Yet with all his calculated risks, Mears never crashed at IMS until 1991, when his car broke and sent him into the wall, breaking his right foot. A little over a week later, he bounced back to win his fourth Indy 500, but to think about the thousands of laps he turned without losing control is almost as notable as his pole prowess.
“The big factor behind that is fear; I don’t like to crash,” he says with a laugh. “Taking a small step approach was a big thing with me. I used to get mad after somebody crashed and they said, ‘Well, he was trying; if you don’t crash, you aren’t trying.’ That’s BS. You don’t have to crash to find the limit. I never thought about it when I was running, but I looked at my stats the other day and thought, ‘Damn, that’s kinda cool; we did do something there.’”
But Mears disputes the notion he was always comfortable at the Brickyard.
“I don’t think I was ever comfortable at Indy, because it will bite you,” he explains. “I’ve never been a real confident person. I may have looked confident, but I never felt confident. People would ask, ‘How do you stay so relaxed on qualifying day?’ What do you mean? I’m upside down, I just internalized it and took a nap in the car.
“I go back to my motorcycle days on TT tracks. I could have won nine straight races, but I’d still feel like one of these guys is going to kick my ass. But I think that helped me. I always had a fear of getting beat, a fear of losing, and that’s a tool that makes you dig. Hell, I never felt like I was in the same class with A.J. or Al with four Indy 500 wins.”
Forty years ago, Mears drove into Indy’s Victory Lane for the first time in his second attempt. He did it again in 1984 and ’88, then added that fourth and final win in ’91. And he lost in 1982 by a car length. There isn’t a more humble and appreciative Indy legend than The Rocket. Nor is there a better story.
“I wasn’t doing anything to get into IndyCar; I was just having fun,” says Mears, who went from Formula Vee, to Super Vee, to a Formula 5000 test, to a USAC Champ Car in a year. “I’d drive anything, and I can see how that helped, because my name kept popping up in different places.
“But I look at it as a fairytale. I didn’t understand what that first win at Indy meant, but not because I didn’t appreciate it — I just didn’t know what to appreciate. I didn’t know the history of Indy, I had no idea.”
And all Mears did then was make history…
ALRIGHT TURNING RIGHT
He was the “Oval Meister” and Indianapolis Motor Speedway was his kingdom, but Rick Mears had plenty of road racing skills that even got Formula 1 big cheese Bernie Ecclestone’s attention.
Sure, only five of Mears’ 29 Indy car wins came while turning left and right, and four of those were prior to his devastating foot injuries in 1984 that basically cost him two years of his career, but he could road race.
“Ovals came more natural for me and the first few years I was learning,” says Mears when asked about being a road racer. “I had to work at a road course more, but I felt like we were learning. I still had a long way to go in my mind compared to where I was on an oval.
“But in ’84 I was at another level and making gains, learning from some of the road racing drivers that had come to CART. I had a good battle with Mario at Mid-Ohio and was in the process of picking up my road race game.”
Post-’84 Sanair Speedway crash, he didn’t road race again until ’86 and didn’t win again at that discipline until ’89 at Laguna Seca.
“To me, the accident was more of a media-based thing than facts about me and road courses. I got in the Penske PC-15 in ’86 and it simply didn’t work. Danny Sullivan, one of the best on road courses, would run the March and I’d continue developing PC-15, which automatically put him above me in terms of lap times. They’d say, ‘Rick is struggling with his feet.’ No, it’s the car. Then we come out with the PC-17 and I do quick times in practice at Long Beach and they ask, ‘OMG, what are you doing different?’ Nothing. I now have a car that stops and turns when I want it to.
“I did have some problems with my feet, but I just had to figure out how to drive around them. The nerve damage on my right foot, I had no response and couldn’t tap my foot, so I’d drive with my leg and foot together. It was hurting me to a small degree, so I had to treat it like turbo lag. If I wanted the throttle to be down, I’d start sooner to make sure it was at max point. I was behind, but I won the pole and race at Laguna in ’89, so that was very satisfying.”
But you only have to look at his 1980 test with Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham F1 team to understand he was already highly regarded.
“I had an ego and I wanted to find out if they (F1 drivers) were Supermen like they thought they were. Until you drive one you never know,” says Mears, who was a half-second behind Nelson Piquet at Paul Ricard and then out-ran the soon-to-be world champion at Riverside a few months later.
“The money was going to be good if I went, but it didn’t appeal to me like IndyCar and I was already on the best team. But I got to satisfy my curiosity and prove it to myself.”
And the clincher on not heading to Europe?
“I liked having a 7-Eleven on every corner…”