Part five of the 15-part feature series ‘How Roger Penske Changed The Indy 500,’ which celebrates the most successful entrant at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on the 50th anniversary of his first which took place in 1969, is ‘The Rocket,’ Rick Mears.
Mears is the only man to win all four of his Indy 500s while driving for Roger Penske in a career that spanned 1978 through 1992 in the cockpit (pictured: Mears with his Penske PC10-Cosworth in ’82), and he remains involved to this day as a driver coach and consultant for Penske’s NTT IndyCar Series team.
Below are a few excerpts from the interview:
THE PENSKE DIFFERENCE
“I was walking in the garage one night [while driving for Art Sugai in 1977]. And this was the lesson learned: I’m walking along there, and I go by Roger’s garage to get to mine. And I look in the doors as I go by, and it’s like a slap in the face, I thought, ‘Now wait a minute.’ And not that our garage is bad, right? I mean, it’s clean, the guys did a good job. But I thought, if I had a sponsor on my arm right now trying to sell them, and I had to go by his garage to get to mine, where are they going to want to go?
“It was the presentation. And when I looked in his garage, there was effort, more effort put into his — elbow grease. More thought, and planning. Colors matching on all the tool boxes, and then the tools, everything had a place on the wall. The floor was clean — he’d laid down some of his own tile just to dress it up, clean it up, and make it nice to work off of. And everything had a place, it was organized.
DON’T BLAME THE DOLLARS
“Organization, elbow grease. That’s not money. I used to get so tired of hearing people say, ‘Oh if we had his money, we could do that too.’ A lot of what he does isn’t the money. Yes, money helps, but I know for a fact over the years there were teams that were getting higher sponsor dollars than he was. He’s always been pretty fair. And it’s planning, it’s presentation. And his saying, ‘Effort equals results.’ It’s across the board, that’s it. But that lesson learned, it’s just like a wake-up call.”
SETTING NEW STANDARDS
“I remember early on if you had trouble with a car, and you had to go jump in the backup car real quick, they weren’t always the same, as much as you thought they were. They never were. And so I remember at one point the team just really made it a focused effort on why are these cars not the same? We’re building them all out of the same pieces, all with the same measurements. And we really, really focused on the guys that are keeping the T-car up with the race car. They did an exercise in shop.
“They got everybody, and said, ‘OK, look, I want everybody to use the same wrench on the same part. I want everybody turn the same way, when you’re measuring something, I want everybody to measure from the same side of the line, instead of one guy measuring from the middle line, one guy measures off the left-side alignment, one guy measures off the right-side alignment.’ When you add all those little things up, that’s why they’re different.
“So they really did a big effort on getting all the guys to work together, and watch each other, and see how each one would measure things. And then everybody finds which is the best way, and then everybody agreed to do it all that same way, no matter what it is that they’re doing. And pretty soon you’ve got to where you can pull that backup car off the trailer, get it ready to jump in the car, and go out there, and feel like it’s the same car you just got out of.
“It’s that kind of effort to improve, and I really think the majority of it is him trying to improve the team. Which in turn was raising the sport, and improving the other teams along with it. Because you had to compete. If you want to compete with him, you’ve got to step up, and that’s the way you do.”