THE DESERT FOX WHO CONQUERED INDY
it better and better as the race wore on,”
says Derrick Walker, Penske’s team manager
for three of those four wins. “He didn’t run
flat out all the time, but he always knew
when to run hard and when to play it smart.”
Mears smiles when he thinks about
some of things he used to hear.
“A lot of people have no idea I drove
for someone else besides Penske; they
think I was born with a silver spoon, and
some people thought I bought the ride.
When I’d win Indy I’d hear, ‘Mears backed
into another one’ a lot, but I guess the
way I drove helped fuel that.
“I didn’t have to lead – although my
ego wanted to – because my goal was to
always be there at the end, ready for a
shootout. It only happened once ,
but that’s what I was always geared for.”
And that record-equaling fourth
Indy 500 win is the quintessential Mears.
Despite dancing on the ragged edge
every May, he didn’t hit the wall, or even
spin, at Indianapolis until 1991, when his
suspension failed going into Turn 1 during
practice. The resulting impact broke his right
foot (although only his crew knew), but not
his spirit as he bounced back to win a
record sixth pole the next day. And what he
did in the race further enhanced his legacy.
He learned that running flat out
lessened the persistent pain in his throttle
foot, and putting his left foot on top of his
right to hold it down worked best. For
most of the afternoon Mears seemed to
be a pawn in Michael Andretti’s dominant
day, until their memorable duel for the
lead on Laps 187 and 188.
“That’s the fun part of racing; figuring
out how to make your car better, not
showing your hand until the end and
finding your best set up,” says Mears,
25 years after besting Andretti. “The most
satisfying wins are the ones you earn.”
Earning a record six poles at Indy was
another mindset he mastered.
“I learned to be smooth in those dirt
buggies, so that became part of my
natural driving style, and I also think fast
corners suit my approach,” he reasons.
“Plus, the speed didn’t bother me.”
He didn’t bother with a farewell tour
either – telling his team at the 1992
Penske Christmas party he was quitting.
“At Indy that year, I walked into our
garage one morning and asked my guys,
‘OK, where are we at?’ instead of knowing.
I hadn’t taken it home with me the night
before like I always did, so that was an
indicator. What got me here was a love of
driving, but I felt my desire starting to slip,
and it wasn’t fair to the team. So it was time.”
Mears walked away on his own terms
and still on top – two rarities in racing.
“Rick is such a good person, so respected
by everyone, and the most understated
four-time winner in the business,” says
Penske. “I don’t think he had any enemies
either, and that’s unheard of in this sport.”
Much like his ascension.
Because the kid with dirt behind his
ears in 1976 had no designs on the
Indianapolis Motor Speedway, yet became
part of its fabric – forever.
(ABOVE) For 15
winner and six-time
Mears was the
benchmark at the
retirement at the end
of 1992, Mears (LEFT
with three-time Indy
500 winner Helio
with Team Penske as
a driver mentor.
“When I’d win Indy I’d hear,
‘Mears backed into another
one’ a lot, but I guess the
way I drove helped fuel that”