American race car driver
Rick Mears dominated Indy car racing in the 1980s. He won a total of twenty-nine Indy car races for Team Penske, seven of which were on road courses instead of oval tracks. He won the coveted pole position forty times and he drove more miles during that decade than any other driver. Most impressively Mears won a record number of pole positions in 500-mile races, including six at the prestigious Indianapolis 500 race. Mears was also the Indianapolis 500 champion four times, tying two other drivers for the most wins at the Brickyard. Mears was named "Driver of the Decade" by the Associated Press for winning twenty races during the 1980s. After retiring in 1992 Mears continued to work for Roger Penske as a driving coach and adviser.
From Off-Road Champion to Indy Champion
Rick Ravon Mears was born on December 3, 1951 in Wichita, Kansas, to Bill Ravon and Mae Louise Simpson Mears. When he was five years old Mears and his family moved to Bakersfield, California. Bill Mears drove stock cars as a hobby and both he and his wife enjoyed riding motorcycles. As young children, Rick and his brother Roger would join their parents for motorcycle rides. Both boys took an early interest in racing. They would race motorcycles in the desert, as well as buggies and pickup trucks. While most Indy car drivers start their careers with sprint cars, Rick and Roger Mears earned their experience and their reputations as off-road drivers.
Mears married at a young age and fathered two sons—Clint Ravon was born in 1973 and Cole Ray was born in 1975. Mears began driving professionally in the early 1970s for car owner and safety equipment manager Bill Simpson. He finished in the top ten of his first three races. In 1976 he drove an old, pink Eagle Indy car at the Ontario Speedway and he met racing legend Roger Penske . "Somebody told me to keep an eye on Rick," Penske said when recalling his first meeting with Mears to Sam Moses of Sports Illustrated in May of 1986. "He didn't know me; I didn't know him—and later on he came around our garage and just sort of hung around in the background and watched." Within a few years, everybody would know Mears. In 1976 he won the United States Auto Club (USAC) Rookie of the Year award.
Penske did keep an eye on Mears. In 1978 when Penske's main driver, Mario Andretti , took a break from Indy car racing to pursue the World Driving Championship, Penske called on Mears to substitute for Andretti on the Indy car circuit. Mears won his first Indy car championship for Penske at the Indy Lights race in Milwaukee that same year. Mears also participated in his first Indianapolis 500 in 1978. His qualifying run was fast enough to earn his the number three spot on the first row. He finished the race twenty-third because of engine trouble, but he did receive the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year award.
Dominated Racing in the 1980s
The Indianapolis 500 is the most popular auto race among the general public and one of the most coveted championships among drivers. The track is called "The Brickyard" because it was paved with bricks when it was first built. Only a year after his debut, Mears returned to the Indianapolis 500 in 1979 to win both the coveted pole position and the championship. By this time Mears had competed in twenty-two Indy car races and he had never spun out in an Indy car either during a race or a practice session. Mears finished the year by clinching the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) national championship.
|1951||Born on December 3 in Wichita, Kansas|
|1973||Wins several off-roading championships|
|1973||Son Clint Ravon is born|
|1974||Wins several Formula Vee and Super Vee races|
|1975||Son Cole Ray is born|
|1976||Meets Roger Penske|
|1976||Wins United States Auto Club Rookie of the Year award|
|1978||Becomes substitute driver on Penske's team|
|1978||Wins first Indy car championship in Milwaukee|
|1978||Races in first Indianapolis 500|
|1978||Named Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year|
|1979||Wins pole position at Indianapolis 500|
|1979||Wins first Indianapolis 500 race|
|1979||Wins first Championship Auto Racing Team National Championship|
|1982||Suffers facial burns in a pit fire at an Indianapolis 500 practice session|
|1984||Wins second Indianapolis 500 race|
|1984||Crashes at Sanair Speedway, badly injuring both feet|
|1986||Marries Christyn Bowen|
|1988||Wins third Indianapolis 500 race|
|1991||Crashes for the first time at the Indianapolis 500 during a practice session|
|1991||Wins fourth Indianapolis 500 race|
|1992||Crashes in Indianapolis 500 practice session and race|
|1992||Retires from driving|
|1992||Becomes adviser and driving coach for Team Penske|
|1992||Forms Indy Light team with brother Roger|
|2002||Divorces Christyn Bowen|
|2002||Enters alcohol treatment program|
Mears continued to be successful on the CART circuit. In addition to mastering the oval tracks, Mears was the only Indy car driver to win every road course event in one season. Once again he earned the most points of the year to become CART national champion. He held the title for 1982 as well. In 1982 Mears won the pole position at the Indianapolis 500 for the second time. This was quite an accomplishment considering that Mears had suffered burns on his face from a pit fire earlier in the week. Mears came close to winning his second Indianapolis 500 title, but he was beaten by Gordon Johncock by only sixteen hundredths of a second. Mears was vindicated two years later when he won his second title at the Brickyard in 1984. He was racing against the pole winner, Tom Sneva, in the final laps of the competition when Sneva experienced car trouble. "When I won in 1979, I didn't know what it meant to win the Indy 500," Mears told Sam Moses of Sports Illustrated in June of 1984. "I didn't soak it in until a week later. This year I tried to soak it in before the race was over."
Mears earned a reputation as a safe driver who was always in control of his car. "He's a natural who rarely makes a wrong move," wrote Sam Moses of Sports Illustrated in June of 1984. However, Mears' luck ran out in 1984. During a practice session at the Sanair Super Speedway near Montreal, Canada in September of 1984, the two-time Indianapolis champion clipped another car and spun into a guardrail. The accident crushed both of his feet. His feet were so badly damaged that doctors were afraid they might have to amputate. Fortunately Penske was able to bring in Dr. Terry Trammell, an orthopedic surgeon from Indianapolis, who was able to save Mears' feet. It was still uncertain as to whether Mears would be able to walk again, let alone drive. However, Mears was convinced that as long as his feet were still there, he would return to driving. Mears divorced his first wife in 1983 and during his recovery in 1984 he became acquainted with Christyn Bowen, whom he had met the previous year at a Penske party. She became his second wife in 1986.
In 1985 Mears returned to racing with a vengeance. Although his weak ankles made shifting gears difficult, Mears did not let his injuries deter his desire to drive and to win. In 1985 he won the Pocono 500 race, and he repeated this victory in 1987. In 1986 he not only captured the pole position at the Indianapolis 500 for the third time, but he also set a closed course Indy car speed record of 233.934 miles per hour at the Michigan International Speedway. In 1988 Mears managed to win both the pole position and the race at the Indianapolis 500, which was his third victory at the Brickyard. It was also the seventh victory for Penske, making him the car owner with the most victories.
Respected by His Peers
Despite all of his success, Mears did not garner as much public attention as other drivers of his time, such as the Unsers, the Andrettis, A.J. Foyt , or Emerson Fittipaldi . While other drivers were known for their aggressiveness, Mears was a calm and patient driver. "If my car is not working well, I try to let everybody else dictate the pace and work on not going a lap down," Mears explained his racing strategy to David Phillips of Auto Week in June of 1991. "If the car is good, I'll run at about 80 percent and just try to keep the leaders in sight." This laid-back attitude led the media to call him boring. "Rick Mears has fans, but not passionate followers. He has style, but not charisma," wrote Bruce Lowitt of the St. Petersburg Times in May of 1989. However, it was his skills that have earned Mears respect as a driver. "What makes Rick so great is his credibility with his peers," Penske told Sam Moses of Sports Illustrated in June of 1988. "Walking down pit row, you can't find a guy who doesn't have high praise for him, both as a driver and a man."
Mears won the most Indy car victories of any driver in the 1980s and was named Driver of the Decade by the Associated Press. However, Mears was not finished setting records yet. In 1991 he won the pole position at the Indianapolis 500 for a record-setting sixth time and he won the race for the fourth time. He tied A.J. Foyt and Al Unser, Sr. for the most wins at the Brickyard. He is also the only driver to win the Indianapolis 500 from the pole position three times.
Awards and Accomplishments
|1973||Firecracker 250 Champion|
|1973-74||Japan Grand Prix Off-Road Champion|
|1974||Nor-Cal 100 Champion|
|1976||United States Auto Championship Rookie of the Year|
|1978||Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year|
|1978||First Indy car win at Milwaukee|
|1979||First Championship Auto Racing Team National Championship|
|1979||Named Auto Racing All American by Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association|
|1979, 1982, 1986, 1988-89, 1991||Indianapolis 500 pole position|
|1979, 1984, 1988, 1991||Indianapolis 500 Championship|
|1980-81||Mexico City Race Champion|
|1981||Watkins Glen Race Champion|
|1981||Second Championship Auto Racing Team National Championship|
|1981||Received United States Driver of the Year Jerry Titus Memorial Trophy|
|1982||Third Championship Auto Racing Team National Championship|
|1985, 1987||Pocono 500 Champion|
|1988-89||Milwaukee Indy Car Race Champion|
|1989||Laguna Seca Race Champion|
|1989||Named Driver of the Year by Auto Racing Analysis|
|1989||Named Driver of the Decade by the Associated Press|
|1990||Phoenix Race Champion|
|1992||Named One of Ten Champions for Life by Driver of the Year Awards|
Where Is He Now?
Rick Mears retired from auto racing in 1992, but he remained a member of the Penske team. For the past decade Mears has served as an adviser and driving coach for younger drivers. He and his brother, Roger, also formed an Indy Lights team to promote their sons' racing careers. Rick's older son Clint, and Roger's son, Casey, both began racing careers in the mid-1990s. In 2002 Mears' personal problems became public when he divorced his second wife, Christyn Bowen. He also admitted to a drinking problem and checked himself into a treatment program. Mears still experiences pain in both of his feet from his dangerous crash in 1984.
In 1992 Mears set out for his 15th run at the Indianapolis 500. He was looking for his fifth win so that he could become the single driver with the most wins at the Brickyard. Unfortunately, Mears crashed during a practice session. His car slid on water from a broken line and Mears hit the wall. Mears was lucky to escape with only a fractured foot and a sprained wrist. "This is a racetrack where you must be very precise," Mears described the Brickyard to the Toronto Star in May of 1986. "And at the speeds we're running at there, one mistake is all you get." He was able to compete on race day, but he finished only twenty-sixth because of another crash.
While Mears was recovering from his injuries he decided that 1992 would be his last year of racing, much to the surprise of his fellow drivers. "I truly admire the man," Mario Andretti told David Phillips and Larry Edsall of Autoweek in December of 1992. "He was a great racer, a real competitor, and it was truly fun to race against him." Although Mears did not win the recordsetting fifth Indianapolis 500, he still made his mark on the racing world. Mears had a total of twenty-nine Indy car victories, including four at the Brickyard. He won the pole position a total of forty times and he won the most pole positions in 500-mile races with fifteen. Mears is also tied in second place for the most career victories in 500-mile races. He was inducted into the International Motosports Hall of Fame in 1997.
Address: 204 Spyglass Lane, Jupiter, FL, 33477-4091.
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Harris, Mike. "Former Indy 500 Winner Rick Mears Sought Treatment for Alcohol Problem." Yahoo! Sports Canada. http://ca.sports.yahoo.com/020825/6/oj7t.html (January 20, 2003).
International Motorsports Hall of Fame. http://www.motorsportshalloffame.com (January 23, 2003).
Official Web site of the Indianapolis 500. http://www.indy500.com (January 20, 2003).
Sketch by Janet P. Stamatel
"Mears, Rick." Notable Sports Figures. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 22, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/sports/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/mears-rick
"Mears, Rick." Notable Sports Figures. . Retrieved January 22, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/sports/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/mears-rick