Indy Racing League Weekly Teleconference Transcript Rick Mears and Jeff Simmons May 11, 2004 Rick Mears MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everyone. Activity at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is well underway as today marks the third day of practice...
Indy Racing League
Weekly Teleconference Transcript
Rick Mears and Jeff Simmons
May 11, 2004
MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everyone. Activity at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is well underway as today marks the third day of practice before the 88th running of the 500 on May 30th. We have two guests on today's call, one trying to do all he can to get into his first 500, the other a four-time champion of the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing." Joining us to start the call is Menards Infiniti Pro Series veteran Jeff Simmons. Later in the call we'll be joined by Rick Mears, whose first of four Indianapolis 500 victories came 25 years ago this month.
Notably, this May marks the 25-year anniversary of Rick Mears' first of four victories at the Indianapolis 500. I know you're busy working with the Pro Series, and also a consultant for Marlboro Team Penske. It's a busy month, so I appreciate it very much for joining us.
RICK MEARS: Thanks for having me.
Q: Can you talk about everything you're doing at IMS during the month here?
RICK MEARS: A little bit of everything. As you said, we're pulling double-duty. Working with the Menards Infiniti Pro Series guys, with our guys, too, the Marlboro team. I still do a lot of what I always did, even when I drove, 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, the engineers to help try to build a better mousetrap. I still do a lot of that, and the promotional work with the sponsors. Really about the main change is I no longer sit in the seat.
Q: Does it seem like 25 years ago you rolled into Victory Lane for the first time?
RICK MEARS: No, it sure doesn't. Sometimes when I wake up in the morning, try to get out of bed, it feels like 25 years. But it doesn't seem like it (laughter).
Q: When you come to this place each May, do you still get that lump in your throat when you drive underneath the tunnel, come into the infield? For many people that's the case. I imagine it's similar for you.
RICK MEARS: Yes, very much so. This place, it's obviously special, always will be. It's our Super Bowl. I think it always brings back the first time I came through the gates, like you're talking about. The first thing that jumped out at me was just the physical size of the place, the size of the track, all the grandstands, you know, even before all the people came in. I still definitely get that feeling.
Q: You've worked with the Pro Series drivers for a couple of years now. Can you talk about how much you've enjoyed working with them, helping develop their skills in the IndyCar Series.
RICK MEARS: I've enjoyed it a lot, I really have. I've always kind of had that reputation, when I was driving, when somebody new would come in, you know, their team owner or team manager would send them down, say, 'Go talk to Mears, he'll help you out.' I appreciated the help that I got when I started out from Parnelli Jones before I got into Indy cars, Bobby Unser from Pikes Peak. When I signed on with Roger (Penske), with Mario (Andretti) and Tom (Sneva). I received a lot of help when I first started. I really appreciated it. I've enjoyed trying to do the same with these guys. It's really a lot of fun to watch them grow, watch guys grow, watch the wheels start turning when you're explaining things, you see them go out on the track, try some of the suggestions you've made. You know, if it's working with them, it's a lot of fun.
Q: Could you talk a little bit about Sam Hornish, what you've noticed in particular since he's joined the Penske team as far as what makes him such a strong competitor in the IndyCar Series.
RICK MEARS: I think 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. He really has a very good understanding of that. He 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. He just has a very good understanding of the big picture when the race is going on.
Q: Have you talked much as far as strategies or game plans leading up to qualifying and for the race itself? It seems like Indy is the one place where he hasn't had much success compared to the other tracks in the series.
RICK MEARS: We haven't done a lot of it yet. We will. Right now we're just kind of working with the car. Really, it's only the second day. We're just kind of figuring out where we're at, you know, in comparison with everybody else right now, leading towards those days you're talking about. But we will talk more about it as time goes on here. You know, 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. This business is ups and downs and peaks and valleys. You go through those things constantly. We're going to talk a lot more about it as time goes on here. The main thing for him is that this is another race on another track and that he keeps it that way and no different. Last year was last year. Year before last was year before last. 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, 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.
Q: You talked about this being another race, but I don't think Roger (Penske) approaches it that way over these years, given all the success there. Has it always been for him, 'This is the race we must excel at, above all others?'
RICK MEARS: I don't know. He wants to win every race, just as we all do. That's the common thread through everybody in our team, is we're all here to win the race, whatever race it is. I think this race excites him a little bit more than others, without a doubt. But, you know, I don't think -- it's nothing out of the ordinary. It's kind of the same game plan. Not that we don't focus on the others. 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. We try to do the same job here as we do everywhere, but this is Indy. We all do get a little more excited. That's why I say from a driver's point of view, driving the car, you know, you try to keep it -- you try to act like it's not Indy when you're out there so you don't get excited, but it's tough to do.
Q: I don't think you ever had any wrecks there at Indy until after your fourth win. What was special about that place for you? Was it just your style or did you adapt to it? What made you so great there?
RICK MEARS: Well, first of all, I was with the right team, had the right equipment, had the tools to be able to do the job. Secondly, I think it did kind of suit my natural driving style. I found out over the years that it did seem like the faster the corner, the faster the track, the more it suited my natural style. When I'd go to, say, a street course versus a permanent circuit on road courses, the faster permanent circuit, I seemed to be a little bit better on than I did the tight, twisty street circuit. There I had to learn more, where the higher-speed stuff like the speedways came naturally for me. That was a big plus. Again, having the right tools to be able to get the job done here was really key.
Q: I know it seems like 25 years has been a blink of an eye for you in the winner's circle, but does it seem like six years since an American has been in Victory Lane at Indianapolis?
RICK MEARS: Yes, it does, when you think about it. I never really think about it. I know from a driver's standpoint, from my point of view, I didn't know the difference when I was on the racetrack. It didn't matter. I just wanted to beat the best, whoever the best was, that's who I wanted to compete against, however that worked out. I didn't really think about it in those terms. But, yes, I agree with you. When you do think about it, it has been a long time. But, you know, we go through cycles, things change. I remember when I first started racing motorcycles, the Europeans in motocross were kicking the U.S.'s tails. By the time I got into cars, I remember watching some of the motocross racing, and it turned around after some years. Maybe the same thing will happen here.
Q: There's another Bakersfield native son, Brad Pollard. Seems like a long way, but what is it about Bakersfield that it has had some remarkable success?
RICK MEARS: I think Bakersfield has always been an automotive-related town. I know growing up there, you're close to L.A. We'd get into L.A. on business or fun, and L.A. was the hot rod capital. I think it would spill over into Bakersfield. We always had racetracks there in town. It just seemed to be kind of a natural thing to do in Bakersfield. I think it just kind of created more opportunities, you know, with more people maybe to come from there.
Q: I know you seem to get a lot of enjoyment out of working with the young drivers. Do you have any advice that you give all of them or maybe some of them have certain problems that others don't? What are some of the problems they seem to have?
RICK MEARS: Well, everybody's different. Some struggle with different things than others. I think usually the common thread, probably the first thing and foremost for me is to emphasize patience, you know, because this business is about going fast and going quick, as quickly as possible. It's the nature of the business. That can be a detriment at times if it's not controlled or at the right time. Usually, you're young, you're eager, you're ready to go, you want to make an impression, and you try to do it. Sometimes you take bigger steps than you should. Probably the main thing and the first thing is to use patience. There's no substitute for seat time, laps around a racetrack. You know, take your time and get up to speed, and it will come. A lot of times, with the impatience of the drivers, you want things to happen quickly, and we feel like we should be moving along faster than we are, but actually, there is no substitute for track time. So I think that's probably the thing that I work with them most on, just patience, take your time, things will happen, and you learn things as you go on.
Q: You're always good at the pole. Sam Hornish seems like maybe he doesn't get the pole too often. Are you working with him a little bit?
RICK MEARS: Part of that is hopefully we can give him the right horse to get that job done. He doesn't have any trouble going fast, believe me. It's a matter of us getting the car tuned properly, helping him -- when it comes down to qualifying, you're really splitting hairs, so to speak. It's very easy to miss it just by a little bit. What is just a fraction of a second may look like a lot, so it's tough. But that's part of what we're working on now leading up to qualifying, is trying to get the balance of the car the way he likes it, just give him the best horse we can give him. Hopefully, if we do give him the right one, he will be able to get that done.
Q: Which of your four victories gives you the most satisfaction 25 years later?
RICK MEARS: Definitely the fourth. I never really dreamed of coming here, let alone driving, let alone winning. This was way out of my league. I was racing just for a hobby and for fun on the weekend. It took its own course. I guess to put it bluntly, I probably really didn't appreciate it the first year that I won it in '79 because I didn't realize how tough it was. It was only our second year here. I hadn't been around the Speedway growing up, my family hadn't been, so I didn't really understand it. Then as time went on and we ran a few more years, struggled, didn't win it again, it's like you get a little older, you get a little wiser. You start looking around, and you say, 'Wow, not too many people have won this thing once, let alone more than once.' The odds are getting greater of not winning it again. When we won a second time, I appreciated it much more, understood much more what winning Indy meant. Then now, OK, we've won it twice. You look around, there's even fewer two-time winners, so the odds are getting greater again. The same thing occurred with the third time. The fourth time was unbelievable for me. But the real difference on the fourth one was how we won it, which made it more satisfying. We went in with our same game plan we did every year, and that's spending the first half getting to the second half, trying to position ourselves, the guys making the changes on the car during the stop to get the car at its best after the last stop and be prepared for the shootout, if it occurred. Well, out of the four wins, that only occurred one time. It boiled down to Michael (Andretti) and I. He was the fastest guy all day long. After the last stop, OK, now it's time to go. He was still in the hunt. There's been years when I struggled or had problems and wasn't there. So that is the only one that it boiled down to the shootout. That's what is fun. That's what it's all about. We got to have that shootout. So the battle he and I had, to be able to win it, it made the fourth one a lot more satisfying.
Q: You chose to retire at the height of your career. You probably could have been the first five-time Indy 500 winner. Do you think back with any kind of second-guessing on that decision?
RICK MEARS: Yes and no. You always think about it from time to time - not so much now. If I was realistic about it, thinking about it, it was the right time. It was the hardest part of my decision mainly because I felt like I was letting the team down. All four of (my wins) had been with the Penske team. 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. But then, 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. If you're not willing to put your best foot forward and go the extra mile to make it happen, it's not fair to them that are going the extra mile to give you the best horse. All in all, it was the right time. In this business, if you aren't gaining--I never run a perfect lap, there's always something to be gained somewhere. If you aren't looking for that and trying to do that, you're levelling off. If you've levelled off, you're actually going backwards. Guys are passing you. I didn't want to do that. I wanted to get out before I levelled off.
Q: Could you compare and contrast Helio and Sam, what it's like to work with each one of those drivers?
RICK MEARS: As far as working with them and with the car, there's not a lot of difference. As far as personalities, they're different, totally different. Helio wears his feelings on his shirt sleeve much more than Sam does. They're really almost opposites in personalities. But in the race car, they're identical as far as desire and what they're here to do. One is just as competitive as the other. But as far as teammates go, even as different as they are, they both work well together because they understand the advantage of working together as a team, how it will help each one of them to try to get an advantage over everybody else. So they understand that, and they work very well together. But when the green flag drops, they also compete against each other as hard as anybody else. They both realize that your teammate is usually your biggest competitor, and that's who you want to beat the most. Working with them on a driving basis and with the race car, they're very similar.
Q: Knowing the type of person and gentleman that Gil de Ferran is, how he persevered over the accident in Phoenix, how meaningful to the company was it to have him drinking the milk in Victory Lane last year?
RICK MEARS: It was fantastic. It was great for everybody. I was so excited for him. You know, just the team, for everything you said, the persevering through the accident at Phoenix, missing a race, struggling a little bit there. To be able to turn it around and accomplish what he had been able to do, trying to accomplish for a lot of years, one of his major goals in life. It was just a fantastic feeling all the way around for everybody.
Q: Last year at the Brickyard, Kevin Harvick, a Bakersfield native son, talked about how he still has the framed picture of the autograph you gave him. I talked to Jeff Gordon. He told me about when you came to the fence and autographed a hat or program. When you hear these stories of guys who aren't typically associated with open-wheel racing, how do you react? Does it give you a sense of your own place in history?
RICK MEARS: It really does. It's just a really warm feeling, it really is. That's what I think a lot of people don't realize at times. You get distracted at times going through your career, and you don't realize how you touch people throughout your career. When those things come up like that, it makes you realize the things that you've done in the past and how you've helped, whether you've done enough it or whether you should have done more. It kind of puts things into perspective for you. It is a very warm feeling to hear things from guys like that. It's a great compliment.