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Rick Mears

Full Name:
Rick Ravon Mears
3rd December 1951 (Age 68)
Wichita, Kansas
Most recent race (in database):

Rick Mears holds a special place in American open-wheel racing history as the most recent of three men to have won the Indianapolis 500 on four occasions. Record holder for Indy pole positions (six) and three times national champion, he turned down the opportunity to race in Grands Prix in 1980 to develop into one of American racing’s all-time greats.

Background and Indycar debut

Raised in Bakersfield, California, he raced motorcycles in the California desert in 1968 before following older brother Roger into off-road car racing with family built dune buggies (at his mother’s behest). He was racing at local short tracks from 1973 and made his Indycar debut in the 1976 California 500 at Ontario when eighth in Bill Simpson’s Eagle-Offenhauser. He only started another two races that year but did enough to win the Rookie of the Year award.

With Mario Andretti dividing his attention between Indycars and Formula 1 during 1978, Roger Penske offered Mears half a season that included the Indy 500. The 26 year old responded by qualifying on the outside of the front row at the Brickyard and he won a couple of weeks later at Milwaukee. Two further victories followed as Mears finished ninth in the standings despite his partial programme. Penske had unearthed a new star and they would race together for the next 14 years.

Champ Car Champion for Penske

Mears was the driver to beat during the now CART-sanctioned 1979 season. He converted pole position at Indianapolis into victory for the first time and dominated the championship – winning his first title the Gould Charge Penske PC7-Cosworth.

He began 1980 by testing an F1 Brabham BT49-Ford at Riverside and apparently lapped quicker than regular Nelson Piquet. He was expected to make his F1 debut in the Long Beach GP but declined the invitation to concentrate on his title defence. Piquet won that race and went on to become a three-time world champion. It was a case of what might have been.

Mears ultimately lost the 1980 Champ Car World Series to Johnny Rutherford’s ground-effect Chaparral but he dominated in 1981 and 1982 – champion on both occasions despite missing the 1981 Milwaukee race due to burns to his face sustained in a pit fire at Indy. On pole position at Indianapolis again in 1982, Gordon Johncock beat him by just 0.16 seconds in what was at the time the closest finish in history.

Sanair accident and fourth Indy 500 victory

Chances of a third title in a row were hampered by the difficult PC11 chassis and the team bought March 84Cs for 1984. Mears won at Indy for a second time but crashed heavily practising at Sanair that September – severely crushing both ankles.

He gradually recovered but was markedly more competitive on ovals than on road courses thereafter. Penske introduced the competitive PC17 chassis in 1988 with power from the new Ilmor-designed Chevrolet engine that Mears had helped to develop. He won that year’s Indy 500 from pole position and team-mate Danny Sullivan was crowned Champ Car champion.

Victory on a road course for the final time followed for Mears at Laguna Seca a year later but he lost that season’s championship showdown with Emerson Fittipaldi. Third in the 1990 standings, he equalled A.J.Foyt and Al Unser’s four Indy victories after a classic tussle with Michael Andretti in 1991.

Retirement and future life

Mears suffered a violent practice crash at the Brickyard 12 months later and he announced his retirement from driving at the 1992 Penske Christmas Party. He still works for the team as a consultant in Indycars and remains a legend of Indianapolis.

His road-course pace may have been blunted by injury, but he retired as the most respected oval driver of his generation. Of that ability on America’s superspeedways, Sullivan said: "Rick is the best guy I’ve seen on an oval… he’s the yardstick for all of us".

Championship seasons

Season Name Starts Poles Podiums Wins Position Points
1992 PPG Indycar World Series
Marlboro Team Penske
8 0 1 0
0% win rate
13th 47
1991 CART/PPG Indycar World Series
Marlboro Team Penske
17 6 4 2
12% win rate
4th 144
1990 CART/PPG Indycar World Series
Penske Racing
16 3 5 1
7% win rate
3rd 168
1989 CART/PPG Indycar World Series
Penske Racing
15 5 6 3
20% win rate
2nd 186
1988 CART/PPG Indycar World Series
Penske Racing
15 4 5 2
14% win rate
4th 129
1987 CART/PPG Indycar World Series
Penske Racing
15 0 4 1
7% win rate
5th 102
1986 CART/PPG Indycar World Series
Penske Racing
17 4 4 0
0% win rate
8th 89
1985 CART/PPG Indycar World Series
Penske Racing
5 2 3 1
20% win rate
10th 52
1984 CART/PPG Indycar World Series
Penske Racing
11 (1) 2 4 1
10% win rate
4th 110
1983 CART/PPG Indycar World Series
Penske Racing
13 1 4 1
8% win rate
6th 92
1982 CART/PPG Indycar World Series
Penske Racing
11 8 6 4
37% win rate
1st 294
1981 World Endurance Championship
Garretson Enterprises
2 0 1 0 123rd 19
1981 CART/PPG Indycar World Series
Penske Racing
10 2 8 6
60% win rate
1st 304
1980 World Championship of Makes
Dick Barbour Racing
1 (1) 0 0 0 8
1980 CART/PPG Indycar World Series
Penske Racing
12 0 5 1
9% win rate
4th 2866
1979 World Championship of Makes
Bruce Canepa
2 0 1 0 12
1979 USAC National Championship
Penske Racing
1 1 1 1
100% win rate
1979 SCCA/CART Indycar Championship
Penske Racing
13 1 8 2
16% win rate
1st 4060
1978 USAC Citicorp Cup National Championship
Penske Racing
11 0 6 3
28% win rate
9th 2171
1977 USAC Citicorp Cup National Championship
Theodore Racing Team
Art Sugai
8 0 0 0
0% win rate
20th 555
1976 USAC Citicorp Cup National Championship
Art Sugai
Bill Simpson
3 0 0 0
0% win rate
16th 390