Would Mears Have Won a Fifth?

Please Note:  This is unrelated to today’s post, but for eleven years I have had poll questions at the end of each post on this site. Unfortunately, I am close to stopping that practice. This isn’t the Gallup organization and these polls are not scientific. Only a small percentage of daily readers vote in it. No IndyCar decision-makers are flocking here to check the poll results each day. They are for fun and for readers of this site to see what other readers are thinking. But for the last month or so, someone has been getting on here and voting multiple times for whatever agenda they have.

For most of Monday, the choice of “Zero races” had only a handful of votes. Suddenly on Monday night in less than an hour, it was the top choice by more than double the second choice. This is the second time in my last two posts this has happened, and has made it where the polls are no longer any fun. It’s a shame that one anonymous troll has to ruin a long-standing tradition here that most people have seemed to enjoy over the years, but that’s about where I am with this. OK, end of rant. – GP

I’ve mentioned before about some of the IndyCar related Facebook groups I belong to. I joined them mostly for the variety of fascinating photographs, some of which I’ve never seen before. My earlier complaint was regarding how irritated I get at some of the uneducated posts and comments – you know, just like the rest of Facebook.

Every now and then, however – I’ll see something that gets my mind wandering. Such was the case this past weekend.

The original post was a picture of Rick Mears in his yellow Pennzoil 1988 Indianapolis 500 winner. Someone commented underneath that had Mears not retired so early, he surely would have won six Indianapolis 500s. My initial reaction was to scoff at the comment, because you can’t throw something hypothetical like that out there and present it as a fact. But the more I thought about it, the more I was thinking that the early retirement may have cheated Mears out of being the sole five-time winner of the Indianapolis 500.

Some will say I’m just looking for a blog topic in a very slow time. Well, that’s partially true, but this past weekend would have normally been the COTA weekend and had I seen this post over the weekend in the middle of the race season, I would have still given it a lot of thought and written about it by the following Wednesday.

Rick Mears was just a few days past his forty-first birthday, when he dropped the bombshell at the 1992 Penske Christmas Party that he had driven his last race and was retiring as a driver effective immediately. His teammates, fellow competitors and fans were stunned by the announcement. Just a year and a half earlier, Mears had just won his fourth Indianapolis 500 in only fourteen tries. His fifteenth “500” in 1992 had not gone well at all, after a very trying Month of May, but no one suspected when Mears was hauled away sitting up on a stretcher on that cold afternoon, that we would never see him in a driving suit at the Indianapolis 500.

The previous year had been interesting for Mears and Marlboro Team Penske. Mears won the two 500-mile races on the schedule, Indianapolis and Michigan, but only scored two other podium finishes – Surfers Paradise and the Meadowlands. He had four other races where he finished fifteenth or worse in a sixteen-race season. Still, Mears managed a fourth-place finish in the points.

His teammate, Emerson Fittipaldi, had only one win (Downtown Detroit), but had four second-place finishes along with a third and a fourth and wound up fifth in points. Throw in newcomer Paul Tracy, who broke his leg in a crash after three laps in his Penske debut at Michigan. Tracy would heal and run two more races – a seventh at Nazareth and a twenty-fifth at the season-finale at Laguna Seca. In summary, 1991 was a mixed bag of results for all three Penske drivers.

1992 was worse, and very un-Penske-like. Mears and Fittipaldi drove an all-new chassis for 1992, while Tracy would be assigned a year-old chassis in the events he was scheduled to run in. In retrospect, it appears that the PC-20 from 1991 was a better chassis than the PC-21 that Mears and Fittipaldi were to drive in 1992. Mears and Fittipaldi were to also have exclusive use of the Chevy-B in 1992, which was lighter and smaller with a little more horsepower than the Chevy-A, but was more unreliable. Still it won four races (all by Fittipaldi), but the Chevy-A won the Indianapolis 500 with Al Unser, Jr. and the 1992 CART championship with Bobby Rahal.

The 1992 season started with a one-two finish for Marlboro Team Penske, with Fittipaldi winning at Mears coming in second. But While Emmo was on the podium for the next two races at Phoenix and Long Beach; Mears was a little more pedestrian with his results, finishing eighth and sixth respectively. Then came Indianapolis, where the Penske cars were underwhelming. Mears qualified on the outside of Row Three, Fittipaldi in the middle of Row Four and Tracy on the inside of Row Seven. Tracy would blow an engine and finish twentieth. He was the highest finishing Penske car for the day. Mears and Fittipaldi both crashed at the identical time, but in separate crashes. Mears finished twenty-sixth, while Fittipaldi wound up twenty-fourth.

But it was a practice crash that determined the future of Rick Mears. He was practicing in his 1991 winning car, when a fluid leak sprayed over his rear tires. The car spun in Turn Two and hit the wall violently as his car flipped and slid down the backstretch on the roll bar and his helmet. Mears would later say that before the car grinded to a halt, he said to himself “I don’t need this”. Fortunately, Mears escaped only with a broken foot and a wrist injury. He would be ready to qualify and drive in the race, but it was the wrist injury that proved more problematic for the rest of the season. Mears would only drive in four more races that season. As it turns out, his last appearance in an IndyCar was at Michigan, where he finished sixteenth.

Some say that Mears decided to retire as he was sliding down the backstretch of IMS upside down.

Whether it was that one incident, the performance of the 1992 cars and engines or who knows what – Mears decided to call it a career with fifteen Indianapolis 500 starts, a record-tying four Indianapolis 500 wins, a record-setting six Indianapolis 500 poles (a record that still stands today), twenty-nine IndyCar wins and three IndyCar championships.

Anytime a driver retires, they and everyone else wonders if the timing is right. AJ Foyt hung around way too long – twelve years past his last win – as well as Johnny Rutherford. Most think that Parnelli Jones retired too soon, after only seven Indianapolis 500 starts. Sometimes a driver is retired beyond their control. If Helio Castroneves had his preference, he would still be driving the entire IndyCar season.

Unlike Foyt or Rutherford, Mears never seemed to flirt with a comeback. Once he announced his retirement at that Christmas get-together, he never looked back. He seemed completely content with his new role with the Penske team – that as a consultant and a driver coach. When asked on the morning of the 1993 Indianapolis 500 if he had any second thoughts, he never wavered that he was fine with his decision. As far as I know, he never even ran any laps to help set up a car for Tracy or any other driver.

But after seeing what came the following two years after Mears retired, you have to wonder if he privately wished he hadn’t pulled the trigger on his retirement quite so early. Fittipaldi won the 1993 Indianapolis 500 in a newly-designed PC-22, on his way to a second-place finish behind the strength of two wins and ten total podium finishes. In 1994, Al Unser, Jr. won eight races, had two more second-place finishes on his way to winning the CART championship. Team Penske also had exclusive use of the Mercedes 500I at Indianapolis. Little Al and Emmo started 1-2 at Indianapolis and Little Al cruised to victory after Fittipaldi crashed as he was about to put Al Jr. a lap down.

Rick Mears probably looked at his last two IndyCar seasons with mixed emotions. Yes he won his fourth Indianapolis 500 in 1991, but he also crashed at Indianapolis for the first time ever in practice that year. Then after a violent practice crash along with a hard crash in the 1992 race, perhaps he sensed his skills eroding or his body talking to him. Or, was he looking at the performance of his PC-21 in 1992 and the Chevy-B and think that this was as good as things would get for a while.

Rick Mears is a very private person. He keeps all personal details and thoughts to himself. Outwardly, he is a very positive and classy individual. That’s why fans love him. But we also know he has dealt with his share of personal problems away from the track, but shares them with no one. That is why I’m sure we will never know if Mears has any regrets for hanging up his helmet just before the team hit a resurgence in 1993 and 1994. I can’t help but think he may have put one of those two Penske cars in Victory Lane himself, becoming the only five-time winner of the Indianapolis 500. I don’t care who you are, it carries a lot more weight to say you are the only five-time winner, than the third to become one of three four-time winners.

As I typed that last sentence, it dawned on me that I had just found a way to cheapen winning the Indianapolis 500 four times. That was not my intention at all. Instead, it proves my point. As great of an achievement as winning the Indianapolis 500 four times is, how incredible would it have been to be the only person to win it five times?

So, I guess I’ve devolved into that person that spews hypothetical scenarios as fact. That’s what this extended offseason has done to us all. It has left us to speculate on what might happen to what’s left of the schedule, or to speculate on what might have been had someone not retired so early. Then again, that’s what fans do anyway.

George Phillips

12 Responses to “Would Mears Have Won a Fifth?”

  1. Yes I noticed the sudden ramp of votes. Pity as I enjoy your polls but there are w@nkers out there sadly with childlike minds. Hope you keep up the good work.

  2. Juan Lamb Says:

    George, is it possible to cap the vote at 1 per IP address in the system you are using? I know some other sites I follow do something similar with their polls. Once you vote, it won’t let you vote again. Don’t know how you do it or if it is platform specific though. I hope you keep the polls and I have thought many times Rick would have gotten his 5th if he had not retired early.

    • WordPress (who hosts this site) changed poll vendors about a year ago. I had the old one set up where you could select more than one choice. This new vendor is so much more restrictive, I haven’t found out how to change anything except the appearance (color, font, etc.). I may dig into that tonight. – GP

  3. S0CSeven Says:

    I saw Rick wearing shorts a couple of years ago and his legs looked like a jigsaw puzzle. Sometimes ya gotta know when to fold ’em while you still can. …… like Little E… and I support that.

    And, the elementary school kids will be back in class in September and you can restart the poll.

  4. I’ll type out here what we discussed yesterday…

    I think Rick would have actually fared much better with the 1993 Penske PC-22 compared to the dominating car the PC-23 turned out to be in 1994. Rick was a very analytical driver and won because he always had his equipment set up for the best run at the end of the race. That is exactly how Emmo won the 500 in 1993… by getting his car working at the right time. The 1993 Indianapolis 500 was also a very different type of race because of the reconfiguration of the track. Rick’s analytical and exacting driving style would have given him a definite advantage in 1993.

    In 1994, however, Little Al and Emmo ran away with that race simply from the brute strength of the Mercedes engine. That wasn’t the type of race that Rick typically excelled in. That’s not to say Rick COULDN’T or WOULDN’T have won. I’m just not convinced that was the type of race or race car that suited Mears’ strength as a driver. I think Rick probably would have won a fifth, though you know as well as I do that no 500 has EVER played out as predicted on paper beforehand… just too many variables.

    As for whether Rick ever regretted getting out of the car… I’ve heard him claim several times that he hasn’t, although I find it nearly impossible to believe he didn’t at least think it would be fun to drive a few laps around IMS with the PC-23/Mercedes. However, he told me he has always been comfortable with his decision based on what happened after the 1992 crash. He told me the morning after, he walked into the garage and asked his crew chief (Richard Buck maybe? I think Peter Parrott had moved on by that point) what the plan was for the day. As soon as words left his mouth, Rick said he realized it was the first time he had thought about being in the car since the crash the day before. Every day of his racing career prior, he would go home at night, think about the day, think about what changes need to be done, and think about he could do to improve the next day. As soon as his asked that question, though, and he realized he hadn’t even thought about the car and getting back in, he knew he had lost the drive and determination to push himself to improve that he always promised himself he would have. Whether or not the decision was finalized at that point, I don’t know (though if it wasn’t then, being forced out of the race at Michigan because he couldn’t physically finish the race probably removed any such doubt).

  5. billytheskink Says:

    Mears’ chances to win a 5th in 93 or 94 would have most certainly been as good as Fittipaldi’s, Unser’s, or Tracy’s. However, I think I am more curious about how Mears would have hypothetically handled the 95 Penske car at Indy.

  6. JP 500 Colorado Springs Says:

    A moot question. Castroneves could easily be a six time winner also. Three close seconds on 2003, 2014, and 2017. How bout Little Al, in the scheme of woulda, coulda, shoulda? 1989, and all those missing years with Penske during the split? All fun for the sake of argument, but immaterial.

    • It’s not a moot question. First , Castro Neves has not won 4. Coulda’, woulda’, shoulda’. Secondly comparing the spec racing era to Mears era is similar to comparing Babe Ruth’s home runs versus Henry Aaron or Barry Bonds homers. Different eras, cars, reliability, etc

    • He probably could have won in 2002 also lol

  7. It seems this pandemic is yet another thing to be politicized and half of the people want everything to start up right now, the other half thinks you are going to hell for wanting anything to be open in the next 10 years. So a poll about racing had to turn into a “I win!!!!” situation. Thankfully I feel like the majority of people are just normal folks about it but the dicks outweigh the regulars on social media and such.

    Anyway, I am not sure Mears would have won the 5th but he would have had the the most prime years left to do it, by the time AJ or Al did it, they had no time left where they were true contenders. I think Mears did. It’s tough to say that he wouldn’t have won it though because 1994 would have been a strong year for him.

  8. Here’s an interesting question…..given Rick’s seemingly innate ability to set up a car for and drive an oval, could he have put a Penske in the show in 1995? He was with the team during that time, but there’s a huge gap between using your own instincts and experience when sitting behind the wheel, and trying to interpret another driver’s retelling of what the car is doing. I don’t know whether he would have or not, but to me, that’s almost as fascinating a question as whether he would have won in 1994.

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