Making Waves At Indy

Given an Indy racer right out of the box, Rick Mears got the bugs worked out—and then it was lights out for the 500 field
June 03, 1984

In recent weeks, Rick Mears has jumped for joy at least twice. The second jump came Sunday, in Victory Lane at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, when he climbed out of the car that had just carried him to his second Indy 500 win, by a margin of more than five miles—a whopping two laps. It would be impolitic, however, for Mears to admit to the first leap; it came on April 16, the day his car owner, Roger Penske, decided that crow would probably taste better than defeat. After his second dismal outing of the Indy Car season on the previous day—Tom Sneva had blown the Penske team away in a 150-mile race at Phoenix International Raceway—Roger had come to the conclusion that the latest model of the Indy Car that carries his name, the Penske PC-12, wouldn't be a winner, at least not by Memorial Day.

On the spot, in true Penske style, he called Oxfordshire, England, and ordered two March 84C chassis. Pronto. I'll send a man over on the next plane to work out the details. By the time the Speedway opened for practice, on May 5, Penske had three of the nifty new Marches stabled in his garages. Unless Penske, the man behind all those yellow and blue Hertz Penske rent-a-trucks, negotiated some kind of fleet rate, that change of mind cost him about $450,000. But it was almost a wash. Mears's car, renamed the Pennzoil Z-7 Special, led for 115 of the 200 laps Sunday, set a race record average speed of 162.612 mph and bagged Penske his fourth 500 as a car owner, a win worth more than $400,000. And in third, according to the official results released on Monday morning—the Penske charts had him second—was Al Unser Sr. in another one of the team's Marches.

Penske, a former sports car driver himself, has been the most successful owner at Indy since the early '70s. In general, he's had his competitors covered so completely that it was a wonder when he didn't win. There's no secret to his success: just lots of preparation, lots of money, the best drivers and mechanics available and everything spit-shined. The late Mark Donohue, who achieved Penske's first 500 win, in 1972, used to refer to his boss as the Captain.

But last year, the Captain made a tactical error. Though Al Unser won the CART points championship for him, the Penske PC-11 chassis clearly wasn't as good as the March, which won six of the 13 races on the schedule. Unser had won only one race and Mears another. This season Mario Andretti's Lola easily outsped the '84-model PC-12 at the Grand Prix of Long Beach, a road circuit, and then Sneva demonstrated the March's superiority at Phoenix, an oval track. "All along, I had the confidence that if we could get the same equipment as the other teams, we could beat them," said Mears.

Mears drove a masterful race Sunday, but it was the car that built that five-mile margin, not the driver. "I would drive for Roger no matter what he ran," said Mears, "but you've got to admire the man for pushing his own cars aside. That's the great thing about Roger: He's a racer; he knows what it takes to win, and he's willing to do it."

The same could be said of Mears, of course. He's a natural who rarely makes a wrong move. A former off-road champion, he raced Indy Cars for three years before he ever spun out in one. He instinctively knows when to wait for the competition to crash or blow, how to be somewhere else when it does, and when to take his chances—things some of the hottest hot dogs never figure out. But as much as anything it was Mears's test-driving that made the difference Sunday. Consider that 29 of the 33 cars in the field were new Marches; consider Mears's 5-mile margin.

The pole position had been won by Tom (Terrific) Sneva, at a record speed of 210.029 mph. Mears was third-fastest, at 207.847. In the 15 days between qualifying and the race, while the other teams backed off, Mears hit the track whenever he could. Around and around he drove, with full loads of fuel and half-loads and nearly empty tanks, testing tires and engines—to the limit. He was doing his level best to shake down this store-bought race car and learn its secrets, to gain an advantage over the competition that the Penske team hadn't brought to the Speedway. By the final practice session, three days before the race, Mears was running 208.719-mph laps—faster than he had qualified—with the car in full racing trim. That was when the Penske team started to get optimistic.

At the start, Mears sprinted away from Sneva. But moving up in tandem from the second row to chase the two leaders were the Andrettis, rookie Michael, 21, and father Mario, 44, and it was obvious that these four would be the day's hot drivers. The younger Andretti blew past Sneva into second place on the front straight of the 10th lap, an aggressive move that served notice to the 1983 Indy winner and the crowd, estimated to exceed 400,000, that Michael was indeed his father's son. But Sneva's experience began to tell when they hit traffic and Tom regained second. For the first 50 miles this tight little group of four ran off from the field; and so far it was every bit the closely contested race it was expected to be. Mears was cruising along at an average of 198.419 mph, breaking the record for 50 miles by more than seven miles an hour—an astounding pace considering that the fastest single lap ever turned in any 500 until Sunday was 200.535.

Then the pit stops and tricky wing adjustments began. The aerodynamic edge is razor-fine; a change of a fraction of an inch in the attitude of a wing can drastically affect a car's handling, and the driver who can tell his crew what to do in the way of fine-tuning will be way ahead—about five miles ahead, say. Mears didn't get it right on his first stop. "In traffic the front end was taking off on me," he said. "I had to hook the car down on the apron to give myself enough room." That enabled Mario Andretti to take the lead in his beautiful red Lola for most of the next 28 laps. Andretti wanted this race badly, and he was going after it, driving low in the turns—so low that he was clipping the grass at the apexes of Turns 3 and 4—then letting the Lola drift out to skim the wall.

Meanwhile, young Andretti began dropping back. His car's handling had begun to deteriorate, and, short on experience, he couldn't find the combination to get it right.

But now along came another brilliant young second-generation driver. Al Unser Jr., 22, had charged up from his 15th starting position to fourth and was beginning to take small bites out of the hot dogs in front. Little Al passed Mears to go into third and then invited himself in on a sensational dice for the lead that was engaging Mario Andretti and Sneva. For several laps the four of them put on a show, driving bravely and expertly, darting and weaving and squeezing through traffic as if the world would come to an end if they eased off on the throttle.

On the 59th lap, after a yellow flag that put Mears back in the lead—he was able to get his wing readjusted during a pit stop—Pat Bedard crashed into the infield fence between Turns 3 and 4. It was a horrifying wreck. An immense ball of flame blew up around his car as it first hit the steel guardrail. Fortunately it flamed out as the black car flipped and corkscrewed through the air, throwing off its wheels and bodywork, leaving nothing but a crumpled inner chassis cartwheeling across the grass. What was left of the car came to rest upside down. Track workers cautiously levered it upright. Bedard, a 42-year-old journalist with a master's degree in engineering, was lifted out limp and unconscious. He regained consciousness in the infirmary in the infield. A helicopter took him to Methodist Hospital, from which eventually there came a wonderfully amazing report: A broken jaw and concussion were the worst of his injuries.

As the yellow lights came on and the cars began pitting, the race was thrown into high-tech confusion; the scoring computer had gone down. Because it kept track of every driver's position and fed the huge infield tower scoreboard, the only people who could know what was what were the official scorers and teams keeping track, and they were too busy to talk to anyone. Somehow, in the tumult, Teo Fabi, the 5'5" Italian who was last year's pole sitter and Rookie of the Year, slipped into the lead. He held it for 13 of the next 17 laps, but on Lap 104 he dropped out with fuel problems, and the race between Sneva and Mears was on again, with Little Al still hounding them. Mario Andretti was fading with a broken exhaust pipe. He would have to drop out for good on the 153rd lap, when he smashed the nose of his Lola against Josele Garza's March. Garza had cut him off coming into the pits. Mario had won Indy in 1969, but now he was bitten by the Brickyard snake once again.

Misfortune had also overtaken two-time winner Gordon Johncock, who had ignition trouble early on and had been pressing to make up for lost time. On the 103rd lap he got out of the groove exiting Turn 4 and bounced off the wall. He somehow herded his spinning car into the pit entrance, only to clout the inner wall and carom back across pit road into another wall, in the process breaking his left ankle.

With 350 miles completed, the front of the race was as it had been in the beginning: Mears was running off from Sneva, and now he had a quarter-mile lead. But Sneva had made adjustments to his own front wing—had it dialed in just right, he figured—and soon began to go after Mears.

Little Al Unser's water pump failed, ending the most spirited drive of the race, and the scoring tower now had Roberto Guerrero in third behind Sneva, followed by Al Unser Sr. and Michael Andretti. Guerrero, a Colombian educated in England, had switched to Indy Cars after two winless seasons in Formula One. His crew chief is George Bignotti, who had been top wrench for Sneva last season. Guerrero spun coming out of Turn 2 but showed his cool by not stalling the engine. "I just lost all my grip and spun. I was lucky I didn't hit anything," he said, adding that he was too busy to count how many loops the car had made. And before that his left rear tire had been run over by Danny Sullivan's Lola, when they came into the confusion of the Bedard crash. But Guerrero was charging now, cutting 203-mph laps.

With the stage set for a final duel to the finish between Mears and Sneva, the curtain never quite made it up for the final act. Sneva retired on Lap 168 with a broken universal joint in the left rear axle. Then it was only a matter of waiting for Mears to run out the race. He kept asking Penske over his radio, "Are you sure I'm a lap ahead?"

Said Mears after the race, "When I won in 1979, I didn't know what it meant to win the Indy 500. It didn't soak in until a week later. This year it tried to soak in before the race was over." He wasn't able to breathe freely until he got through the fourth turn on the final lap. "That's when I knew if the wheels came off the thing, I could still slide that far," he said.

Mears may have had a trouble-free race, but it wasn't without its scares. "I don't have enough fingers and toes to count the close calls," he said. "I had to pull my elbows in a few times to keep from scraping them against the wall."

It was a comeback for both Mears and Penske. Last year hadn't been Mears's best, either; his marriage had ended. But now owner and driver are on top again, having gotten there in the stylish and professional manner they've displayed from the beginning. In the seven years Mears has driven for Penske, he has become not only a superb racer but also one of the best test drivers in the business, a fact Penske must have taken into account when he decided to ditch his own cars. The Captain has never been more worthy of his stripes.

TWO PHOTOSWinner by a whopping two laps, at a record average speed of 162.612 mph, Mears exults in Victory Lane. PHOTOPenske packed in his own car to pick up a win. PHOTOThe Penske pit crew performed flawlessly on Mears's new March, and Rick knew just the right adjustments to keep it running up front. PHOTOMears and Sneva (1) had a hot duel going until Sneva had to drop out with 31 laps left. THREE PHOTOSJournalist/driver Bedard qualified 19th for his second 500. On Lap 59 he crashed; emergency crewmen rushed to his rescue (above). His car was well beyond saving. PHOTOBig Al Unser couldn't contend for the lead the way Little Al did, but Dad was running at the finish.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)