"Rocket Rick" won in three decades
"I remember being in the airport, leaving after the  Indy 500. And there's Rick Mears up ahead of me. And he's got a duffel bag in one hand and [wearing] a pair of jeans and T-shirt. And he was so calm, he could have looked like a sailor that was about to go on a two-week sailing excursion to the Bahamas. You would have never thought that was a guy who just won his fourth Indianapolis 500," says 1998 Indy 500 winner Eddie Cheever on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.
For Rick Mears, racing was not about experiencing high-speed excitement. Bristling at the suggestion he was a thrill-seeker, he lived by the credo "Win the race at the slowest speed possible."
Beating the competition often didn't prove to be a problem. When Mears retired in 1992, he had 29 Indy car victories and topped $11 million in earnings. But it was his ability to four times win the big one, the Indy 500, that made Mears an auto-racing star.
Only two other drivers have as many Indy 500 victories, but neither Al Unser Sr. nor A.J. Foyt attained his success in as short a span. Mears won his four races before turning 40. The holder of a record six starts from the pole, he is the only driver to have won at Indy from the pole in three different decades.
Known as "Rocket Rick" or "The Rocketman," the 5-foot-10, 150-pound Mears also won three CART national championships and the Associated Press named him "Driver of the Decade" for his 20 victories in the 1980s. Six years after his retirement, Mears was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America.
"I've never paid a lot of attention to records," Mears said. "I always raced the same: to win. It didn't matter if I was racing for my first [Indy] win or my fourth or whether the purse was two bucks or a million dollars."
He was born Dec. 3, 1951 in Wichita, Kan. In 1955, the family moved to Bakersfield, Calif., where his father Bill, who drove race cars himself, ran Mears Excavation, a backhoe construction company.
At 11, Rick raced toy slot cars and began spending much of his free time working on them. As a teenager, he rode dirt bikes in the California desert. After injuring himself in a collision, his mother Mae -- better known as Skip -- persuaded him to quit and ride on a four-wheel dune buggy his father was building. Mears quickly adapted and beat almost all his opponents.
After graduating from high school, Mears took a job running heavy equipment at Mears Excavation and raced in his spare time. He and his older brother Roger dominated the off-road racing at Ascot Park in Gardena, Calif. One season, the brothers won 14 of 15 races.
"I had never planned to drive Indy cars," Mears said. "For me, racing was a hobby, what I enjoyed doing most."
In 1976, he won the Formula Vee and Super Vee SCCA nationals and later drove the Formula 5000. He was named the United States Auto Club Rookie of the Year.
Car owner Bill Simpson helped Mears get his start in Indy car racing and then arranged a meeting with Roger Penske, one of the sport's most successful owners. Penske liked the young man and by 1978 Mears was Mario Andretti's understudy, driving whenever Andretti was off racing Formula One events.
Mears made his first Indy 500 appearance that year and finished 23rd to share Indy 500 rookie of the year honors with Larry Rice. Mears won three races that season -- at Milwaukee, Atlanta and Brands Hatch, England.
In 1979, Mears, riding fulltime for Penske, became the 10th driver to win the pole and the race at Indy. Averaging 158.899 mph, he finished a full lap ahead of Foyt. "It's almost like a fairy tale," Mears said. "This thing has happened so quick, it's unbelievable."
He also won the CART national championship in 1979, his first full season on the circuit. He won again two years later, despite being burned in a pit fire while leading that year's Indy 500. Mears missed only one race because of the facial burns and won six of the last nine races that year.
In 1982, Mears and Gordon Johncock had a photo finish at Indy with Johncock winning by 16-hundredths of a second -- a half-car length. "One more lap and it could have been 16-hundredths of a second the other way," Mears said.
After the defeat, Mears was criticized for being too conservative on the final laps.
By the end of the year, Mears had another CART national championship. In 1981 and 1982, he combined to win 10 races and finish in the top five 18 times.
Mears won his second Indy 500 in 1984, averaging 163.612 mph and leaving his nearest rival, Roberto Guerrero, two laps behind. It was the widest margin of victory at Indy in 17 years. The win was his 19th in 87 starts.
But with Mears at his peak, his career almost came to a crashing conclusion. During a practice run on Sept. 7, 1984, at the Sanair track outside Montreal, Mears clipped Bobby Rahal's car and rammed into a guardrail, suffering two broken feet. Doctors initially thought Mears would lose most of his right foot, but after extensive surgery and three months in and out of the hospital, Mears began his comeback.
"I wouldn't know what to do if I couldn't drive," he said. "I've got methanol in my blood."
Mears' return came at the 1985 Indy 500, in which he completed 122 laps and finished 21st. He competed in five races that season and placed in the top three in three, including a victory at Pocono.
The next year, Mears captured the pole at Indy and finished third. By 1988, Mears had made it all the way back. After taking the pole at Indy thanks in part to a record lap of 220.453 mph, he won the race with an average speed of 144.809 mph, the lowest by a winner in seven years. The reason for the slow time was the race had 14 yellow flags, causing 67 of the 200 laps to be run at caution speeds.
Mears made history at Indy in 1989 by capturing the pole for a record fifth time. But engine trouble during the race forced him to stop after 113 laps, resulting in a 23rd-place finish.
In 1991, Mears crashed 16 days before the Indy 500 but rebounded to take the pole and the race. At 39, he became the youngest driver with four Indy victories.
The following year, Mears crashed doing practice laps at Indy on May 6 and broke his left foot and sprained his right wrist. Then, during the race, he aggravated the wrist injury when he hit another car. Mears missed most of the season recovering.
Even before the injuries, Mears had considered quitting. At Penske's annual Christmas party in 1992, Mears made his retirement official. "You hear a lot of drivers say they'll quit when they're not enjoying it," Mears said. "That's pretty much what happened to me. It was a combination of things, but mostly it was losing that enthusiasm I always felt before."
Mears remains connected to the sport as an advisor and consultant to Penske Racing, working with the team's drivers and engineers. His nephew Casey drives in the Indy Racing League and his son Clint briefly drove an Indy car before switching to NASCAR. Rick Mears is a nervous spectator.
"It's a lot easier driving the car," he said. "Standing on the sideline, you think of everything that can happen -- and you have no control."
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