From his debut at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Rick Mears was renowned as the man who never crashed – never even spun – at the track. But in his final two trips there as a driver, he got unlucky. Very unlucky. And the second accident in 1992, triggered thoughts of quitting the cockpit. The perils of the Brickyard aren't taken lightly, even by those who master it, as Rick tells RACER editor David Malsher.
When you go that long and see guys crash year after year, or every other year, you know it can happen – you know it's gonna happen, it's just a matter of when. And so for me, the accident in 1991 was almost a load off my shoulders. I'm serious! I remember my first spin was that way, too. I think I'd won Indy and I'd run for three, maybe four years before I'd spun at any circuit, period. It was on a road course somewhere. Leading up to that, I'd heard, “Oh, if you don't spin, you aren't trying hard enough," and all this B.S., you know? Well, I don't like spinning and I don't like crashing; it never accomplishes anything for anyone. But in the back of your head, you're always wondering. That's what makes you strive to do better; finding the limit, but not stepping over it. So, until I spun, I didn't know for sure where that limit was. It's like, I could never keep something in my pocket during practice. I've got to run a hard lap and physically see the result on the stopwatch in order to know what precisely I have. I can guesstimate it, but I've got to see it once in a while, too.
So I hadn't spun. I'd known I'd come close a couple of times, and caught it, but on speedways it's different. You can't horse it and get it sideways like you can on a slower track. So I'd had my sideways and my out-of-shapes, but we'd never actually lost one. So I knew it had to happen; just not when. I'd never known how close I'd been, so when I did spin it the first time, there were two thoughts. One was relief – “OK, it's happened. Got that out of my system,” but the second thing was, “Whoa! I've been a hell of a lot closer to spinning than I realized and we've just been fortunate.” I realized I'd been very close to that limit a lot of times, but it just hadn't gone all the way around.
So Indy was that way, too. There was no overconfidence there. Whew! I never wanted to get overconfident there. I always worked to stay the other way, because I knew that every time I went out there, it could bite me, and that kept me on my toes. It would have been nice to have made it through 1991 and '92 and to retire being able to say I'd never touched the wall.
With the right-rear wheel coming loose in 1991, I had no reservations afterward, because I knew what caused it. I don't remember the full details now, but I think the wheel pins weren't machined quite right; they were a little long and didn't let the wheel seat properly against the hub, which allowed it to wobble a little bit and start working loose. As soon as I turned in, I felt the rear start to go, so I grabbed it and caught it and it came back. Then it started to go again and I caught it again, and then I felt it start chattering real hard and then I knew there was a problem. The chattering was the wheel wobbling and getting up against the brake caliper which then machined through the wheel, and which obviously caused the right-rear tire to explode.
I've got the greatest picture. Some photographer caught one of the moments when the rear is stepping out, the left front is about three inches off the ground, and I have a little opposite lock on. Basically, it looks like I'm dirt-tracking through the corner – like a sprint car with the left front in the air, and the tail out. But if you look in the background, there are shreds of tire flying off, so I took it to a guy who scanned it and then digitally took all the shreds out. Then I took this new enhanced version to the track one day to show Helio and said, “Now here's how you qualify at Indy!” Didn't fool him for long though: he looked at it for about two seconds and said, “Huh…So how hard did you hit?!”
[EDITOR'S NOTE: The rear end of the No. 3 Penske PC20-Chevrolet was destroyed, but Rick was able to climb out unaided and, following a precautionary check at Methodist Hospital, he returned to the track, was cleared and ready to drive. He took his T-car out and, within seven minutes, had set a 226.557mph lap, putting him second only to Emerson Fittipaldi that Fast Friday. The following day, he took his sixth pole at the Brickyard, and 15 days after that, he won that classic duel with Michael Andretti to become the third member of the four-time Indy winners club.
Astonishingly, Mears would have a second, even more dramatic accident at Indy a year later. But is that what prompted his decision to retire? Not exactly…]