Without doubt the most accomplished driver of modern times at Indianapolis was Rick Mears. Throughout the 1980s and early ’90s Mears was considered the maestro of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He won four Indy 500s in 1979, ‘84, ‘88 and ‘91 before retiring the following year, as well as taking three CART Indycar championships in 1979 and ’81-82. He also claimed pole position for the 500 a record six times and started from the front row on five other occasions.
Beyond his superlative record, Mears showed true grit by coming back from a terrible accident at the tiny Sanair, Quebec oval in 1984. He smashed his feet in the crash and it took every ounce of famed orthopaedic surgeon Dr Terry Trammell’s immense skill to repair the damage and get Mears on the road to recovery. Incredibly, despite intense pain and bleeding, Mears was back in action at Indianapolis the following spring and scored his first post-accident victory in the Pocono 500 in August ’85. His injuries remain with him, making it difficult to walk, but Mears never complains.
Rick and his older brother Roger grew up in Bakersfield, California a hundred miles north of Los Angeles. Roger started racing in stock cars and Rick on motorcycles with the full support of their father, Bill, who had raced stock cars in Kansas and Oklahoma before moving his family west. Bill provided the shop, equipment and know-how to build his boys’ race cars, and in the early ’70s the ‘Mears Gang’ made their mark in Southern California sprint buggy and off-road racing. Both also tackled Pikes Peak and won.
Roger and Rick had different driving styles and personalities. Roger, like his father, was an aggressive racer while Rick was more laid-back and analytical. Neither dreamed of becoming serious, professional racers, but in 1976 Rick got his big break thanks to safety equipment man Bill Simpson, who gave him his first Indycar ride. Simpson saw the rare talent Rick possessed and got his career rolling before handing his contract over to Roger Penske at no cost in late 1977.
Rick became a Penske driver in ’78 and scored his first win in his third race with the team. He went on to win the following year’s Indy 500 and CART title and established an enduring relationship with Penske that lasted through and beyond his retirement. To this day Rick continues as a driver coach for Penske, providing an invaluable resource to current drivers Hélio Castroneves, Will Power and Ryan Briscoe.
Mears was admired and respected not only as a superb driver and racer, but also as a rare gentleman on and off the track. Mario Andretti says Mears was one of the fairest, most ethical drivers he ever raced against: “He was very polished and probably one of the most correct drivers out there. I always had the greatest respect for Rick.
“His was an incredible talent,” adds Mario. “He was always given credit for being such an ace on ovals and I think that disturbed him to some degree because he was able to rise to the occasion on road courses as well. He was a force to be reckoned with wherever he went. I think he was probably the most misread individual because he was always very kind, very laid-back. But I don’t think anybody’s fire burned in his belly any brighter or any stronger when he was in a race car.”