Rick Mears – still the ultimate pro at 65

For all race fans in the 30-70+ age range, it’s time to get nostalgic because one of the greatest Indy car drivers of all time turned 65 today. David Malsher – and more importantly, Roger Penske – pay tribute.

Over the past 20-something years writing about racing, I’ve encountered three people from whom I learn something about the art of racecar driving every time we speak for longer than five minutes. One of that trio is Rick Ravon Mears, born this day 65 years ago in Wichita, Kansas, and brought up in Bakersfield, Calif.

As a writer whose engineering knowledge is at the primitive end of the scale, I’ve always sought to compensate for not knowing why something works by instead learning what effect it has on a racecar’s handling, how it affects the driver, and then its knock-on effects. And in order to convey to this reader, I often end up quoting Mears verbatim because he explains it so damn well; it’s like having Van Gogh telling you how to paint, or Nat King Cole teaching you how to sing.

There are also several times a year where I can entice drivers to explain in real detail the handling traits of their cars – and I know the right questions to ask because of knowledge I’ve acquired from Rick.

So he would be valuable to any racing journalist even if he had been an average driver who possessed eloquence and technical understanding. But this is Rick Mears – four-time Indy 500 winner, three-time Indy car series champion, winner of 29 Indy car races and 40 pole positions. The man knows whereof he speaks.

I sometimes ponder what figures he might have racked up if Indy cars in his 1976-’92 era had been as reliable as they are today, or if there had been as many races per season in the early ’80s as there are now, or if he had gotten his butt into a Penske before the age of 26. But most of the time I’m just grateful that the most successful Indy car owner of all time saw something special in that guy who racked up seven top-10 finishes in his first 13 IndyCar races while driving aged Eagles and McLarens for Bill Simpson, Art Sugai and Teddy Yip.

“Mears is a special person,” said Roger Penske when he spoke to Motorsport.com earlier this week. “I got to know him personally while we were on a motorbike ride, Wally Dallenbach’s Colorado 500. As you know, at the time Mario Andretti was racing in Formula 1 full-time so could only race part-time for us in Indy cars in 1978. So I had a part-time seat available, and asked Rick if he’d be interested.

“We arranged to meet at Michigan International Speedway, which we owned at that time, and he was knocking on the door at 6 o’clock the next morning, so I knew he was passionate about joining our team.

“Probably more important was that I could see he already had this great feel for racing a car. His early days of off-road racing had given him a sensitivity to what a car was doing, and it showed through right from the start of his IndyCar career. And then of course he was a team player, too. There was no drama about Rick. He used to say to me, ‘I’ll put the numbers on the board, I don’t need a press release about it.’ And he certainly did that…”

He remains that modest way too; not for Mears the cliché about, ‘The older I get, the faster I was.’ He curses his bad memory for his own statistics, but I find it endearing that he forgets how good he was. “I won Phoenix more than once, right?” he’ll say. Yeah, Rick, three times – and you had six poles there. “I did? That’s good; I enjoyed that track.”

Stats can be found in print or online, though; Mears is instead a goldmine for his great sense of recall about the art of racing. He was one of those drivers whose brain was way ahead of his car, and was therefore able to make consistently smart decisions because his mind wasn’t running at full capacity, even while lapping at 230mph. And that also meant he was constantly registering and memorizing his car’s behavior. It's those memories that remain to this day.

“That PC10 [Penske’s 1982 beauty, designed by Geoff Ferris] was the car where I’d say we had a decent advantage over the others on most tracks,” he remarked once, as we discussed the curse of racecars with too much downforce. “But you know, once ground effects were outlawed for ’83, we had to reconfigure it.

“Driving that car for the first time after we took its skirts off and went to a flat bottom, it was terrible! And that wasn’t because it was a bad design. It’s just that the downforce from ground effect had overcome every other aspect of engineering. We hadn’t needed to work on any other area of the car because it was so fast as it was. We coulda had the wheels pointing four different ways, and it wouldn’t have mattered!”

Didn’t driving those cars that were numb from excess downforce frustrate someone who relied on feel and brains, not just bravery?

“Well, you’re right – those cars didn’t communicate as well as the flat-bottomed cars. But you move with the times; you learn to refine your feel. You turn up the sensitivity, so you know that this small movement that you feel through your backside means you’ve reached the limit of the right-rear tire and so if you carry on at that speed you’re going to burn it off too quick. That’s fine if you’re on a qualifying run, but in a race you need to step back from that limit, or find a new way to keep up that same speed, by taking a new arc into the corner, or whatever.”

And the stats bear him out; he refined that feel. Sure, Penske’s PC10 was the best car of ’82, but when the team qualified 1-2 at that year’s Indy 500, Rick’s pole-winning average over the four lap run was a full 3mph clear of teammate Kevin Cogan.

“Rick was fabulous at working with the engineers,” recalls Penske, “and he recognized it was important to have those development skills, because getting the car just right was becoming more significant as the competition got stronger. Knowing how the car worked and pushing its limits was going to be the difference between winning and finishing second."

For his first three full IndyCar seasons, Mears was partnered with the brilliant Bobby Unser, a man who defied age by being as quick in his mid-40s as he had been in his so-called prime. At this crucial time of Indy car development, the infancy of ground effect, Penske was truly blessed in having two aces who were always seeking to delve into the technical aspects of the cars.

“Bobby had his own ideas about cars and about setups,” smiles Penske, “but I think as the much younger guy, Rick was more open-minded in terms of putting his trust in the engineers by trying something radical, going out and putting himself on the edge and then coming back and describing it. There’s no question that part of the success of our cars from the PC-6 onward was the work Rick put in and the great feedback he gave.”

As well as the four wins at Indy (1979, ’84, ’88 and ’91), an accolade he shares with A.J. Foyt and Al Unser, Mears has six poles at IMS, an outright record that is his alone. Yet it took Susan Bradshaw-Crowther, longtime PR lady for Penske/Marlboro, to point out to Mears a few years ago that he started from the front row 11 of the 15 times he raced in the ‘500’.

“That’s one of those things I am proud of,” he admitted, “because like I always said, those four laps of qualifying at the Speedway were the hardest laps you had to string together in a season. So that stat, to me, means we were doing our job right because we were really in the fight for a decent percentage of our time there. I like that one.”

And that, believe it or not, is the closest thing to egotism you’re ever going to hear from Mears. He is one of the most secure people I know, utterly devoid of braggadocio, and generous in complimenting his rivals, even ones whose racing philosophy doesn’t always tally with his own.

Speaking of the driver he so memorably beat to his last Indy victory, Mears said: “When Michael Andretti retired with… how many race wins? Forty-two? I remember being asked something along the lines of, ‘Does the fact that Michael never won the Indy 500 lessen his status in your eyes?’ …To my mind, Michael is one of the best there’s ever been and the fact it never came right for him at Indy doesn’t change that an ounce.”

And then there’s Rick’s quiet reflection on the 1982 Indy 500, a race he lost to Gordon Johncock by just 0.16sec. Johncock, of course, had won Indy before, but he and Pat Patrick’s team never got to celebrate their 1973 triumph. In arguably the most gut-wrenchingly grim Month of May in Indy’s checkered history, Johncock’s teammate Swede Savage was fearfully burned in a huge shunt and later died in hospital.

“Even as I was hunting Gordy down over those last laps in ’82, I was as determined to win as ever – that’s instinct, right? – but I thought, ‘If I’m going to lose this to anyone, I’m glad it’s him.’ And honestly I still feel that way; if it couldn’t be a Penske in Victory Lane that day, I’m happy it was Gordy because of how his other win played out.”

As a low-maintenance high-achiever with a generous spirit, Mears is perhaps without equal.

“He’s the ultimate team player,” states Penske. “One of the clearest memories I have about his racing days is in 1992. We sat down for a sandwich at Elkhart Lake – he was out injured at that time, with a broken wrist. He said to me: ‘You know, I just can’t dig deep enough any more. It’s time for you to get a young guy to take my place.’

“He gave us that heads-up. This was the middle of the season, so we had enough time to look at all options. So Rick was a pro from the standpoint of thinking about the good of the team, a pro in getting results – and a pro in how to behave. I don’t think anyone in the garage or pitlane would have a bad thing to say about him, on or off the track.”

Little wonder then, that Mears is Penske’s longest-serving employee, having been at the team for almost 40 years.

“He’s remained very valuable to our IndyCar team ever since he hung up his helmet,” Penske states. “I think he’s an incredible asset we have in terms of his knowledge. He understands the racetracks, he relates to the drivers, he understands what they’re trying to say about the cars.

“So he’s been a great person to have around all that time, not only because he’s a terrific guy but because he has that knowledge, and the time and patience and willingness to share it with all the drivers that have passed through our team.”

Ask Mears how he’s kept himself relevant and helpful to Penske’s drivers almost a quarter-century after he announced his retirement at the team’s Christmas dinner, and he says: “Because I went straight from driving into that advisory role, and stayed on it. So I’ve kept up to date. I know what the cars are doing, what the tires are doing, what the track surfaces are like, and so on, because I listen to the current guys. And I like doing that; I still find it very interesting. And I like being spotter for Helio [Castroneves].

“Plus,” he grins, “I can still relate to what they're saying, because obviously some things don’t change. You know, speed and physics are the same as they were in my day!”

One thing that has changed is the number of ovals on the IndyCar schedule, but it annoys me that some people regard Mears as an oval specialist, in the manner of, say, Ed Carpenter. In his first three roadcourse events in an Indy car, Mears racked up two second places and a win. In 1981, he triumphed at all three road courses on the schedule (Riverside, Watkins Glen and Mexico City); and in fact, seven of his 29 career victories came on tracks that demand right and left turns.

Of course, his huge shunt at the Sanair oval in 1984 that absolutely pulped his feet and ankles would forever hurt his progress on tracks that demanded heavy braking. But road/street layouts with fast turns that required smooth inputs and perfect judgment brought Rick’s skills to the fore, so that over his final three seasons, he was able to take pole positions at Laguna Seca, Cleveland and even Meadowlands.

“I think Rick was very versatile and had terrific car control,” agrees Penske, “and again I think that comes back to his off-road skills. Remember, he had a Formula 1 test with Brabham and was very quick. Obviously the Sanair shunt made it more difficult for him but he had all the basic skill sets there, and he won several road races.

“But the fact he won the Indy 500 four times was always going to overshadow everything else he achieved!”

There are another couple of Mears’ stats I like, because they reveal a somewhat overlooked aspect to his personality. That Sanair crash literally left him one doctor’s decision away from becoming a double amputee. But however grateful, affable and good-hearted he is, never ever doubt that Rick has the same steel core that marks out the greats like Parnelli Jones, Foyt and Mario Andretti.

In his very restricted schedule for 1985, barely hobbling from his car to a little motor-tricycle, Mears was in far more pain than he let on. Yet his second race back in the fray, he finished third at Milwaukee and at his next two races, he took pole for both and won Michigan. And the following year – still running only a partial schedule – he took pole at Sanair, thereby conquering the track that had almost conquered him. That, right there, is mind over matter.

These days, Mears’ influence within Penske is not restricted to discussing or advising on driving technique. Nor is he restricted to commenting on team matters. Just as he'll praise Castroneves and Will Power (or be honest when they screw up), he's always shown great respect toward aces from rival teams, such as Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon. He is the ultimate objective observer.

So perhaps it's no surprise that he can also serve as every driver's template for how to behave with composure and without extremes – no exultancy in triumph, no despair in defeat. Penske himself says ’twas always thus with Mears. 

“You never saw Rick out of control even as a driver,” says The Captain. “He’s the perfect example of what we try to breed within the team, whether it’s a driver, a chief mechanic, a race engineer or a pit crew member – they all know how to represent our team, our brand, if you will, and those of our partners.

“Our focus is on being competitive racers who put big numbers on the board, but also in being ultimate professionals. And Rick is a professor in all those subjects.”

Coming from Penske, that is the ultimate compliment and leaves me nothing more to add, other than ‘Happy 65th, Rick… and thank you.’

Be part of something big

Write a comment
Show comments
About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Rick Mears
Teams Team Penske
Article type Special feature