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The little-known 'comeback' of a Penske Indy 500 legend

When Rick Mears chose to retire in 1992, he stuck to his decision. But almost 25 years on, the four-time Indianapolis 500 winner had a chance to prove that while form is temporary, class is permanent

Rick Mears, Penske

Rick Mears, Penske

David Hutson / Motorsport Images

Rick Mears announced his retirement in speech at the Team Penske dinner in December 1992, one week after he turned 40. It came at the end of an unusually torrid year for the man who had only the previous season cemented his status at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with a memorable triumph over Michael Andretti to join A.J. Foyt and Al Unser Sr as a four-time Indy 500 winner. 

But his 1992 season, aside from a runner-up finish at the season-opening race at Surfers Paradise, had been a washout for Mears. He broke a bone in his foot and sprained his wrist in a huge accident practicing for the 500, after a loose hose sprayed a rear tyre with coolant. Come the race, he got caught up in someone else’s shunt which further damaged the bones and ligaments in his wrist, obliging him to wear a brace.

And there would be only four more races for Mears that summer, as he realised his wrist was deteriorating rather than healing without proper rest from the task of hauling an Indy car around street, road and oval tracks. At Michigan, when his car broke loose, Mears was alarmed to find the brace didn’t allow him to make the quick movements required to tame the snap oversteer. He wisely parked, and the increasing thoughts of retirement that he’d noticed since May suddenly took more recognisable form, even before undergoing wrist surgery.

That Michigan event would prove to be his last ever race but aside from consultation with his closest confidants - then wife Chris, his brother Roger, and Roger Penske - he had said nothing to anyone within the team or in the CART Indy car paddock that it was over.

Then on 10 December, he broke the news.

“I'm not gonna beat around the bush tonight,” he said. “I have a little announcement to make and I'm gonna get right to the point. We did have an up and down year at Indy this year, and for all of you that watched the race, it was my last one there.”

There was a subdued murmur of surprise in the room, and Mears’ voice was already started to waver with emotion as he continued: “As far as tonight goes, I’m officially retired.”

Penske was among the first to know of Mears' decision to stop

Penske was among the first to know of Mears' decision to stop

Photo by: Bill Murenbeeld / Motorsport Images

Mears paused to regroup, then went on: “This is the toughest decision I've ever made in my life, and the main reason it's this tough is because of the family that I've had: you guys have just been tremendous.

“But after Indy, you know, I had a lot of time to think about it. And you’ve just got to weigh the facts and make the right decisions at the right time. And I weighed the facts for a long time and nobody really knew about it; Chris didn't know about it for quite some time because I did not want to make a decision and rush into something that I didn't feel comfortable with down the road. So I took my time before I even mentioned to Chris my feelings, and it was really quite some time till just recently I even spoke with Roger about it.

“And there comes a time when it just isn’t right. The way I feel about it is, when you wake up in the morning and the fire’s not lit and you aren't really 100 percent to jump in that car, you shouldn't be there. It's not fair, mainly to you guys: I see the effort that everybody puts out. If my heart's not in it, then you know it's not right for you guys, it's not right for the sponsors, it's not right for everybody. You end up getting yourself into situations that you shouldn’t, if you aren’t 100 percent, because you aren’t paying attention. You aren’t making the right moves at the right time, and that’s not good.

"I think to myself, 'Oh no, this is where I’m probably gonna get in, go slow and then get out of the car screaming for more downforce! I’m gonna be one of those guys'" Rick Mears

“So believe me, this has been a tough one. And you know, I am still going to be involved. We've talked about it and definitely I wanted to keep that – to be involved with the team. Next year I'm coming to all the races and I want to help all I can with the drivers, and anybody else however I can help, because I enjoy the sport. That was one of the things that helped make the decision: when I had to miss some races this year and I'm sitting there watching, I was actually enjoying it, watching and helping where I could.

“Which is just another indicator that the desire wasn't there, and again, if the desire isn’t there, you’re not going to do the job that needs to be done. And so I felt I needed to make a decision that was right for everybody – that was right for the team, and myself and family, too.

“There’s a lot of things I want to say – I have a list that long in my pocket – but I can't even get it out. It's just a tough one. So I just want to say thank you to everybody. It's great and we’ve got some more years coming.”

There followed a heartfelt standing ovation from the team which he continues to represent today. Although there was a flicker of doubt, one day at Phoenix in 1993, when Mears pondered getting back in an IndyCar, he stuck to his decision never to race again.

Will Power is one of many IndyCar aces to have benefited from Mears' wise counsel.

Will Power is one of many IndyCar aces to have benefited from Mears' wise counsel.

Photo by: Steve Shunck / BorgWarner

“The track had just been repaved, the temperature was just right, our cars that year were good,” he told Autosport a few years ago. “I just knew it would be the perfect time to lay down a really strong new track record. And then one of our guys – I forget which one – hit the wall with a heck of a thump, one of those big accidents where there’s debris spread through the turn, along the next straight and what’s left of the tub is at the next turn. And I thought, ‘You know what? I’m the right side of the wall…’”

And so Mears has remained as driver adviser, coaching and being a sounding board for the likes of Emerson Fittipaldi, Paul Tracy, Al Unser Jr, Gil de Ferran, Helio Castroneves (for whom he was also a spotter), Sam Hornish Jr., Ryan Briscoe, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud, Juan Pablo Montoya, Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin.

But while he hasn’t been racing, Mears has gotten back into an IndyCar cockpit again – to be precise, the one at Chevrolet’s driver-in-loop simulator, when he was 64 years old. The opportunity came in May 2017, at a time when Newgarden had replaced Montoya in Penske’s full-time line-up alongside Power, Castroneves and Pagenaud, but two-time Indy winner Montoya was about to run in a fifth Penske entry at the 500.

“Ron Ruzewski [Penske team manager] had told me to come out to the sim some time, maybe get in for a few laps,” Mears recalls. “And this time I was in town, Juan was only going to do half a day, and so there was some spare sim time, so I headed over there.

“Remember, this was at a time when I had been talking a lot about there being too much downforce on the cars. I was saying it to IndyCar, to the engineers, to drivers, to you guys… We still had those manufacturer aerokits, and I’d been telling anyone who listened, ‘Hey, we’ve gotta reduce this downforce.’

“So anyway, I show up at the sim with it set to run the Speedway. I speak to Ben [Bretzman, race engineer for Pagenaud at that time, now McLaughlin], and he says that our drivers have left the car where they feel our Indy set-up is OK, the handling’s reasonable. I think to myself, ‘Oh no, this is where I’m probably gonna get in, go slow and then get out of the car screaming for more downforce! I’m gonna be one of those guys.’

“But actually, I had it flat on the fifth or sixth lap, but then I had to start working on my lines. I was struggling with the feel and the visuals for taking a late entry, the way I wanted it. I had to sneak up on that point where I was getting that entry out wide, and then unwinding sooner on the exits.

Mears offered his services to assist Penske on the simulator in 2017

Mears offered his services to assist Penske on the simulator in 2017

Photo by: Ben Bretzman / Team Penske

“Ben told me, ‘It was interesting that when you got flat, and got more confident and started adjusting your lines, your speed was going up, your lap times were coming down, and the more you worked on your line, the faster you got.’ I said, ‘That’s why I’m always telling these guys to work on their line, get it more and more how they want it.’

“The main thing about running on the sim, and I hadn’t really thought about this before, was that it made me realise how much I had relied on load in my right shoulder back when I was racing. It really stood out to me as the difference between the real car and the sim. I’m a ‘feel’ driver and in my racing days, I never knew what constituted all the feel that I was looking for; I just knew that there was a feel that I was working from.

“Well in the sim, I realised that a lot of that feel had come from G-load in my right shoulder against the chassis, and although in the sim I could feel it as I initially turned in, the sim has no more room to move. So it couldn’t build enough G to simulate the long lateral load you’d be feeling if you were actually at the Speedway. It amazed me how much I missed that immediately, however good the feedback was through the wheel.

"He was immediately trying to run his old line and what Helio’s line was, with that high late apex, and big-arc turn-in. It was really impressive. Rick knew exactly where he wanted to place the car" Ben Bretzman

“After that, I tried out on a road course, I forget which one, and I was struggling to pick my braking points – my left eye is a bit screwy so there was a depth perception issue at IndyCar-type speeds. But my main problem there was that I couldn’t feel the footprint of the tyre on the ground under braking, so I was locking wheels. I would have needed 100 laps to have gotten it dialled in, and I only did about two! But running at Indy – or virtual Indy – that was fun.”

Mears still holds the record for Indy 500 poles (six) and started 11 of his 15 races there from the front row. Thanks to the simulator, did he nudge those two figures north, at least in the virtual world, that day in May 2017?

“Ha, no!” he chuckles. “I don’t know what the speeds were. I think they were OK. But that kind of demonstrated what I’d been yelling about was the problem with IndyCar at the time. I got out of the sim and said to Ben and Ron, ‘I was right. Any time that an old man who hasn’t been in one of these cars for 25 years can be wide open at Indy within five laps, there’s too much downforce!’”

Bretzman smiles at the recollection. “Yeah, that’s Rick – old-school purist. So we didn’t know how he was going to respond to a simulator, even when it’s running Indy oval, his perfect environment.

Engineer Bretzman relished Mears' 'comeback' on the simulator

Engineer Bretzman relished Mears' 'comeback' on the simulator

Photo by: Motorsport Images

“But it was really amazing to watch. Rick did it like you’re supposed to, very clinical in his approach. He went around the first couple of laps lifting at all four corners, then he was lifting at just Turns 1 and 3, and then on the sixth lap he was flat all the way around.

“And he was immediately trying to run his old line and what Helio’s line was, with that high late apex, and big-arc turn-in. It was really impressive. Rick knew exactly where he wanted to place the car and it wasn’t too fast for him at all. It’s tricky for all drivers in a sim, because – before the aeroscreen – they’d feel the wind on their helmets, and even now they’ll feel buffeting at those speeds, and in the real thing they also feel their right-rear tyre sliding.

“But Rick was cueing off the visuals, what he saw on the right side of the track, and he got back to his line. It was just funny that Simon and I had been working alongside Helio for a few years and looking at his line for the Speedway, and then here comes Rick on the simulator and I think, ‘OK, so now I know who Helio learned it from.’”

And was he quick?

“His best lap was a 225.1mph,” says Bretzman. “I don’t know what aero level we were running, but it would have been a race set-up. So… not slow for an old guy!”

Indeed not: the fastest race lap in 2017 was by winner Takuma Sato, and was a 226.19.

“Yeah, it was a fun day,” concludes Bretzman. “From the very first lap, watching his lines, I’m like, ‘Man, people as good as Rick don’t forget this stuff at all…’”

Mears showed he'd not lost his touch and impressed Bretzman when he jumped into the sim

Mears showed he'd not lost his touch and impressed Bretzman when he jumped into the sim

Photo by: Team Penske

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