“Rick Mears – Thanks”

Rick Mears has always been one of my favorite drivers. I’ve made it clear that AJ Foyt is my all-time favorite. I’m not quite sure where Rick Mears ranks behind Foyt, but it is near the top. In fact, he may actually slot in at a close number-two, just behind AJ – that is how much I like and respect Rick Mears as a driver and as a person. You can imagine how excited I was to receive a copy of Rick Mears – Thanks by Gordon Kirby as a gift. This was to be the quintessential biography of Rick Mears, written by one of the more respected motorsports journalists around.

It pains me to say it, but I was disappointed. Keep in mind; I am not a bookworm. I don’t just sit down and crawl inside a book for hours on-end. I don’t have the time, nor the desire for that. Instead, I keep a book by my bed and generally read a few pages each night before dozing off. That’s how I read. Did I mention that I got this book for Christmas and just finished it this week? So I completely disqualify myself as any literary critic. Still, I’m no wine expert – but I know bad wine when I taste it.

Perhaps my expectations were too high. Normally, when I get about two-thirds of the way through a book; I don’t want it to end. This book, on the other hand was drudgery to read. That’s why I was so disappointed, because I was so looking forward to it.

I hadn’t even made it through the Forward by Roger Penske, when I realized the first thing I didn’t like – it was way too big. It is essentially a paperback coffee-table book. It measures eleven inches by eleven inches, and is a somewhat flimsy paperback. Reading it in bed as I do, is work when a book is that big and heavy.

On the plus side, it is chocked full of beautiful photography – many pictures that I had never seen before. Well, that’s about it on the plus side.

Another complaint is the fact that the book seemed to be loaded with typos. I realize that this site has its share of typos – especially first thing in the morning, before my family is nice enough to e-mail me with the list of typos I need to correct. If you wait until after lunch to read the site, the typos have usually been cleaned up by then. But I am not a professional journalist, nor do I charge people forty dollars to read this site, which is the exact price of this book.

But if the subject matter is riveting, typos don’t really bother me. Such was not the case with Rick Mears – Thanks. That was the biggest disappointment of all. This was generally a “fluff” book. Now, I realize that Rick Mears was never a controversial figure. That was part of why I liked him so much. But Mears was present and witness to some of the most historic events in Indy car racing for a very long time. Since he wasn’t the one telling the story, I expected some unknown insight into some of these events. Instead, there was nothing.

I anticipated learning quite a bit about what made Rick Mears tick. I also wanted a glimpse into the inner-circle at Team Penske. What I got was an endless parade of interviews from key personnel that served with Rick at Team Penske. They all said the same thing: Rick was the consummate professional. Rick was the ultimate team-player. Rick had no ego, whatsoever. Rick was the best at giving the engineers feedback. Rick was the nicest guy and got along with everyone. While I don’t disagree with any of these ramblings for one minute, I already knew all of this.

The book did go into detail regarding the 1982 Indianapolis 500 where Rick lost by a car length to Gordon Johncock; and also his 1984 crash at Sanair, where he almost lost his feet. But I learned nothing new about these events – and I don’t consider myself that knowledgeable when it comes to Rick Mears.

I was curious about how Rick got along with his teammates over the years at Team Penske. I was hoping to learn some inside scoop about Kevin Cogan’s early exit from Team Penske, after only one year in 1982. Like most of us in this voyeuristic society we live in, I wanted to learn more of Rick’s drinking problem that was revealed in 2003, along with his divorce from his second wife, Chris. These were touched on briefly, but quickly danced around. I don’t enjoy reading about someone else’s personal misery, but I was wanting some insight into Rick Mears – the man. I came away unsatisfied.

Gordon Kirby usually doesn’t deal in softballs. He certainly doesn’t mind throwing plenty of barbs and jabs at AJ Foyt or anyone who prefers ovals over road courses. That is why I thought this would be a no-holes-barred account of the life and career of one of the greatest American drivers in history. Instead, it turned out to be something that should have been written for the Rick Mears Fan Club – all fluff and very little meat.

Maybe the fact that Rick was such a gentleman throughout his career made this such an unsatisfying read. Perhaps if he had been in and out of jail, squandered a fortune and consistently put his fellow drivers into the wall – it would have been better reading. But Rick Mears was, and is, an exceptionally nice guy. The reason all the people interviewed said the same thing is because Rick was nice to everyone.

I’ve only had one encounter with Rick Mears. It was after the Nashville race in 2003. Gil de Ferran had just won the race for Marlboro Team Penske. After the race, my son and I were back in the garage area. It was dark, but my son was chasing down as many autographs as he could. I was just standing back trying to stay out of the way of the teams packing up. I looked over and there was Rick Mears standing right next to me. Here was a four-time Indy 500 winner, yet no one in Nashville seemed to know who he was. I guess he noticed me staring at him, so he turned and shook my hand and simply said “Hi, how are you doing?”. I went into my usual star-struck mode. Eager to show that I knew who he was, I foolishly called him by name – like I was his long, lost pal. Suddenly, I felt like I was in the tenth grade. But even though he is quiet and mild-mannered himself, he put me at ease and we just started talking about the race. Then my son walked up and I asked Rick if he would give my son his autograph. Of course, he obliged.

Rick Mears was probably the most unassuming celebrity I have ever met. He almost seems uncomfortable in that role. Perhaps that is why his biography has so little substance to it. He would prefer to deflect attention somewhere else.

Would I recommend this book to you? Maybe or maybe not. If you want a coffee-table book to occasionally pick up and admire the many beautiful racing photographs – then by all means. If you are spending forty dollars thinking you are going to become an expert on Rick Mears by reading this book – I think I might pass. You make the call.

George Phillips

4 Responses to ““Rick Mears – Thanks””

  1. Tim Nothhelfer Says:

    I have not read the book. Maybe Rick could have written about photography, as I hear that is his current passion, where there might be some insight into what makes him tick.
    My wife has Johnny Rutherford’s book that chronicles his career and life.

  2. Someone who’s a casual reader who, by all rights, should thoroughly enjoy the contents of a book is probably the best person to review it. If an old-school oval racing junkie such as yourself can’t get into a book about Rick Mears, then there has to be some sort of issue about it.

    I’m disappointed to hear there’s not a section about his personal issues — something you’d find in a thorough biography of just about anyone. That section of Rick’s life and Al Unser, Jr’s, troubles are portions of a couple of my heroes’ lives that I would like to hear more about when those two are ready to open up.

  3. Haven’t read it yet but it’s on my list. Just a bit farther down now.

    For me the gold standard is Jackie Stewart’s FASTER. I keep hoping I’ll find another like it, but haven’t. In Indycar I haven’t found anything close.

  4. Let me just say this. I really like Rick Mears as a driver, but when I saw the title of your post, I thought, “Maybe I’ll pass this one up.” Seriously, I didn’t know there was a book. The reason I felt that way was that he seems so vanilla. I couldn’t imagine there was much interesting about him. Actually, even if there was something very interesting, I figured that it wouldn’t have been said. I think Rick has been a great, stand-up person in the IndyCar arena. I loved to watch him drive. Do I think that his off-the-track stuff was gonna interest me, probably not. Heck, I’m not sure there are any drivers that have less controversy associated with them. Good for Rick. I’m glad he doesn’t strike any really personal chord. I admire that.

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