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Sports Then and Now

Rick Mears: Four-time Indy 500 Champion

Posted on May 07, 2011 by Dean Hybl

Rick Mears

The May Sports Then and Now Vintage Athlete of the Month is one of only three drivers in history to win the historic Indianapolis 500 four times.

However, what is particularly impressive about the record of Rick Mears is that he reached his record-tying total in just 15 Indianapolis 500 starts, compared to 27 for Al Unser and 35 for A.J. Foyt. In fact, Mears finished in the top 5 an amazing nine times in his 15 appearances in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

Recognizing that the young driver had a talent for driving fast, Roger Penske hired Mears in 1978 to run half of the racing schedule for Penske Racing, which was already established as one of the top open wheel racing teams in the sport.

After having tried unsuccessfully to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 the previous year, in 1978 Mears qualified on the front row in the third position. Though he was out of the race due to engine failure after 104 laps, it was clear that the 26-year-old had the talent to be a star. In fact, he went on to win three races during his rookie season and earn a full-time ride for Penske.

The next season, Mears won the first of his record six Indy 500 poles and went on to claim his first Indianapolis 500 victory. He claimed the CART championship that season with three victories and four second place finishes.

After finishing fifth at the 1980 Indianapolis 500 and suffering his worst Indy finish with a 30th place showing in 1981, Mears was at the top of the field for the next three years.

After winning the pole for the 1982 race, Mears finished just behind Gordon Johncock in a photo finish as he nearly erased an 11 second deficit following the final pit stop. The next year he finished third and then in 1984 claimed his second Indianapolis 500 victory.

Mears returned to the winners circle in 1988 as he became just the eighth driver to claim three or more victories in the Indianapolis 500.

It took just three more years before Mears joined Foyt and Unser as four-time winners. In 1991 he registered his sixth pole position and then passed Michael Andretti late in the race to claim the checkered flag.

The following year, the 40-year-old Mears suffered a broken wrist during practice for the Indianapolis 500 and started ninth, his worst starting position since 1985. He then was unable to avoid an accident and finished 26th. Mears finished 13th in CART points in 1992, marking the first time he had not finished in the top 10 in the standings.

He surprised the racing world by announcing his retirement shortly after his 41st birthday in December 1992. Mears is the uncle of NASCAR racer Casey Mears.

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