Rick Mears: The Greatest Off-Road Driver? Hourglass
Of all the off-road racers that made it to the big big time, that is the Indianalpolis 500, you'd have to say that Rick Mears was the best. In fact, except for AJ Foyt, Mears could be the best that ever raced at Indy in term of overall wins.
Rick was born in the off-road wilderness of Kansas, but his family soon moved to Bakersfield, CA. Racer Mark Steele (see the July 16 edition of Hourglass) took the family on their first Baja pre-run, which they loved.
Rick and his brother Roger started out with their own cars and took up buggy short course racing at Ascot Stadium in Gardena, California. “There used to be a lot of grumbling in the pits among the drivers”, said JC Agajanian, Jr., who used to roam the pits as a teenager at his Dad's raceway. They were grumbling because they were all racing for third place at best because the Mears Gang always took first and second.”
Soon after, Mickey Thompson held his first ever off-road event at Riverside Raceway in October of '73 and Rick entered and placed second to Don Rountree in the featured class one race. Rick was hired as a team driver on the highly successful Sandmaster Team for the 73 Baja 500.
In the 75 season, Rick's talent was emerging. He and his brother Roger were still racing at Ascot, and they took that skill to Riverside for the then named AC Delco World Championships. Roger and Rick battled with ace Sandmaster driver Bobby Ferro, who broke a shock halfway through the race. Roger won, and Rick took third behind Ferro. In the desert, Rick drove to an overall win in the 75 Mint with Gene Hirst, piloting a Sandmaster single seater.
The Mint race on the 'north-of-Las-Vegas' course was known as the roughest, toughest off-road race ever conceived, and by todays standards, the Sandmaster buggy they drove is comparable to a 'Flintstones' car: simple but tough. Rick won Class one at Riverside that year, and brother Roger won a couple classes.
In 1978, his brother Roger joined him on the Indy Car circuit with a ride with Galles Chevrolet.
After that, in 77, Parnelli chose Mears as a co-driver in his Chevy pickup at the Mint 400 and some Baja and desert races. Mears even drove one of PJ's trucks with his dad Bill as co-driver for a race or two that season. As far as Riverside went this year, Rick won Class 2 and Class 9.
Rick's big break happened in 1978, when he was offered a ride on a part-time basis with the Penske Team while their team's number one driver Mario Andretti pursued Formula One victories in Europe. Rick's offer also included a try at the Indy 500, where, to everyone's astonishment, Rick qualified in the first row, and the first rookie to qualify over 200 mph! His race ended at lap 45 (out of 200) but was given co-Rookie of the year honors.
Also, in 1978, his brother Roger joined him on the Indy Car circuit with a ride with Galles Chevrolet and qualified for the Indy 500 in 1982.
In 1979, Rick won his first Indy 500. But he gave the Riverside dirt fans a real treat that year by showing up to race and won the Challenge of Champions in Tracy Valenta's class one Funco. Rick was supposed to race in a couple more class races, but had to withdraw due to blisters he got during the Challenge of Champions. He took a lot of ribbing that day from Roger.
After that, Rick concentrated on his CART career. In 82, at Indy, he finished second behind Gordon Johncock by 0.16 seconds. The photo-finish would stand as the closest one for over 10 years. In '84, Rick took his second 500 win while flying yellow Pennzoil colors.
In '88, Penske fielded a new chassis with a Chevrolet engine, and Rick won the 500 for the third time. He finished out the decade as the winningest Indy Car driver of the 80's. In the 1991 season, his last, Rick passed Mario Andretti to win the Indy 500 for his fourth time, making him only one of three racers to do so. (A.J. Foyt and Al Unser were the others) and Mears announced his retirement at the end of the season. He went to work for the Penske team as a consultant and coach. The Penske team was the only team he ran for when he garnered all his Indy wins.
Rick always remembered his off road roots. In numerous interviews over the years, he credited off road racing with teaching him far he could push his car during a race.
Notes:And for the ultra -trivia fans, Rick shares with Bobby Unser as the only driver to win the 500 in three different decades (70's. 80's and 90's). He's also holds the record for the most pole positions held at six.
Roger Mears had more than his share of victories in off road, both desert and stadium--20 off-road world championships at Riverside, four Baja 1000s, two HDRA/SCORE Desert Championships and five Pikes Peak Hill Climbs. He also competed in the Mickey Thompson Stadium Championship with 13 career Grand National Sport Truck Victories.