e wasn’t intimidating like A.J. Foyt,
but he ran you just as hard and clean.
He wasn’t concerned about leading
every lap like Bobby Unser, just the last few.
He wasn’t overtly aggressive like Mario
Andretti, he just picked his spots.
He wasn’t balls-to-the-wall like Gordon
Johncock, just brave when it counted.
He didn’t make straight A grades in
school but, like Al Unser, his racing I.Q.
was off the chart.
Rick Mears drew on the best
characteristics of all those badasses, but
mixed in his own special style for success
to take his place alongside them.
And the story of how this unassuming
desert fox became a household name, a
four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500
and a part of racing royalty is one of the
most improbable and inspiring since the
wheel was invented.
“It still surprises me,” says Mears with a
grin, standing in the Indianapolis Motor
Speedway museum last winter as the
Team Penske 50th Anniversary exhibit
was unveiled. “I never dreamed of driving
an Indy car. And when I finally did, I was
out of my league. Then, after I started
racing them, Penske was out of my league.
“I was at the right place at the right
time. But it all happened so quickly.”
His rise rivals Dan Gurney going from a
sports car to a Formula 1 Ferrari in 25 races.
Mears basically went from a Super Vee, to
a few SCCA Formula 5000 starts, to an
eighth-place finish in the 1976 California
500 Indy car race in one year. In three
years he jumped from a desert buggy at
Ascot Park to the outside of the front row
at Indianapolis. And, just a couple of years
removed from racing in the Baja 1000,
he won the 1979 Indy 500 in just his 26th
Indy car start. All because he was a very
special talent – and because Bill Simpson
and Roger Penske had good instincts.
“One of my guys [Steve Richards] kept
hounding me to go watch this Mears kid,
so I finally did one day at Riverside, in a
Super Vee, and he was impressive,” says
Simpson, a pioneer of racing safety who
drove Indy cars from 1968-’ 77. “Then
I invited him to drive a Formula 5000 car
I was testing at Willow Springs and he was
quick. But what really got my attention
was his car control.”
Simpson offered the 26-year-old
native of Bakersfield, Calif., a 10-year-
contract and Mears signed it with the
hopes of possibly trying Indy cars some
day. A few days later he was headed for
the California 500 at Ontario Motor
Speedway to drive Simpson’s Eagle.
Now mind you, those were the days of
USAC where drivers usually had to run
Milwaukee, Phoenix or Trenton (or all three)
before being allowed to even take a rookie
test at Indianapolis. Mears had never sat
in an Indy car, let alone driven one.
“USAC pitched a bitch, so I had to
guarantee I’d cover any damage Rick
caused to other cars if he crashed,”
continues Simpson. “USAC gave Rick 10
laps by himself and he ran 188 mph, so
they agreed to let him race.”
California cool in and out of the car, Mears
qualified 20th of 33 and finished eighth.
“It was the perfect place and time,” he
reflects. “I had a week of practice and my
approach was that this was my first race,
so there were no expectations. I figured
I had to out-last people, run 500 miles
and learn, so that’s what I did.”
Mears ran the final two races of 1976
(finishing ninth at Texas and Phoenix), then
Simpson sold the Eagle to Art Sugai under
the condition he hired his new client to
drive it. The man who’d go on to conquer
The Brickyard didn’t even make a qualifying
attempt at Indy in ’ 77 because the car was
so bad, so Simpson sold one of his McLarens
to Teddy Yip, again with the understanding
Rick would be driving it. A fifth at Milwaukee
and sixth at Michigan got him noticed.
(BELOW) The field takes the green to start the ’ 91 Indy 500.
Brickyard royalty of (right to left) pole-sitter Rick Mears, A.J. Foyt
and Mario Andretti fills out the first row. It would be Mario’s son,
Michael, who Mears would duel with for his fourth and final win.
Rick Ravon Mears
was born in
Wichita, Kan., in
1951, but raised in
He became an
to track racing and
making his Indy car
debut in 1976.
FROM BAJA TO