Rick Mears

Rick Mears

3/12/1951

American race car driver. He is one of three men to win the Indianapolis 500 four times (1979, 1984, 1988, 1991). Mears is also a 3-time Champcar national champion (1979, 1981 and 1982). He holds the record for pole positions at the Indy 500 (6). Mears began his racing career in off-road racing but switched to Champcar racing in the late 1970s, making his debut for the small Art Sugai team, driving an obsolete Eagle-Offenhauser. His speed attracted the attention of Roger Penske. Although at the time Penske Racing had the services of Tom Sneva and Mario Andretti, Andretti was also racing in Formula One with Lotus at the time and Penske wanted another young driver who would focus exclusively on American racing. For 1978 Mears was offered a drive in nine of the eighteen championship races, including the Indianapolis 500. Mears qualified on the front row at Indy, but did not lead a lap and retired at half-distance with a blown engine. Two weeks later at the Rex Mays 150 at Milwaukee he bounced back to win his first race. He added another win another month later at Atlanta and rounded off the year with his first road course win at Brands Hatch as the USAC cars made their first, and last visit to England. In 1979 the National Championship sanction changed from the USAC to Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART), and Mears emerged as the driver to beat. At Indianapolis he won his first "500" by virtue of staying at the front of the field and taking the lead as other drivers dropped out with mechanical problems. This intelligent and patient approach was to become Mears trademark style. Three wins and four seconds in the eleven CART-eligible races was easily enough to wrap up his first championship. Mears worst finish in 1979 was fifth. 1980 the revolutionary ground effect Chaparral put every other team on the back foot and Mears had to be content with 4th place overall and only one win, scored at Mexico City. 1981 and 1982 saw Mears at the top of his game, both in terms of speed and consistency. Ten wins in two years were enough for another two championship titles. At the 1982 Indy 500 he came within .16 of a second of adding a second Indy win. In a rare mistake the team loaded too much fuel during Mears' final pit-stop and the delay put him behind Gordon Johncock. The photo-finish would stand for ten years as the closest finish to an Indy 500. For 1983 the Penske team would be acquire the famous yellow colours of Pennzoil but a recalcitrant chassis meant the team had to rely on consistency over speed. Although teammate Al Unser took the title, the team switched to the March chassis for 1984. This would prove a blessing and a curse as Mears scored his second Indy win that May but suffered severe leg injuries later in the year in a crash at Sanair. The March chassis, like most contemporary open-wheel racing cars, sat the driver far forward in the nose, with little protection for the legs and feet. In 1980 Mears had tested a Formula One Brabham and had been quicker than the team's lead driver Nelson Piquet. However, as he was expected to bring money to the team, rather than receive a salary, he declined the offer. After 1984 his F1-level of speed on road-courses was blunted by the injuries to his right foot and the 1985, 1986 and 1987 years were relatively quiet seasons by Mears' standards, with only two wins, both scored at Pocono, an oval-track. In 1988, after several years using the March chassis, the Penske team were ready the unleash their new car, the PC-17, and a potent new Chevrolet racing engine. The new car powered Mears into an exclusive club; the three-time Indy winners. Like his previous wins it was a triumph of speed and patience. Mears eventually won by a clear two laps as he was the only front-runner who hadn't run into problems. A year later he took a record-setting fifth pole position at Indy, but retired from the race with mechanical gremlins. Emerson Fittipaldi took the 500 and also beat Mears to the Championship in the last race at Laguna Seca, despite Mears winning that race. Fittipaldi joined Mears at Penske for 1990, but the year belonged to Al Unser, Jr., who scored six wins. 1990 would be Mears' last in the Pennzoil livery as Marlboro stepped-up their sponsorship of the team. Twenty laps from the end of the 1991 Indianapolis 500 it looked like Mears was set to be the runner-up behind Michael Andretti. However, when a subsequent yellow flag period erased Andretti's 15 second lead, Mears gained the lead as Andretti opted to pit for new tyres. It would be a short-lived lead as Andretti passed Mears around the outside into the first turn. But Mears was not beaten. A lap later he returned the favour with his own breathtaking outside pass and shot back into the lead. Turning up his turbo-boost he then pulled away to win a fourth Indy 500. In August 1991 at Michigan he won his last race. At the 1992 Indy 500 Mears broke a wrist in a crash during practice and then crashed out of the race for the first time in his career. He raced only another four times in 1992 and announced his retirement from driving at the Penske team's Christmas party. As of 2005 Rick Mears continues to work as a consultant to Penske racing, the team with which he won all of his Champcar races. In 1997, he was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.

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