Rick Mears on the Indy 500 Win That Got Away
Rick Mears won the Indianapolis 500 four times: 1979, 1984, 1988, and 1991. In 1982, he nearly had another, which would have made him the only driver ever to take home the Borg-Warner trophy five times. Here, he shares the story of that famous showdown with Gordon Johncock, as the two raced to the finish line.
Throughout that race, anytime I caught up with Gordon, I didn’t have any trouble getting by him. So I was fairly confident when I saw that I was going to catch him with one lap to go.
But when I pulled out to go by him on that final lap, his car suddenly started pulling back toward me, which I didn’t expect. In hindsight, I can see it was because I had a lot more fuel on board than he did. Earlier in the race when we were equal on fuel, I would get the momentum, get up around the side of him, and pass with no problem.
When we came to the first turn, he was still a nose ahead. He had to go all the way to the apron of the track to make the turn, and I knew he was coming right back up to where I was. If I stayed there, we would have crashed. So I had two choices: I could stay there and crash, or I could lift and let him go by and spend the next three corners trying to get him back.
So that’s the decision I made.
I tried to lose as little momentum as possible and then started chasing him. But he beat me to the finish by 0.16 of a second.
You’re fighting for fractions of a second all the time out there. That amount of time isn’t even a blink of an eye, but at the speeds you race at, that turns into footage. Half a car length, a car length—whatever it was. In my eyes, it was a mile.
People constantly say, “Wow, 0.16 of a second. You would have been the only five-time winner!” But I never beat myself up over it. We did everything we could do. I know now that if I would have caught him with four or five laps to go and made that move, I would have realized what the weight of the fuel load did to the way the cars moved. I would have learned that, and then still had time to recover.
All I was doing was putting my head down and running it as fast as it would go.
When we got to the finish line, I actually thought I had won it. But Gordon drove his heart out and did a hell of a good job. I’d rather be a part of the race and not win it than not be a part of it at all.
I went back after it was all over and watched the clips. You could hear the broadcasters’ voices changing on TV. They were surprised: “It looks like Mears is going to catch him!” It made it a good show, which is what we like to do.
My first win in ’79 happened when I was so young. I didn’t know what it really meant. I didn’t grow up around Indy, so I didn’t understand the history of the Speedway. I thought: Oh, great. We won. Let’s go back and try to do it again next year.
So you win it, and you go a few more years and don’t win it. By then, you’re older and wiser, and you realize not a lot of people even get the opportunity to be there. I’m fortunate just to have done that, so I don’t worry too much about 1982.
In racing, there’s stuff that’s beyond your control. You just have to accept the hand you’re dealt. A lot of people have trouble with that. If someone cuts me off in turn one, I want to be over it by turn two. Getting over things quickly is part of the process.
The number-one priority is to finish the race. You can’t win if you don’t finish. Why roll the dice on a risky move?
There are some drivers who want to win every trip around the track. To me, I only had to lead one lap.
This article is part of IM’s special May 2016 coverage of the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500.