The remarkable Mr Mears

Indycar racing may have gained Nigel Mansell and entranced Ayrton Senna, but its true King has just abdicated

Amidst all the euphoria of Mansell and Senna and their transatlantic crossings, Rick Ravon Mears stepped from the spotlight last December. As ever, when he announced his intention to retire it was done quietly. Like his driving, there was minimal fuss. There was no hoopla, no public fanfare nor gnashing of teeth, but the departure of Mr Mears from the cockpit of his Penske aroused in American circles far more genuine regret than, say, Mansell’s departure from Formula One.

Behind him he leaves a stunning legacy. He stayed loyal to the same team for 15 full years, something virtually unheard of in today’s motorsport arena but nicely reminiscent of Jim Clark. As Penske managing director Nick Goozee recently remarked, not once did he say anything against his team or his team-mate, not even during the days when the team failed to give him competitive equipment. “He struggled to overcome all problems on behalf of the team, and his frustrations were always kept private and among those who sought to help each other,” said Nick, a man with 30 years’ experience of the sport.

It was not all struggle, of course. Along the way came 29 IndyCar wins, the world IndyCar closed course speed record at 233.934mph, an unprecedented six Indy poles (in a career encompassing 40 IndyCar poles), a record-equalling four victories in the Indianapolis 500 and three USAC/CART national championships in 1979, ’81 and ’82.

But it is in adversity that a man’s true character emerges. In 1986, for example, he was just getting back to racing again on road courses following his dreadful shunt at Sanair two years earlier. That year’s Penske, the PC15, was not competitive. Many drivers would have ranted; Mears merely accepted the problem philosophically. “That car didn’t work on either ovals or road courses, so I still couldn’t really drive on road courses!” On his favourite ovals he ran the team’s back-up March, while continuing to develop the 15 on the road circuits. “I’d be quick on the ovals and slow – qualify anywhere from third to 10th – on the road courses. That thing wouldn’t handle on anything. Period.”

He didn’t mention, because it’s not in his nature to, that late in 1985 he had stepped down from the final oval race, the Jimmy Bryan 150 at Phoenix, so that team-mate Al Unser Snr could continue his quest for the national championship. Unser won that race and went on to beat son Al Jnr by a point for the title. Today the man who shares with Rick and A.J. Foyt the distinction of winning four Indy 500s, speaks openly of Mears’ sporting gesture. In recognition of it he had handed over the symbolic No.1 to him for 1986.

Last year Mears injured his wrist at Indy, through no fault of his own. It was the injury that would ultimately persuade him into retirement. In his place Penske brought in the quick but green Paul Tracy. Most drivers in Mears’ position would have kept their secrets to themselves, aware that the more they passed on the more likely the rookie would be to impress and to pose a threat to their own position within the team. Instead, Mears held nothing back as he counselled Tracy.

A nasty pit fire when leading at Indy in 1981 took the tip of his nose, but what happened at Sanair, the 0.876 mile tri-oval just outside Montreal, in September 1984 was altogether a more serious career low. It was the one major mistake he made. Typically, when he talks about it now he is analytical and ruthlessly honest with himself. Others might have blamed the machinery, the conditions or the circumstances, but Mears shouldered everything himself.

“It was a combination of things. First off, me. It was my fault. I put myself in a position I shouldn’t have, at a time I shouldn’t have. It was just one of those things where you get over-anxious. At the beginning of the year we’d had a slow start and I figured we needed to start catching up. We’d won the Speedway and that put us up into the hunt in the points series.

“We’d done a test at Sanair and nobody else had run there, so we had a little bit of an advantage going into the weekend, and I wanted to keep it. Sanair’s a bullring, it’s hard to get a clear lap, and I wanted to get a good clean run to see where we were at. I was behind Bobby Rahal and Scott Brayton, I believe it was, and as I came out of Turn Three I could see it was a clear track ahead of the others. So once I got by them I’d have a clear lap.

“It’s a three-cornered track and as I came off of Three I had a run at Rahal and was committed. As I pulled out round him he pulled out to go around Brayton, so I had to watch him and I saw a guy, Corrado Fabi, warming up down on the apron. I stayed as close to Rahal as I could because I was already committed, going through there like that as this car was coming out of the pits. As we went through I’m watching Rahal’s corner because I gotta stay right on him to make sure I miss Corrado. As you go by you watch him out of your peripheral vision, watch him go by, you know how fast you’re going by, how long it takes before you’re gonna clear him. So I was watching Fabi going by and watching Rahal and I thought okay, it’s clear, we’re gonna make it. But Fabi was warming up and just as I went by him he stood on the throttle and picked up speed. So instead of me going by, he started staying with us. I thought we were clear but we hit as I pulled on to my line, and I went under the guardrail. So it was a combination of me being over-anxious and putting myself in a bad position. In a race, obviously you don’t have guys warming up, but in practice you do.”

The Penske March dug its nose under the inside guardrail, tearing off the front bulkhead and smashing both of his feet. It would be five months before he drove again.

“I was in the hospital, basically, for three months, two months in Indianapolis, another month in California, then in a wheelchair another month or so after that. I’d still use the wheelchair or crutches to kinda hobble around at the end of five months, and we went to Phoenix to test and they basically had to pick me up and sit me in the car.

“At that time I had everything just padded up. My ankles were bad and I just couldn’t use them very hard. They were tender. Fortunately you don’t have to brake much on an oval, and I left foot brake everywhere. Matter of fact, I didn’t use the clutch before the accident either, so that was a plus. It was one less thing I had to worry about.

“Anyhow, we did the test and I ended up running quicker than Sullivan, so that was worth six months’ therapy, to get back in the car and run that good. First time out I went out and warmed the car up, came in and stopped, then I went out and started leaning on it a little. When I came in the guys leaned over and said, ‘How is it?’ and I said, ‘It’s pushing a little bit in Three and Four but it’s neutral in One and Two’, and they just cracked up and started rolling on the ground. I’d forgotten about my feet already and was thinking about the car, and they were wanting to know what my feet were like. It felt good to be back in it, to take my mind off everything else.

“I didn’t have a problem getting back in the car after the accident, because I knew what caused it. If I had done something that I didn’t know, something had happened where I’d made a mistake and didn’t realise it or what ever, yeah it would make me think about it. But if something happens and I know what caused it, okay. Every time I’ve ever spun a car, I’ve known exactly what caused it. Either I ran it in too deep, jerked it or got on it too soon. You know, I screwed up. It’d drive me nuts if I didn’t know what caused it. I couldn’t get back in the car. But by knowing, either what I did or what broke, it’s one hell of an incentive not to do the same again!”

The same sentiments were evident at Indy in 1991 when, after crashing in qualifying when a wheel worked loose (and breaking another bone in those damaged feet), he quietly stepped into the spare Penske and stood it on its ear to take the pole. It had been the first time in his 13 years at Indy that he’d ever spun, but within only six laps he had recorded 226mph. Afterwards, predictably, he was more concerned that the mechanics on the spare Penske got their due share of credit.

“It took a long time. A long time,” he said of his recuperation after Sanair. “I’ve still got pain, every day. I broke every bone in my right foot, half of them more than once, and half the bones in the left foot.” In 1985 he missed all of the road events, not because he couldn’t shift gear because in any case he wasn’t using the clutch anyway, but because he just couldn’t push the brake pedal hard enough. When Johnny Herbert had a similar problem with Benetton in 1989 he was sacked; Penske valued its star rather more highly and spent a lot of time experimenting on his behalf with different brakes, master cylinders and power assistance to help him out. Gradually he built up his strength, and though he had to use a different size master cylinder to his team-mates, one with greater pedal travel which he confesses he didn’t like, he finally got back to the point where he could use a standard configuration. You sense he took great pride in that, although he’d never put it into words. Sadly, though, street circuits in particular would ever after take a toll on him.

As he recovered he concentrated on developing the new Ilmor Chevrolet engine, and to prove that the fire still burned he took the pole at Indy and again, at a record 223.401 mph, at Pocono. He led more laps than anyone at the Brickyard, and finished only two seconds behind Rahal and Kevin Cogan. He stuck with Penske throughout the drought of ’86 and ’87, and his loyalty was rewarded with his third Indianapolis victory in 1988. Immediately after that he won again at Milwaukee, and he took the poles at Pocono and Michigan too. Well and truly, he was back. In 1989 he was second only to team-mate Emerson Fittipaldi in the national title, winning again at Phoenix and Milwaukee, and finishing tops at Laguna Seca.

It was the year that took him right back to the frontline, and the Californian success was his first road course victory for eight years. He backed it with another, the Marlboro Challenge, at Nazareth in 1990, which supplemented another Phoenix success despite a tangle with clumsy backmarker Randy Lewis. In 1991 it was one of my career highlights to watch him win at Indy. There, in the closing stages, Michael Andretti went round the outside of him to lead after a restart under the yellow. A lap later, at full racing speed, Mears pulled the same trick on Michael and sped away for his fourth triumph. Sitting in the bleachers between Turns One and Two, with his father Bill and mother Squib, and sons Clint and Cole right in front of us, keeping us informed by radio of his tactics and progress, I was conscious of watching history being made. But somehow I always thought he’d be the first man to win five Indys…

Now, of course, the F1 exodus to IndyCars has aroused great interest, but back in 1980 things were still happening the other way round, and Mears came close to a deal to run with Brabham as Nelson Piquet’s team-mate. He tested a BT49 at Paul Ricard and Riverside, and he was fast. “I felt good about it, and I satisfied my own ego,” he told me at Milwaukee in 1990. “I knew I could make up time and I was taking it easy, I didn’t want to make any mistakes and look like an idiot. It took a little time to get used to it, it’s just like anything you jump into.

“We did the two tests at Ricard and then we went to Riverside which was a track I knew, although it wasn’t really the same because we had chicanes put up in about three different places so we could test the Weissmann gearbox. We ended up about three seconds a lap quicker than Nelson. I know where the time was made up. After the run Gordon Murray said, ‘I can see where you’re working out most of the time, around Turn Nine’. It was my favourite corner on the whole race track. Nelson didn’t like that one. It’s slightly banked and right up against a wall. The chicanes really changed the track from what I knew, though, so when we ran quicker than him there, that really satisfied my ego that I could do it if I wanted to. That we could be competitive without a problem.”

Long Beach organiser Chris Pook wanted to field Rick in the third BT49 but FISA firmly quashed the idea by citing the regulation that a fresh driver can only be added to the entry list, force majeure aside, if a formal application is made within a specific time period. Pook’s approach was made to Bernie Ecclestone and FOCA, and this was the time when FISA and FOCA were at war. Bernie felt that Pook had complied by informing himself as race organiser, but FISA disagreed. It was Formula One’s loss. Mears’ raw speed and smooth style would certainly have made him a contender.

Born in Wichita on December 3 1951, he inherited his love of machinery from his father Bill, who had raced himself. He always adapted easily, no matter what the category or the environment, and attributed his success partly to chat. “One thing that kinda helped me, and I’m not bragging at myself or whatever, is being able to adapt quick. I feel that’s probably what helped me make the switch to Champcars. I’ve never had to really teach myself, do something over and over. It’s just come fairly quick. To a certain point. Then you have to start and work at it.”

Comparing drivers in their own specific environments, in terms of performance, behaviour and character, Rick Mears, high up in the groove on the north American oval tracks, was quite simply the best racing driver in the world. The most complete, the most relaxed.

He was recognised as the master of sustained speed in that claustrophobic speedway twilight zone of the groove and the wall. Indianapolis, he explained, is a one-groove track when you’re going really quickly. The groove is the strip of track on which a car works best. The driver works his car a little either side of its centreline, and the art comes in being able to move the groove to suit your car, of finding a way of getting on the power earlier or staying on it longer, and carrying greater speed to the end of the straights. On the speedways Mears was a peerless exponent of that art.

I asked him once just how hard it was to switch from the mentality of the road course to that of the oval. On the one catching slides is instinctive; at the other, where the speed is so much higher and much more prolonged, and where outer run-off areas are non-existent, applying corrective lock is usually the prelude to a lengthy visit to Dr Terry Trammell at the Methodist Hospital. He’d just qualified for the pole at Milwaukee.

“You don’t want to catch slides if you can help it,” he said, “but I caught one today. On my quick lap. You can see it on the steering graph. I do it from time to time, but I don’t want to do it very much!”

They’ll tell you in IndyCar circles that if you get into oversteer at a track like Indianapolis, you don’t ever apply opposite lock, you steer against the slide, to try and spin the car away from the outer wall. Anyone who’s seen footage of Swede Savage’s accident in Turn Four can understand why.

“I’ve corrected slides at Indy,” Mears continued quietly, without bragging, “but I don’t ever want it to get to that. I might get it to where I release pressure on the wheel. The trouble is it kinda goes against all your instincts not to try and correct a slide.

“The reason I say I don’t want to get to that is that normally if it’s gone into a slide and you have to correct it, it’s already on its way. It’s too late. There’s times when you can catch it quick enough, but the big one is what you’re talking about, and that whips back in the other direction. And that’s what hurts you.”

So how can you correct them? His response was a fascinating insight into the technique of a great driver. “I’ll get it to the point where it’s still sliding and it’s one of those slides where you say I’m not going to go any more. When you take that second bite is usually when it gets too much. What you have to do is wait. And the instant you feel that tyre starting to come back, starting to catch, turn the wheel back in the other direction before it comes back. If you wait until it hooks and then starts back, and try to stay with it, it’s too late, it’s already gone in the other direction. You can’t unwind it quick enough. It’s why, as soon as you feel it slowing down and starting to catch the bite again, you’d better be back this way.” His hands gripped an imaginary wheel. “That’s the hard part, not to go too much. You can go a little.”

‘And all this on a circuit where all you have to do is drive at 230mph and turn left four times a lap,’ I ventured, thinking of the unbelievers back in F1. He laughed. “Yep, that’s it. It’s easy!”

Today, oval racing is all about set-up, and realising the futility of pushing too hard on a given day if you don’t have it right. At a time when, according to Mo Nunn at Indy in 1991 the only variation in Arie Luyendyk’s revs during a 220mph lap was the 500 caused by tyre scrub, the condition of the car is everything.

“There are so many stages of that,” continued Rick. “You can be wide open all the way round the track and you’re dead slow, if you haven’t got the car set right. There’s neutral, push, loose, and all these stages in between. You go from where the tyres are actually scrubbing, and you can go from here to here,” he indicated further parameters. “You can go through all these stages and never slip a tyre, and there’ll be a tremendous difference in speed. Just because of the way the car’s loaded up, the angle, the wind-up in the wheel versus the tyre. Different things. Right about here, say, is fast, anything other than that it starts binding up a bit maybe. That’s the hard part, learning to feel all of this.

“Most drivers drive off the basis that when the car slides, they catch it. At Indy, and on the speedways, you have to learn to feel what the car’s telling you before it does it. You need to be super-sensitive. You gotta learn to work off all those readings not those feelings, learn to read all of that without the car doing anything. So you can go from here to here in your parameters and go 10 to 20mph difference within these ranges without ever slipping a tyre. It’s all just in load and feel, and it’s very fine, fine, fine adjustments, be it ride height, attitude, wheel rates.” You can almost hear him counselling Tracy…

That ability to read cars made him the ovals yardstick in a national championship that has habitually been much more competitive than Formula One in terms of the number of potential winners each season. Yet nothing ever changed his personality. Prior to the Sanair shunt many observers rated him the best oval driver of all time, no mean accolade when you consider the likes of Foyt, the Unsers, the Andrettis, Parnelli Jones. After it, he remained top gun. Success or failure changed him not at all. Throughout his career he was the supreme team player, able to subjugate his personal feelings for the good of the whole.

In today’s cut and thrust racing world you don’t often find a man totally at peace with both himself and his profession, but Rick Mears had the inner calm of the true racer who knows how good he is and doesn’t have to boast about it at every opportunity. Once, in our conversation, he broke off to sign an autograph, handing the book back and saying, ‘Thank you very much.’ He was entirely oblivious to the fact that the hunter clearly felt the gratitude should have been the other way around.

“If you were in Formula One you probably wouldn’t have done that,” I ventured. “That’s another reason I didn’t do it,” he responded immediately, with a smile that robbed the words of any rebuke. “That attitude; I swore I’d never be like that. I wasn’t raised that way, and I’m just not like that anyway. That’s not my make-up. I don’t agree with it.”

Indeed, Rick Mears was F1 ‘s loss back in 1980. Thirteen years on, in retirement, he’s IndyCar’s loss, too.

What they say

Ken Anderson – damper specialist:
“The two best drivers I ever worked with are Rick and JJ Lehto. Even after the Sanair shunt, on a road course Rick would always be on the Friday pole. Then Danny would get the set-up for Saturday and would be able to brake that little bit harder and therefore go that little bit faster.”

Eddie Cheever – 1990 IndyCar rookie and former Formula One driver:
“He’s a diesel engine. Thump, thump, thump, just so utterly reliable.”

Danny Sullivan – IndyCar champion:
“Rick is the best guy I’ve ever seen on an oval. He’s so good I don’t know where he seems to get that extra speed. In that respect, he’s the yardstick for all of us.”

James Morton – Chip Ganassi Racing:
“He was a sensational oval racer. At Michigan in 1991 Arie Luyendyk was really on a charge, lapping at 228 in the closing stages when Rick was leading. The way he was going I really thought that he must be pulling up on Rick, but when I checked the gap it was just the same. He’d just set the car up for the last half hour and he really went for it. And he won. It was absolutely brilliant.”

Herbie Blash – former Brabham manager:
“I went to watch him out on the circuit when he tested a Brabham at Paul Ricard in 1980. He was very smooth. He was so cool, calm and collected. He didn’t show any emotion at all. He was ultra-cool and very quick. Nothing fazed him at all. The guy would have made it. He was a World Champion, I think.”

Gordon Murray – former Brabham designer:
“He was very sensible, that certainly came across. And very conscious that he shouldn’t bend the car. He was very smooth and quite impressive. And a nice person, too, which always goes a long way to helping. Very, very bright, intelligent. I watched him out the back at Ricard and Riverside, and thought then just how smooth he was.”

Bobby Rahal – 1992 IndyCar champion:
“The two cleanest guys out there are Al Junior and Rick. And of everyone, Rick is the cleanest. Absolutely, no question. He’s the kind of guy who, no matter what the situation, will never let you down. You always know what he’s gonna do, that he’s gonna be fair.”

Nick Goozée – Managing Director, Penske Cars:
“I first met Rick as a quiet young man sitting by a pool the day before he tested a Penske for the first time. On that day no-one knew him; 24 hours later we knew we would never forget him.

“From that day until his retirement Rick never changed as a person and his commitment to the entire Penske Team never wavered. He became, and remained, a friend with all who worked with him, and no-one could command greater respect from his colleagues.

“He did everything for the team, and as a result the greatest partnership between a driver and a team was forged. Remarkable is insufficient to describe him.”