Rick Mears, along with A.J. Foyt and Al Unser Sr., is at the top of the tree as a four-time Indy 500 winner, but the Team Penske legend and six-time 500 polesitter could have had more. And none of his what-might-have-beens have been so close as 1982, when his Penske PC10 was beaten by Gordon Johncock's Pat Patrick-run Wildcat by just 0.16sec. Rick (seen in '82, BELOW LEFT, and today, BELOW RIGHT) tells RACER editor David Malsher how it happened.
With everything I knew at the time, I wouldn't have done anything different. But in hindsight, yes, this was definitely the one that got away.
Gordon Johncock and I had gone back and forth all day long, but whenever I caught him, we were strong enough to make the pass. It wasn't easy, but we could get it done. So obviously I was thinking the same way when we got to the end. Having said that, after our final pit stop, I didn't think I was going to catch him, to be honest. But when I saw that we were, I thought, “Good, at least I know we're quicker.” Previously I had been able to get a run on him, get my nose by him and have the corner going into the next turn.
So, when I caught him on the second-from-last lap, I thought the timing was right for the setup: I could get him off of Turn 4 down the front straightaway, to get the white flag. So I pulled out to get by him, and I thought, “OK, we're good,” and then all of a sudden the momentum changed, and I started slowing down as I pulled out into the air, and he started pulling away from me. Usually that day, once I had the momentum going and had got my nose alongside, I could go on and complete the pass. So when that didn't happen this time, I thought “Whoa! Where did that come from?” It was a total surprise. How could he reverse the momentum and pull away from me? I couldn't figure out what had happened.
So let's back up a bit. First of all, coming in the pit on lap 183, Herm Johnson braked hard in front of me in the fast lane of the pit road – remember, we had no pit lane speed limit back then – to turn into his pit box, and I had to lock them up. Even so, I slid up to him and bumped his right rear with my left-front wing. That lost me two or three seconds; but it could have been worse, I suppose. I could have taken a wing off and been done for the day.
And then when I got to my pit, we basically stayed too long and took on almost a full tank of fuel, even though there wasn't a full stint to make it to the end. When Gordy came to the pits three laps later, Patrick Racing gave him a short stop, a splash-and-go, just enough to make sure he got to the end. When he came out, he had a 12-second lead on me with 14 laps to go. When I saw that, I suspected it was all over. So I thought, “OK, well all I can do is put my head down and go, and just get the most out of it I can.”
So that's what I did, and I'm watching the splits and I'm running as hard as I can run, I see the gap starting to come down. I can see that how much I was gaining per lap means this could work out. I could possibly catch him by the end. His tires were going off, so he was picking up a little more understeer, and I was getting faster as my fuel load came down.
Knowing what I know now, with hindsight, I would have waited for the final lap and got him on the run to the checkered flag. I'd have pulled out and got the nose on him, and the fact that he could reverse that momentum on the second half of the front straight obviously wouldn't have mattered. But when I caught him on the white-flag lap, I thought, "Well, why waste any time? Why take a chance to leave it to the last lap?" And that's when I made my move.
So after he had reversed that momentum, when we got to Turn 1, although he was on the outside, he was definitely far enough ahead for it to be his corner. So at that point I had two choices: I could be dumb and hang on in there and we'd crash, or I could lift, because I knew he wasn't going to and he would be coming down to claim the corner. That would still leave me three more corners to get him back. So to me it wasn't brain surgery to choose the second option. But we didn't have enough time to get him back.
I know a lot of people back then said it was a rookie decision to make my move one lap from home instead of the last lap, and that I had learned a lesson. Well, yeah, we learned a lesson after the fact! It wasn't an experience lesson; it was a "what-we-had-to-deal-with" lesson that we couldn't have known until after the fact. You've also got to bear in mind that we had run him down so quick – on average, a second per lap – and I had passed him earlier in the race, so I didn't even think about suddenly being unable to make the pass stick. The fact was, though, that I was making all my gains in the corners, and he was faster down the straights. Hindsight, right? I wasn't to know that.
There was some consolation that it was such a great finish. I mean, you never want to be second, but I'd rather be second than third. I felt good about it for two reasons. One, I felt like I'd gotten everything out of the car I could; I don't think I'd left anything on the table or made any major errors that caused the loss. Well, except perhaps if I'd risked staying beside him at Turn 1 and maybe he wouldn't have come down on me…but I know better than that! If it's the last lap and I go into a corner and I don't see my rival's nose coming up to my left-front wheel, then I'm coming down. I knew that, and Gordy knew that, so had I stayed there, we would have crashed, and the third-place guy at the time would have won. As a matter of fact, I remember A.J. Foyt saying after the race: “If that had been me, I would have kept my nose in there, and the third-place guy would have won.” Well…Foyt didn't win four Indy 500s by being stupid; he knew better than that. Him saying that was just Foyt being Foyt!
So, knowing I'd given everything was one reason I was OK with the result, even though I don't like losing any more than the next guy. But the second reason was that, if it wasn't going to be myself or one of my teammates winning, I was tickled to death that it was Gordy who won. Earlier in the day, I'd noticed he was pretty strong, and I thought, “OK, he's going to be tough – he's having a really good day here.” And I also clearly remember thinking while I was driving along, “If it can't be a Penske in Victory Lane, I hope it's Gordy who beats us.” He and I had always gotten along well, and I knew he never really got to celebrate his win in 1973. That was a terrible year at Indy, with rain delays, bad crashes, and the loss of his teammate. He hadn't been able to enjoy the win at all. So from that point of view, too, missing out on the milk in '82 was a lot easier to deal with.
• Coming tomorrow: Rick Mears talks about his two accidents at Indy and his decision to retire.