To celebrate 40 years since Rick Mears’ first Indy 500 win in 2019, we made “Rocket Rick” and his Penske PC-6 the cover stars of RACER’s June 2019 issue.
Of course, Robin Miller supplied the words for the accompanying feature. And of course, he wasn’t content with just rehashing the life and times of Rick Ravon Mears at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Instead, we got a deep dive into the art and science of going fast at The Speedway, and some remarkable insight into what drove Mears to his feats of near perfection.
When the issue was wrapped and away to the printers, I told Robin how much I’d enjoyed the story. The reply was typical Miller – self-effacing, and suitably colorful.
“It’s difficult to f*** up an interview with ‘The Rocket,’” he chuckled. “I just sit back, listen to the man, and hope I remembered to turn the recorder on…”
Laurence Foster, RACER Editor-in-chief
From a 75mph sprint buggy to being comfortable at 200mph in less than a year.
From eating dirt on the Baja peninsula to cutting into steaks with Roger Penske.
From trying a Formula Vee at Willow Springs to starting front row at the Indianapolis 500.
From listening on the radio to the heroics of A.J. Foyt and Al Unser to sharing their legacy.
From a kid that never dreamed of the big time to becoming one of Indy’s all-time best.
Rick Mears’ story is part fairytale, opportunity, savvy, good scouting, talent, grit, timing, desire and an American fable unlikely to happen again.
Happily running a backhoe through the week and dirt buggies at Ascot Park on weekends, Mears matriculated to an Indy car because a helmet rep for safety pioneer Bill Simpson raved about his abilities. That turned into a rehearsal at Ontario Motor Speedway, which led to a huge career that was never planned or considered.
“Like I’ve said a thousand times, my plan was no plan. I never dreamed of getting into Indy car; it was way out my league,” reflects Mears from his home in Jupiter, Fla. “I listened to it on the radio and watched a couple times on closed circuit, but I didn’t grow up around it and neither did my family.”
How Mears became an icon at Indianapolis Motor Speedway defied logic and the popular path to “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” But it proved that whether you came from two wheels, like Joe Leonard, or sprint cars, like A.J., Mario and Parnelli, or the desert, like Rick Ravon Mears, a real racer will figure it out.
“I remember a thought going through my head in that first race at Ontario,” says Mears, recalling his 1976 debut in Simpson’s Eagle-Offy at the California 500. “At the green everybody was scrambling, then everything settles down and I got to looking around. I see A.J, I see J.R., Johncock up there, and I say to myself, ‘You know what, they’re people just like I am. It’s a matter of getting the right opportunity and getting a little luck.’ It was a step for me in the direction that I belonged, knowing I just might be able to do this.”
Of course, as it turned out, few ever did it better at 16th & Georgetown. But how did this desert rat adapt so quickly to a turbocharged tornado and daunting speeds at the most famous race track in the world? What made him so superior in qualifying? How could he drive 16 years before ever hitting the wall at IMS? Why was he so cool in the most dangerous and pressurized race in America?
“The first time he drove one of our cars was at a test in Phoenix and he was able to run just as quick as (1977 national champion Tom) Sneva, and I knew right then he was going to be something special,” says Roger Penske, who was impressed watching Mears drive an old McLaren in 1977 and would run him from ’78 all the way until his retirement at the end of ’92. “He came from desert racing, but he understood shocks and roll centers and we learned a lot about aerodynamics together.
“At Indianapolis he could trim a car out and run it loose like few drivers, and I don’t have to tell you nobody raced any better at that place.”
A lot of good drivers from different disciplines failed at Indy because they couldn’t handle the speeds. Many crashed and others walked away before they did, so what made Mears such a natural at smoking into a turn three times faster than he’d ever gone in the desert?
“The Speedway’s long, fast corners just fit my natural driving style,” he replies. “I was more of a feel driver than a reflex driver, and that comes from dirt. In the desert, at Ascot, or Pikes Peak, the grip level’s always changing, sand to paved road to road with dirt, it’s constantly changing, so you’re always looking for places to find grip. All that is tuning your feel.
“Approaching a corner at Baja, you only got one time to get the most out of it, so you had to read it and figure it out. The key things that came from desert racing were focus and just car control in general. Dry desert, lake beds, snow storms, rocks, mud and cactus — it kept you focused and concentrating because you couldn’t make a mistake or it was over.”
Winning a record six pole positions at Indianapolis required balls and brains, but spend an hour listening to Mears dissect a corner and you’ll understand why “The Rocket” excelled for four laps under the gun each May.
“Indy was my favorite track for qualifying,” he says. “It was the most satisfying thing I ever did. It was also the scariest and most difficult, which is why it was most fun. It was the little details, breaking each corner down, figuring out how to get more out of those four laps than the other guy. And how do I improve the corner next time?
“Horsepower was always the fun part, and I always argued about less downforce and more power, because the skill was in getting power to the ground without having a problem. Get off the corner faster than the other guy. That’s called driving, not guiding. That’s the fun part.
“I hear guys talking at Indy — their car’s on top of the track, not down in the track. But if the car’s down in the track in qualifying, then there’s too much downforce. They talk about being on top of the track like it’s a problem. If I wasn’t on top, I wasn’t going fast enough. You had to get it uncomfortable, drive it with your fingertips. Drive with pressure (on the steering wheel) rather than movement. You drove it as if you were in the marbles, pushed up into the gray, hanging on the edge and riding it out, and hoping you don’t hit the wall on exit. Up on your tiptoes, where the car is free and you can’t make any sudden moves or you’ll spin — that’s the limit. That’s qualifying at Indy.”