Editor’s Note: From Tuesday, May 19 to Saturday, May 23, FOX Sports will count down the top five Indianapolis 500 drivers of all time.
INDIANAPOLIS – The key to success for Rick Mears in the Indianapolis 500 was quite simple for the former Desert Off Road Racer who came to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first time in 1977 but failed to make the field.
“I always went fast enough to win but slow enough to finish,” said Mears, who used that strategy to become the last driver to win the Indianapolis 500 for a fourth time in 1991. “I never took any more risks or was hard on equipment any more than I needed to be in the right place on the last lap any more than I needed to.”
Article continues below ...
Mears won his first Indy 500 in just his second attempt in 1979 driving for Team Penske. The quiet driver from Bakersfield, California, realized by winning the Indianapolis 500 so early in his career he did not appreciate the accomplishment the way he should have.
In 1981, Mears was in contention to win the Indianapolis 500 before a pit fire badly burned his face. The following year, he battled back to win the pole position at Indy and was involved in the greatest battle to the checkered flag that had ever been seen at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway up to that time, when he chased down Gordon Johncock over the final 10 laps before losing by just 0.160 second.
At that time, it was the closest finish in Indianapolis 500 history.
Mears drove to Indy 500 win No. 2 in the Pennzoil car for Team Penske in 1984 and was beginning to have the look of a legend. But later that year in a CART-sanctioned race at Sanair Speedway in St. Pie, Quebec, Mears was involved in a crash and the nose of his car slammed into the guardrail at the short track. Both of his feet were badly mangled to the point where famed orthopedic surgeon Dr. Terry Trammel used “hand surgery” – the first time that process had ever been used on the lower extremity.
Trammell said the bone fragments of Mears’ feet were like “stringing beads” and even after the surgery, there was fear that the blood vessels were so severely damaged that both feet would have to be amputated.
The operation worked and Mears returned to racing in time for the 1985 Indianapolis 500.
He would go on to win a third Indianapolis 500 in 1988 in a race where he was nearly two laps down before getting back on the lead lap and winning the race.
“The car wasn’t right and we ended up losing time,” Mears said. “We kept hammering away and the guys kept making changes on the car until we had the car that we needed and got back where we needed to be.”
But Mears’ most satisfying Indy 500 win was his last in 1991, when he was involved in an end-of-the-race shootout with Michael Andretti. When the race restarted with 13 laps to go, Andretti drove past Mears by going to the outside in Turn 1 – a move that was risky and rare at that time.
On the very next lap, Mears roared down the frontstretch and returned the favor, passing Andretti to the outside in Turn 1.
Twelve laps later, Mears became the third four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, joining A.J. Foyt and Al Unser.
“That was a textbook race based on what we always tried to do – to be ready to be in position at the end and that is what happened,” Mears said. “At one point, we were going backwards, and I remember seeing Michael coming around behind me to try to put a lap on me and I was just running what I needed to to keep him from lapping me. We got back to where the car was back the way we needed it.
“We had something up our sleeve until the end and that’s when we had the shootout and that was the fun part.”
It was impressive to all who witnessed it, especially his team owner.
“In 1991, he wasn’t going to let that one get by,” Roger Penske said. “He lost one in 1982, and in 1991 he wasn’t going to let that one get by him. I can’t tell you which one is the best, but Al Unser, Rick Mears and A.J. Foyt are certainly at the top.”
Mears’ career was far shorter than Foyt’s and Unser’s and a strong case can be made that he accomplished more success at Indy in less time than the other two drivers. A strong case could be made that Mears is the best Indianapolis 500 driver of all time.
“Rick Mears came about the time I was phasing out, but he was a very fast, very smooth driver,” Foyt said. “He had a great team at Team Penske. He was always in the right spot at the right time, and that is how you win this race.”
In addition to winning the Indianapolis 500 four times, Mears is the all-time record pole winner with six.
“Rick Mears was probably one of the best qualifiers I ever saw come to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway,” Penske said. “He seemed to be able to dig deeper and get more. He did that many times to sit on the pole. One year, he flipped upside on Thursday, came back on Friday, won the pole on Saturday and won the race later that month. There weren’t many guys like Rick Mears.”
If it weren’t for a more legendary figure that has become synonymous with the Indianapolis 500, Mears would be on top.
And his story will come up next.
Be sure to catch Bruce Martin’s Honda IndyCar Report on RACEDAY on FOX Sports Radio every Sunday from 6-8 a.m. ET.