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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Rick Mears showed us how to play the game

by Gordon Kirby
Over the past twelve months I've had the great pleasure to write the story of Rick Mears' remarkable racing career. The book, untitled as yet, will be published next spring by the Crash Media Group, publishers of the highly-respected Autocourse, Motocourse and Rallycourse annuals, and is the story not only of Rick's life and career, but also of a racing family, the 'Mears Gang'.

Rick's dad Bill was a successful, part-time modified racer in Kansas in the early fifties before moving his family to California in 1955. Under his tutelage, Bill's sons Roger and Rick grew up in Bakersfield racing motorcycles, stock cars (in older brother Roger's case), sprint buggies and off-road cars. Roger and Rick were very successful in sprint buggies at the old Ascot track in Gardena, and in off-road and desert racing, too. Both of them went on to win the Pike's Peak hillclimb--Roger in 1972 and '73 and Rick in '76--beating the traditional front-engined, V-8-powered hillclimb cars with comparatively tiny VW- and Porsche-powered, rear-engined sprint buggies.

The book also tells the story of Penske's Indy car team at the top of its powers over the course of Rick's fifteen years with the team as a driver from 1978-'92. During that time, Rick won four Indy 500s, twenty-five CART Indy car races and three CART championships while the team won three more Indy 500s (with Bobby Unser, Al Unser and Danny Sullivan), thirty-one additional CART races (with Mario Andretti, the Unser brothers, Sullivan and Emerson Fittipaldi) and three more championships with Al Sr and Sullivan.

But most important of all, Rick's story is about a driver with phenomenal talent who may have been the fairest, most sporting driver in the history of the sport. Nobody has a bad or critical word to say about Rick and in the book's Prologue, no less a man than Mario Andretti says Mears was the cleanest driver he ever raced against as well as one of the most talented and motivated.

In today's world, where sportsmanship on the track and an open, co-operative relationship between teammates is considered naive and passe, you will find Rick Mears' story to be a salubrious read. Let me give you a taste by excerpting some comments from the book by some of Rick's teammates and crewmen, starting with Emerson Fittipaldi. Rick and Emerson were teammates at Penske from 1990-'92, the last three years of Rick's driving career and Fittipaldi looks back fondly at those years. Emerson calls Mears the 'King of the Ovals'.

© steve swope / mears collection
"It was a pleasure to work with Rick as a teammate," Fittipaldi says in the book. "Rick was a great teammate and a great person. I enjoyed every second I spent working with him because he was a great driver and an outstanding guy. Rick was always in control. When you were racing with him you knew what he was going to do."

Fittipaldi adds that he never encountered another teammate who was so open and equal with him. "Rick was a great teammate, a great person, and very technical," Emerson says. "It was always nice to work with him and to sit down for a meeting with Rick. He was very much into the setup of the car. He knew and understood about the car and there was a great exchange of information between us.

"He was very transparent," Fittipaldi adds. "It was always very straight between us. He knew he could count on my comments and I knew I could count on his comments, and we helped each other to improve both of our cars."

Danny Sullivan was Rick's teammate at Penske from 1985-'90. Sullivan won the Indy 500 in 1985 and the CART championship in '88. "It was a really good time to be a teammate with Rick at Penske," Sullivan says. "I really enjoyed my time there. There were no politics at all with Rick. It was fun. We had a good time. I think one of the reasons he and Roger (Penske) got along so well was because Rick embraced that mentality. He never argued or tried to go around you. There was no hidden agenda. He was the ultimate team player."

Nick Goozee was the managing director of Penske Cars in the UK for twenty years. During that time, Goozee was in charge of building Penske's Indy cars and was a crewman on Mears' car at Indianapolis in Rick's rookie year at the Speedway. Goozee closely observed Mears over the course of Rick's fifteen years racing the team's cars.

"I don't think Rick ever slagged-off the team, or the car," Goozee says. "If he did a dumb thing, he said he had done a dumb thing. He didn't try to find an excuse which blamed it on somebody else. He was a stunningly honest and competent racing driver.

"You will never find anybody who will ever say anything bad about him," Gozee continues. "Not anybody he competed with, or worked for, or came into any association with him. He's an enviable individual. We've all got our enemies, but he was totally without any enemies. Even when he found himself scrabbling through different political situations, he was gracious. He never did anything to inflame one side or the other. I think once Rick retired, the ethics of motorsport changed."

Goozee is unrestrained in his praise for Mears as a team player and human being. "There was a pride in working for Rick Mears that didn't exist with any other driver," Goozee declares. "It simply didn't. Rick was adored within the team, and still is to this day. He's there and plays his part every weekend and does his thing in his humble way. We're all cynical about racing drivers. We see them come, we see their fame, and we see them go. Usually, you end being somewhat associated with them at the beginning and then being very disdainful of them by the time they're finished. But that was never the case with Rick. Everybody was so proud to be involved with him."

Rick learned about teamwork from his father and brother when they lived and raced together in sprint buggies and off-road cars. "I learned how to work as a team player through my brother," Rick says. "It was whatever you do, or whatever I do, we work together on this. One can help the other and we'll go on down the road and try to better the situation."

Bill Mears says the close relationship between his two sons helped them perform better. "I think that's what made both of them so good," Bill says. "They were team players when they were racing against each other. I had two cars at Ascot and they would sit there between races, or at night at home at the supper table, and they'd ask, 'How do you take this corner?' They'd listen to each other."

© steve swope / mears collection
Older brother Roger was an aggressive driver and hard worker while Rick was more laid-back as a driver and worker. Roger was more aggressive in all ways and was often quite outspoken, more like his father, while Rick was much quieter, more like his mother.

"There were a lot of times when I wished I was more like Roger and spoke my mind more," Rick says. "But I had trouble doing that. It's not that I learned to do that, or did it for a reason. It's just my makeup. That's the way I am. But there's a happy medium, and Roger helped me in that regard. I've always been an introvert and I learned from him to come out more with your feelings instead of keeping it bottled up inside."

Roger's younger son Casey carries on the Mears Gang tradition today, successfully racing NASCAR Nextel Cup Chevrolets for Rick Hendrick's top-ranked, four-car team.

Derrick Walker worked for Penske for twelve years and was general manager of Penske's Indy car team from the end of 1980 through '87. Walker has run his own team for the last sixteen years and started his career building racing cars, then working as an F1 mechanic. Walker has seen many top drivers from the inside and he has no doubts in putting 'Rocket Rick' at the top of his list as a driver, team player and human being.

"Rick was a great team player," Walker says. "In terms of having a teammate, anybody he drove with, he was straight as a die. He wouldn't bullshit anybody. He was confident in his own abilities. You didn't have to play mind games with him. Rick would unselfishly run a teammate's car and give all the informaton that was necessary without any feeling that somehow this guy was going to go quicker than him and make him look bad. It was very unusual for a driver to have that sort of maturity.

"Rick was a class act," Walker goes on. "I never heard him bullshit anybody. He's just a regular guy, totally focused on doing the job. He had very few interests outside of racing in those days. He just was a hundred percent racing and a seriously loyal person to the people he worked with, and to Roger. He was very loyal and he had no agenda. It was very unusual to have somebody with that much talent that the success didn't spoil them. But Rick today is the same guy he was back then, just older."

Walker says Mears' quiet, confident and transparent way of working never changed. "I never saw anybody quite like Rick. He knew there were faster drivers in the team at different times, but he never felt threatened by anybody. He just kept focused on his own game. As he got more experience and he won more races I never saw that attitude change at all.

"Even when he was racing, he was one of the best guys to bring a young guy to talk to. He could talk to them in such a way that they would understand. He didn't try to boost his own ego or persona. He just talked in real driver terms and that's the genuine racer that he is. He was like your best friend or your brother, very much like that."

Walker says Mears put in the same effort and performance every day of his career. "He was a very complete driver, no doubt," Walker remarks. "He had tremendous patience in the race. He won a lot of races by being really smart and patient and by really working with the car and never giving up. And that's the thing about him. I don't think I ever heard, or thought, or anybody ever said that Mears was having a bad day. He gave the same effort, regardless, every time he was in the car. He might drive a little more conservatively when he was trying to do something that didn't require him to be on the edge. But he never gave a bad day.

"If he had family problems or anything going on in his life, when he got in the race car, he gave a hundred percent. He never missed a beat. You never, ever had an issue with Rick. He pulled his weight every single day he got in the car, and even out of the car he was such a team player. Everybody loved to work for him because he was totally unselfish, a good guy."

Mears' unwavering method and open-minded approach to the sport provided superb leadership for Penske's team through the eighties and into the early nineties. "He influenced a lot of other drivers in the team," Walker says. "Because Rick didn't ever get into a tantrum, nobody else got the tantrums. He set the tone because he was the number one son, and if he didn't do it, then nobody else would. He influenced the whole team that way, not just the drivers. He was a real professional in a gentle way.

"He always drove the same way. He never gave up and he never threw it into the fence in desperation. He didn't waste it. He was very smart. His wins were a lot like him as a person--on the surface, not very dynamic. But quite remarkable if you looked under the skin, and at the person."

As I said earlier, Rick Mears' way of racing and living is how a sportsman should conduct himself. His life and achievements as a race car driver, team player and human being are a fine antidote for the ill-will and bad manners evident in so much of today's world of sport, racing included sometimes.

There's much more in the book, of course. As I wrote at the beginning, it was a tremendous pleasure to spend much of last fall and winter reliving and writing about Rick's career. He is a genius in a very straightforward way and there are many gems from Rick in the book about driving, racing, engineering the car, working with the engineers and team, etc. Any young driver will learn a lot about racing by reading this book and everybody will be delighted with the utter lack of guile or pretension in Rick or any member of the Mears Gang.

I'll be sure to keep you informed of the release date next spring. We're aiming for late April or early May.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

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