INDIANAPOLIS – There’s nothing like a driver’s first win in the Indianapolis 500.
It’s the culmination of a lifelong dream to take the checkered flag, bask in the glory, adulation and cheers of hundreds of thousands of fans in attendance, and cap things off with the celebratory sip of milk in Victory Lane.
Yet as special as his first Indy 500 win was in 1979, nothing tops Rick Mears’ fourth and final triumph in 1991.
That win put Mears in very elite company at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, as only he, A.J. Foyt and Al Unser – who coincidentally turns 77 on May 29, the 100th Running of the 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil – have ever won four editions apiece of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
“For me, the biggest win was the fourth one, for different reasons,” Mears said recently. “The first one will always have its place, but it was my second attempt to win it and I didn’t appreciate it.
“Don’t get me wrong, I appreciated the heck out of it, but I didn’t understand it. I didn’t know how hard it was, how difficult it was to win that race and didn’t know what it meant.
“I didn’t grow up around the (Indianapolis Motor) Speedway; Indy cars were out of my league. I never thought about an Indy car until about six months before I got into one (in 1978), so I hadn’t been a real student of Indianapolis.
“So winning that first one was great. We (looked at it as we) had won another race and we’ll try to do it again next year. Then you go a couple more years and you don’t win it, you look around, you’re getting a little older and wiser, I’m learning more about the history of the speedway and what it all means to the world.
“And I’m thinking, ‘You know, there’s a lot of guys that never had the opportunity to even get here, let alone run the race, let alone win it. So the odds of winning it more than once are pretty slim.’”
Fortunately for Mears, he was part of the Team Penske powerhouse that was a favorite to win nearly every year. Mears drove to his second Indy 500 victory in 1984 and a third in 1988.
Three years later, in 1991, Mears drove what he considered his best Indianapolis 500 to collect win No. 4 after a memorable duel with Michael Andretti.
“The fourth one, you’re getting later in your career, you don’t know how much longer you’re going to be running,” Mears said. “So basically, I ran the race to gear up to be ready for the shootout at the end, to do the battle at the end of the race to win the race.
“Of the four wins, the only time that shootout materialized was the fourth one. So knowing more about the place, getting near the end of your career, and after the third one telling yourself only two guys have ever won four, so what are the odds of that happening? They’re getting pretty great against you.
“Having the shootout with Michael at the end, finally getting to have the battle at the end of the race and coming out on top, really made the fourth one special. … I was pretty sure that was going to be the last one.”
Mears suffered a broken wrist in a 1992 practice crash and, while he did compete in the race, finished 26th. Mears announced his retirement at the end of that season at the age of 41. He remains with Team Penske as a consultant and spotter for three-time winner Helio Castroneves.
His achievements at Indianapolis alone set Mears apart. His four wins came in just 15 tries – compared to 27 for Unser and 35 for Foyt. He won the pole position six times and started on the front row 11 times. His average starting position was 4.5 and average finish 11.2.
Legendary numbers posted by a legendary driver in Indianapolis 500 lore.