Rick Mears on the Indy 500 Win That Got Away

The four-time champ recalls how close he came to first place in 1982—one of the greatest finishes in the history of the race.

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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.

 

Rick Mears
Mears chasing the Number 20 car of Gordon Johncock in 1982

Photo courtesy IMS

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.

 

As told to Alex Kincaid and Evan West.

 

This article is part of IM’s special May 2016 coverage of the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500.

 

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