Subscribe

Sign up for free

  • Get quick access to your favorite articles

  • Manage alerts on breaking news and favorite drivers

  • Make your voice heard with article commenting.

Autosport Plus

Discover premium content
Subscribe
Special feature

Why the time is right to correct a common Rick Mears misconception

A four-time Indianapolis 500 winner, Rick Mears will be honoured by The Road Racing Drivers Club today along with a number of other leading lights this weekend in Long Beach. In such exalted company, it should yield a chance to recognise that the Indycar racing legend was more than just an oval specialist

Rick Mears, Penske PC-19

Rick Mears will join Mario Andretti, Emerson Fittipaldi, George Follmer, Dan Gurney, Jim Hall, David Hobbs, Parnelli Jones, Roger Penske, Brian Redman and Bobby Unser on the list of legends to be honoured by the Road Racing Drivers Club in Long Beach later today. The evening’s emcee and RRDC president Bobby Rahal, along with organiser Jeremy Shaw, are to be congratulated on ensuring the “Thursday dinner before Long Beach” is one of the must-attend social events in the motorsport calendar.

Some of Mears’ stats are well known. Chief among them are the record-matching four Indianapolis 500 wins, the six Indy 500 poles (a record that may stand forever) and 11 front-row starts from 16 attempts, plus three Indycar championships, 29 race wins and 40 pole positions.

Most know, too, that Mears came from a desert-racing background, his parents Bill (who sadly died just two weeks ago, aged 93) and Mae Louise having moved their young sons Roger and Rick from Wichita to Bakersfield in 1955. Safety equipment legend Bill Simpson gave Mears his first IndyCar start in 1976, before selling his aged Eagle to Art Sugai for whom the 26-year-old Mears drove a couple more races that year and at the beginning of the 1977 season - before switching to a Theodore Racing-run McLaren (another ex-Simpson car) for the remainder of that year.

Four top-10 finishes including fifth at Milwaukee meant Mears appeared on Roger Penske’s radar, The Captain needing a talented driver to sub for Mario Andretti in 1978 whenever the latter’s Formula 1 commitments with Lotus took priority. Mears figured that a part-time ride with Penske was better than a full-time ride with most other teams, took the offer and was proven right.

He ran only 11 of the 18 races in 1978, but scored three wins and three runner-up finishes. Full-time team-mate and series veteran Tom Sneva retained his Indycar championship, but somehow contrived to score not a single win despite six pole positions, and so, peculiarly, it felt the team’s momentum had swung behind the rookie. 

As Sneva departed, Mears became a full-timer with Penske and he never left. These days he’s as synonymous with Penske's brand as Scott Dixon with Ganassi, Jackie Stewart with Tyrrell or Jimmy Clark with Lotus, and since his retirement 30 years ago, he has remained at Penske as a driver adviser – and occasional spotter – to the great and the good. These days, media and fans alike appreciate his wise opinions, his politeness and affability and his continued enthusiasm for motorsport. Mears has never been one to proclaim that it was all better in his era.

Mears joined Penske full-time in 1979 after his successful audition the previous year and never looked back

Mears joined Penske full-time in 1979 after his successful audition the previous year and never looked back

Photo by: David Hudson / Motorsport Images

If there’s one thing we all get wrong about Mears, it's in the careless branding of him as an oval specialist, for it causes considerable misunderstanding. The term has come to mean someone who can run near the front on speedways but is mediocre or worse if right turns are thrown into the mix. While ovals were the best part of Mears’ game, he was in fact immediately strong on road courses.

When he arrived at Penske, he had just 11 Indycar races under his wheels, none of which were road courses. That's because in 1976 and 1977 the USAC Indycar schedule was ovals-only. Mears’ experience on ‘the twisties’ included a year and a bit in Formula Vee and Super Vee, a few days testing a Formula 5000 car at Willow Springs and a day with Sneva at Bob Bondurant’s racing school at Sears Point (now known as Sonoma Raceway) driving little formula cars.

This latter trip was some light prep work in response to USAC’s inclusion of Mosport, Silverstone and Brands Hatch in the 1978 schedule, and Mears ensured the work paid off. He finished second in the first two and won the Brands event. Nor did his momentum stop there: after nine Indycar road course events, he had won five and finished runner-up in the rest. An honour from the Road Racing Drivers Club should provide a timely reminder. Mears, as ever, plays down his achievement.

"I found it easier to be more competitive in high-speed turns – road course or oval – than slow turns, hairpins and so on. It was around that first year with Penske that I started to think about that, and I figured out it was because I steered with my fingertips" Rick Mears

“Sure, it was a big jump to go from Vee and SuperVee to Indycars: I basically went from my first SCCA license with the Vee to knocking on the door in Indycars in about a year and a half,” he says. “Until that F5000 test at Willow Springs, I hadn’t been in anything more powerful than a VW-engined car, except for my last desert race when I raced Parnelli’s truck, a V8. So that F5000 car was an eye-opener for me…

“But it’s all about the limit, whatever the car, whatever the track, whatever the surface, whatever the conditions. In those early days, when I didn’t know what to look for in a car, my objective was to find the limit, and if that limit wasn’t high enough, then it was about finding what’s causing that limit.

“First of all, you tip-toe up to the limit to find out which end is going to go away first. Then you start to work on that end to move the limit up, and if you move it up enough, then the other end starts going away and so you start working on that end. It’s not brain surgery at all.

“The first time I got in a Penske at Phoenix, I drove it the same way I drove Sugai’s Eagle and Yip’s McLaren, and I just kept tiptoeing up to the limit to find what went first – front, rear, all four. Then I looked at where it happened – going into the turn, mid-turn or exit. I was doing the exact same thing in the PC-6 as I’d been doing in the older cars and the only difference was the numbers; the speeds were faster. Seeing that difference, I now knew, ‘OK, so this is the feel I need to be looking for.’

Mears (middle) beat team-mate Sneva (right) and Johnny Rutherford (left) to win the USAC race at Brands Hatch in 1978

Mears (middle) beat team-mate Sneva (right) and Johnny Rutherford (left) to win the USAC race at Brands Hatch in 1978

Photo by: Motorsport Images

“Going to road courses, I felt the same way. I just need to find the limit, and Geoff [Ferris, Penske designer] had given us a good car, so if I get the car to the limit, again the speeds will be high enough to put me in the hunt. I definitely didn’t feel like road courses would be a weak point for me compared with an oval.

“That said, in some ways road courses were my weakness, because I found it easier to be more competitive in high-speed turns – road course or oval – than slow turns, hairpins and so on. It was around that first year with Penske that I started to think about that, and I figured out it was because I steered with my fingertips, making just small movements and pressure changes on the wheel.

“I liked to be very smooth and precise on the fast turns because there’s no real room for error. A road course naturally obliges you to use the palms and you can saw on the wheel and hustle and get away with little mistakes, and all that was not natural to me. I had to work at turning myself loose and allowing myself to make more mistakes.”

Having identified where he needed to improve the most, Mears says his trip to the Bondurant school endorsed his methods of self-improvement by explaining the physics behind his natural tendency “to do what the car told me it wanted to do”.

“Remember, at that time, an Indycar was basically an oval car that had been adapted to deal with road courses and so it was compromised,” he says. “They didn’t like braking and turning at the same time, and they didn’t even like off-throttle turning. So you’d do your braking in a straight line, then get back to the throttle a little to transfer the weight backward and settle the rear for turn-in.”

No one outside his immediate circle was aware that Mears felt there was much more to come from his road course form. Instead they looked at his stats there, saw him win the 1979 Indycar championship in his first full season with Penske, and assumed he was one of those great all-rounders in the Mario Andretti sense of the word. Further enhancing his image as a road course star were outings in Porsche 935s that year, that yielded third in the Daytona 24 Hours and fourth in the Sebring 12 Hours. Two years later, he would drive a similar car to third in the Watkins Glen 6 Hours.

“Driving that Porsche, at first my times were OK but not really quick and so I had to figure out what was wrong,” he says. “Well, I was driving it like the Indycar – braking in a straight line, getting back on the gas early to settle the rear, and so on – when actually the 935 responded well to braking and turning at the same time. But on the other hand, in some ways I did have to approach it like an Indycar on a road course, because in slower corners I had to get more animated, and throw it around. And then the times started coming down. All part of the learning process.”

Mears also showed his road course form in sportscars, finishing third in the 1981 Watkins Glen 6 Hours in a Garretson Racing Porsche 935 K3

Mears also showed his road course form in sportscars, finishing third in the 1981 Watkins Glen 6 Hours in a Garretson Racing Porsche 935 K3

Photo by: David Hudson / Motorsport Images

Mears’ form famously attracted the attention of Bernie Ecclestone, then running the Brabham Formula 1 team. Young Nelson Piquet was clearly championship material and Gordon Murray’s Brabham BT49, which had made its debut in the final two grands prix of 1979, was powered by a reliable Cosworth. With Niki Lauda having gone into retirement (merely a sabbatical, as it transpired), Ecclestone wanted a strong partner for Piquet, and so it was arranged that Mears would test with the team alongside Piquet at both Paul Ricard in France and at Riverside.

“It was totally different – 300lbs lighter, bigger tyres, full ground-effects with sliding skirts,” he remembers. “But it was like anything I got into: I just had to drive it according to what signals it gave me. So in the Brabham, on my first run, I found myself slowing down 10 car lengths too soon because compared with the Indycar the F1 car has more tyre, more grip from the underside of the car and it’s lighter, well then I just move my mental marker further forward and keep going to the limit. Like I said, it’s not brain surgery...”

At Ricard, Mears recalls he started out some two seconds off Piquet’s time, not realising that an F1 car demanded to be hustled and wrung out in slow corners in much the same way as an Indycar on a road course. And he was also carefully avoiding the kerbs so as not to damage the car’s sliding skirts which he assumed were fragile. By the end of the test, when his and Piquet’s tyres and fuel levels were comparable, Mears recalls he was roughly half a second off Piquet – “close enough that I was confident I could find the time with more laps and experience”.

"Even though we had been competitive, it was still a work-in-progress. I knew there was a lot more to gain from what I didn’t know and what didn’t yet come naturally to me" Rick Mears

The next test came at Riverside. Mears had experience there, but not in anything powerful (Indycar races wouldn’t occur there for another year) nor was this the ‘usual’ Riverside.

“Brabham were having Nelson and I test the new Weismann gearbox, so they’d added three chicanes to add more upshifts and downshifts, so the track was felt different. But I ended up being quite a bit quicker than Nelson, and I remember Gordon Murray asking me, ‘You know where you’re making all your time on him don’t you? It’s right down there,’ and he pointed at Turn 9. ‘Nelson hates that corner!’ Well it so happens that long, fast right-hander is my favourite on the track – it’s just basically like an oval turn but going clockwise.”

Murray reported back to Ecclestone how impressive Mears had been, and Bernie commenced financial discussions with the Indycar champ. They came to a mutually agreeable figure, but eventually Mears decided to stick with US open-wheel racing. The test had satisfied him that he could drive an F1 car to its limit, but his home and family and heart were in America, and he drove for the very best team.

PLUS: Why American racing's top dog is without equal

As it happens, Mears scored only one win that Indycar season, but it came on Mexico City’s daunting but also very technical track. The following season, he suffered that scary pitlane fire at the Indy 500, missed Milwaukee as a result, but still ran up six wins and claimed his second championship. Among those six triumphs were three road course wins at Riverside, Watkins Glen and Mexico City again.

After turning down F1, Mears went from strength to strength and won back-to-back titles in 1981 and 1982 - including all three of the road course rounds in 1981

After turning down F1, Mears went from strength to strength and won back-to-back titles in 1981 and 1982 - including all three of the road course rounds in 1981

Photo by: David Hutson/LAT

In 1982, he won Riverside again and took his first road course pole at Road America, on his way to his third championship. Still though, Mears was dissatisfied.

“Even though we had been competitive, it was still a work-in-progress,” he recalls. “I knew there was a lot more to gain from what I didn’t know and what didn’t yet come naturally to me. In ’84, my last race before the [career-threatening Sanair] shunt was at Mid-Ohio, and I don’t remember where we finished [fifth] but we qualified on the front row alongside Mario; I specifically remember feeling that this was the next step, but at the same time recognising there were several more to go. And then came the Sanair deal…”

That Sanair crash in September 1984 during practice may have cost Mears a fourth championship in six years, but it could also have cost him at least one of his shattered feet. Doctors Terry Trammell and Steve Olvey, having been flown by Penske to the Montreal hospital where Mears was taken, believed that amputation could be avoided and were mercifully proven right. But Mears was out for the remainder of the season and in 1985 he drove ovals only. In a season when eight of the 15 rounds were road/street courses, his learning naturally stalled.

“Racing is all about progress – that’s the whole point, it should never end,” he says. “My injuries didn’t directly affect my road course performances but relative to my rivals, I went backwards because they were all going forward. So coming back full-time in ’86, I had to start ramping it up to try and gain on the others.”

Further hurting his progress in 1986 was the team’s struggles with its Penske PC-15, and the resultant back-and-forth switches between that chassis and the March 86C, although Mears did manage a road course podium in each. Similar troubles in 1987 meant he was using a Penske PC-16 some weekends, the trusty March in others. Victory at Pocono came in the March but again Mears scored podium finishes in both, including top-threes on road courses.

But none of these achievements could stop the speculation that his leg injuries were hindering his form on any track that required heavy braking, and loyalty to his team prevented him from pointing out that his car was not up to standard.

Then one day he discovered there was something to the injury theory, and it came while messing around in his swimming pool, arms stretched out, back to the wall, floating the rest of his body on the surface. He suddenly noticed that when rapidly flexing his feet forward, he could create a splash with the left, but the right one moved too slowly, creating a mini bow-wave.

Penske's struggles for competitiveness in 1986 following his full-time return meant Mears came under scrutiny

Penske's struggles for competitiveness in 1986 following his full-time return meant Mears came under scrutiny

Photo by: David Hutson / Motorsport Images

“That’s my throttle foot,” says Mears, a left-foot braker throughout his career, “and it had felt to me that it was responding just fine after the crash, flipping back and forth, just like the left. Now I realised that it had a slower flip pace. I thought ‘Well goddamn: I’ve got turbo lag in my own foot!’

“Where you used to counteract turbo lag by getting on the throttle a bit earlier in the corner so the turbo boost kicked in just when you wanted to on corner exit, now I had to pick up the throttle even earlier to build in the extra time needed for my right foot. Still, noticing that brought me another gain.”

But the biggest gain came when Penske’s new designer Nigel Bennett came up with the superb PC-17 for 1988. In the second race at Long Beach, Mears qualified third.

"I was still learning, still improving on road and street courses right up to the end in ’92. There were a couple of tracks where I definitely felt I was starting to get to the next level that some of the guys were already at" Rick Mears

“I went into the press room and the questions were all about the feet – ‘Hey, what are you doing different to be so quick on a street course?’ I said, ‘Nothing. I’m now in a car that will go when I want it to go, stop when I want it to stop, turn when I want it to turn.’ Of course, the truth is that I had learned that thing about my throttle foot and so I was still working on me, but this new speed was mainly about now having a good car.”

Mears proved his point with podiums at Meadowlands, Mid-Ohio, and Tamiami Park to add to his Indy 500 and Milwaukee glory and he finished fourth in the championship. Then in 1989, he was runner-up in the title race with three victories, the last of which was a win from pole at Laguna Seca.

That would prove to be his last road course win, although he continued to shine on the road courses with fast turns, so poles at Cleveland and Meadowlands – where he had always excelled – were no surprise. Mears’ last Indycar podium came in the opening round of that final, fractured, injury-blighted season of 1992 when he finished second at Surfers Paradise, only losing the lead to team-mate Emerson Fittipaldi in the final couple of laps.

“I really liked that track,” said Mears, who had also finished on the podium in the inaugural Indycar race on Australia’s Gold Coast a year earlier, before earning his record-matching fourth Indy 500 triumph, winning again at Michigan and ultimately finishing fourth in the 1991 championship.

Mears didn't win another road course track after 1989, but continued to improve until his retirement in 1992

Mears didn't win another road course track after 1989, but continued to improve until his retirement in 1992

Photo by: David Hutson / Motorsport Images

“I was still learning, still improving on road and street courses right up to the end in ’92. There were a couple of tracks where I definitely felt I was starting to get to the next level that some of the guys were already at, especially the guys that had built up a lot of road course experience throughout their career, like Michael [Andretti], Little Al [Unser, Jr.], Danny [Sullivan], Emerson, Mario, Bobby [Rahal]. They were already there but it was a new level for me! And that’s what it’s all about – keep learning.”

However, aged 40, Mears noticed his overall desire was ebbing away in May 1992. The crash on the fifth day of practice, caused by a fractured pipe spraying coolant on his rear tyres, left him with a sprained wrist, a broken foot and a minor concussion. That, he admits, may have sped up the thoughts of retirement. But he had noticed earlier in the week that he had come into the garage one morning and said, ‘OK, what’s the plan for today?’

Archive: The Captain's Indy legend calls it a day

“That wasn’t typical of me,” he says. “Normally I’d be one of those drivers working late with the engineers, and then taking my work back to the hotel to go over the data and come up with ideas. I’d come to the garage the next morning and say, ‘I’ve been thinking about this or that. Maybe we should check out this today.’ To leave the ideas, the thoughts about setups to try out, all on the engineers was just not how I had been. So that flagged something to me that maybe the desire was not what it had been the year before.”

Getting collected in a crash on raceday at Indy further damaged his wrist, obliging him to miss Detroit, and thereafter he was stuck wearing a cast. Taking part in four of the next five races prevented the wrist from healing, before surgery on the wrist obliged Mears to sit out the remainder of the year.

Just two races into this enforced sabbatical, he informed Roger Penske that he was going to retire at year’s end. The Captain took him at his word, then asked about the possibility of staying on as an oval-only or Indy-only driver. When Mears declined, he was offered to remain on-board as driver adviser – a position he holds to this day.

Mears made an unintentionally emotional speech announcing his retirement at the Penske Christmas dinner, and it came as a shock to all but a handful of people. They had been desperate to help him go for a record-breaking fifth Indy 500 win and, given that Fittipaldi and Unser Jr. won the next two 500s for Penske, a fifth or even sixth 500 crown would definitely have been feasible. But Mears somehow resisted the temptation.

The RRDC will ensure tonight’s celebration in Long Beach is a whole lot more joyful than that Christmas farewell at the Penske shop almost 30 years ago, and will also remind all present that Mears was not an oval specialist but an oval master who happened also to be a very strong road racer – and one who was getting better right up until he stepped away. The time is right to honour one of motorsport's greatest.

Mears has been a trusted part of Penske's set-up for over 40 years and remains a key figure as an adviser

Mears has been a trusted part of Penske's set-up for over 40 years and remains a key figure as an adviser

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Be part of the Autosport community

Join the conversation
Previous article Why Andretti's slow start in IndyCar in 2022 raises questions
Next article IndyCar Long Beach: Pagenaud leads opening practice

Top Comments

Sign up for free

  • Get quick access to your favorite articles

  • Manage alerts on breaking news and favorite drivers

  • Make your voice heard with article commenting.

Autosport Plus

Discover premium content
Subscribe