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…]
I can't remember exactly when I started thinking about retirement. It was before the 1992 crash, and it may have been before '91 Indy, to be honest. But I walked into the garage one morning on a race weekend and said to the boys, “OK, where are we at?” instead of walking in and saying, “Right, I was thinking about it last night and I think we should try this, this or this.” That's the way I'd always done, so this was the first indicator that I hadn't really thought about it all that much the night before, and opened my eyes to the possibility that my desire was tapering off. Then I started keeping tabs on that and monitoring it, because I knew that once the desire really started going away, my performance was going to go with it, and then if we weren't competitive, it wouldn't be any fun, quite apart from the fact that I'd be cheating the team and the sponsors.
Getting upside down at Indy in 1992, there was another indicator that my desire was slipping, and it happened actually during the crash. I didn't recognize it as such at the time, but later I was sitting wondering how much longer I could keep doing this. When I started to mull it over it came back to me. And it was a thought I'd never had before during an accident…
I remember every split second of the accident. We were getting up to speed, and fortunately we weren't right up there yet, because it was the first run in the T-car, and we were just working on it. I think we were running 213-215 laps, slower than we could have been, because I wasn't full tilt yet. But I rolled into Turn 2 and, thinking back, it was a similar experience to when the wheel came loose the year before. As soon as I turned in, the car stepped out on me and it felt like we had caught a gust of wind which had pinned the nose, so I caught it and straightened out and I remember thinking, “Whoa, that was a pretty big gust.” But then it went back into a slide again, without any pinned feeling, without any shaking at all, so I caught it again, and at that point I knew it wasn't wind and I knew there was a problem.
So, I wound as much lock into it as I needed, and it stopped there for a second like it was coming back, so I squeezed a little bit more and then thought, “No, if I wind any more in, I won't be able to unwind it fast enough if it grips.” So at that point I thought, ‘No, OK, we're done,' and so I locked the brakes.
My next thought was, “Oh damn, this is going to hurt” and my next thought was, “I hope it gets around either slowly or quickly” – slowly so it hits on the side, or quickly so that the nose goes around in time to clear the wall so that it hits on the other side. So as it started around, I glanced over my left shoulder, looking for where the wall was to get an indication of how I was going to hit, and I couldn't see it because of the tire smoke. I was going backward, and the smoke was coming through the car, so I had no reference to figure out how I was going to hit. So I thought, “OK, I've gotta get my feet up,” but I wanted to stay on the brakes as long as I could so I gave it a quick beat – boom, boom, now – and yanked my feet up.
And that was about the time it hit. As soon as it did, I felt the car do something odd that I hadn't ever felt before but then immediately my feet and legs started killing me from the slam, which had banged my knees together and my feet over against the side of the chassis so hard that there was instant pain in my feet and legs. That took my mind off of that weird feeling I'd sensed at the moment of impact.
Now, I probably had my eyes shut, and, of course, the impact knocks the wind out of you and the noise sounds like a bomb going off. One of the things I noticed the first time I ever crashed was how loud it was. I'm thinking about my feet and legs, because they're still sensitive from the Sanair  crash and then all of a sudden I felt a jolt in the car that got my attention off my pain. I open my eyes and look up and suddenly I see these sparks flying at me. I realize “Damn! I'm upside down!” and that made me think back to the odd feeling I had when I hit initially; it had been climbing over the left rear.
Now, fortunately, it was in a slow rotation down the straightaway, and from where I am, all I'm seeing is grass, pit wall, grass, pit wall, grass, pit wall and I'm waiting for another bang, but then I realize I'm just going down the straight, and I think, “Good, stay on this line…” I hear cars slowing down going by me….but now I've got liquid running in on me. So I think, “Oh s***,” because I know I can't just unbuckle my belts – I'm pretty much still hauling ass down the straightaway; a car doesn't slow down very quick just on the rollover hoop. So when the fluid comes in, I put my hand to the buckle just to be ready, and ready to take a deep breath, because if it ignites, I'm going to have to hold my breath until the car stops. I remembered from the pit fire in '81 how dangerous it was to breathe in those circumstances.
Finally it slows down and I realize that if it hasn't ignited by then, with all the heat from the engine and the sparks flying past, that fluid can't have been fuel. I can almost breathe a sigh of relief by the time it comes to a stop – I'm just about getting my breath back – and I'm able to appreciate that there's no rush. I just wait until someone comes to get me. I can remember seeing out between the lip of the cockpit and the ground, back toward Turn 2, I think, the wheels of the fire truck come up, stop, see some feet hit the ground and then come running up to the car. Whoever it was yells, “Hey Rick, are you all right?” and I say, “Yeah, I'm fine, but just get me the hell outta here!” So they rolled the car back over and got me out. So, an interesting experience to say the least. I took my helmet off, and it was pretty much ground down to where there was a hole in it.
But during the accident, there was one other thought. Right after it went upside down and was sliding down the straightaway, I thought, “I don't need this s***!” but right about then was when the liquid was running in and my mind went to that. But later that day, I was kicking around the idea of retirement and that mid-accident thought came back to me. It was another indicator that the end was getting close. In previous crashes, I'd thought first about doing a quick personal inventory of what was working – hands, feet, legs, arms – and then, “OK, where's the backup car?”
I don't think that accident affected my performance in qualifying – again because I knew what caused it. I've never understood drivers who got out of an accident and said, “Man, I don't know what caused it.” If I'd ever felt that way, I'd have been scared to death. I never crashed without knowing something had happened. I might not know what it was, but I felt something wasn't right. If I made a mistake, I knew it. If I yanked the wheel, if I went in too deep, if I picked the throttle up too soon, braked too hard, missed my entry, I knew I had caused it.
It's like at Sanair when I did my feet in, I had no problem with getting back in the car the next time because I knew what I had done to cause it…and I knew not to do that again. That's how you learn. In this 1992 Indy shunt, which had been caused by a waterline breaking and spraying the rear tire, I knew something had gone wrong before I ever hit.
Did it affect my driving at Indy that year? No, I don't think so. As a team, we just weren't on it. None of the Penske cars were very good. I was right up with my teammates and they were always my yardstick. Yeah, I'm a team player and teamwork is best – that's how you get an advantage over other teams. But at the end of the day, I'd better be ahead of my teammates, no matter what. If we're down and only running 15th and 16th, I better make sure I'm the one who's 15th.
I certainly hadn't decided to retire at that time, either. I didn't really get serious thinking about it until farther down the road. Michigan was another indicator. I got out of the car while it was still running and the only other time I had done that was when I had a rock thrown up in my eye at the Meadowlands and I could only see out of one. Apart from that, I'd never gotten out of a car while it was still running – my ego wouldn't let me! So at Michigan, I got out because it was bad, bad loose and I feared I was going to take someone else out with me. I had my arm in a splint at the time, and I wasn't convinced I could catch it if it got too loose. We found out I'd got fractures and torn ligaments in there, and I was going to need surgery and miss the next couple races, and that gave me more time to sit and think about retirement.
Finally, I put all the little indicators together, and it finally dawned on me: “You idiot! If you're already thinking about retirement, it's too late. You're already there.” That suddenly clicked one morning, and I said, "OK, that's it." I hadn't talked to anyone about retirement before I'd made the decision, except my brother and my wife. They were the only two. I didn't want anyone influencing my decision, any other input; it had to be a decision I made for me.
I then brought it up with Roger [Penske] before I had 100 percent made up my mind and he said: “Hey, it's a decision you and only you can make. It's up to you.” But I think the very next words out of his mouth were, “If that is going to be your decision, I want you to stay involved.” That's typical Roger: it made things a lot easier for me, because I didn't want to get away from racing, I didn't want to get away from the team [and he has remained with it ever since, LEFT], and that had been the biggest struggle in my decision. I had felt like I'd be letting the team down, because I knew how much the team wanted a fifth Indy 500 win.
But then again, I just kept weighing all the facts, and had another “You dummy!” moment as I realized if the desire's not there, I'm not going to get the fifth win anyway! Another thing Roger had said soon after I told him my thoughts, was, “Would you be interested in a limited schedule, maybe just the 500s?” And I said, “No, if I make this decision, it's because I don't have the desire to run, period.” Plus, I felt that if I'm not running all the races, I'm no longer current. I'm not 100 percent up on my game, and this whole business for me was about improving all the time. To me, if the desire went away, I quit improving, and then I'd go backward. And I wasn't prepared to do that.