We’re chronicling 100 days of Indy 500 history on #SpeedRead leading up to the historic 100th Running. With 36 days to go, we look back at one of the race’s most enduring champions.
Four-time Indy 500 winner Rick Mears is one of the most well-liked drivers in IndyCar history. Taking the checkered flag in 1979, ’84, ’88, and ’91, he quickly became a crowd favorite amongst racing fans around the world. Mears is also a three-time series champion, winning in ’79, ’81, and ’82. “Rocket Rick” won four Indy 500’s before his 40th birthday (the only one of the three in the four-timers club to do so), and was well-known for being a strategic racer.
Born in Wichita, Kansas, Mears started his career on off-road tracks, before switching to the IndyCar circuit in the 1970s. Roger Penske noticed Mears’ speed and skill sets and was able to sign him to a part-time deal that included the Indianapolis 500.
It did not take long for Mears to find Victory Circle and hoist the Borg-Warner Trophy. He won the Indy 500 in just his second attempt in 1979, beating Bobby Unser after Unser fell back due to mechanical issues. Then in 1982, Mears finished second to Gordon Johncock by 0.16 of a second, in what was the closest Indy 500 finish at the time.
When asked about his key to success – which also included a “500” record six poles – Mears made it pretty simple. In an interview with Fox Sports, which selected Mears as its second-best Indy 500 driver of all time, he said, “I always went fast enough to win but slow enough to finish. I never took any more risks or was hard on equipment any more than I needed to be in the right place on the last lap any more than I needed to.”
Mears was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1997, then into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1998. Currently, Mears is an advisor for Team Penske. In an interview with ESPN Classic about how it feels advising his team instead of driving, Mears said, “It’s a lot easier driving the car. Standing on the sideline, you think of everything that can happen — and you have no control.”
One thing the humble Mears cannot control is his lofty place in history, which would undoubtedly be on Indy’s Mount Rushmore. Depending on your allegiances, Rocket Rick might be the best.