.149 seconds over Andretti. Commenting on his career, Mears said he was most proud of his consistency, proving that he was not a flash in the pan. "One of the records I'm proudest of was the number of times I started up front," he said. "It meant we were a contender. It showed the strength of the team. They put a strong horse under me, and I tried to keep an even keel." Just for the record: Mears started on the pole a record six times, second once and third four times. Not bad for a guy who started racing in the dirt as an off-road racer.

IRL/IMS

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Rick Mears , Roger Penske , A.J. Foyt , Al Unser
Teams Team Penske