Ahead of the hundredth running of the Indy 500, Lee Spencer talks exclusively with four-time victor Rick Mears, and Brazil’s current challenger Helio Castroneves, whose hopes of matching Mears’ record remain well and truly on the horizon.
One hundred races. One hundred opportunities to win.
But in the first 99 runnings of the Indianapolis 500, only three of the 758 drivers who have attempted the Greatest Spectacle in Racing have earned membership into the elite fraternity of four-time victors: A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears.
Foyt was the first. His initial win came in 1961. He started seventh, took the lead from polesitter Eddie Sachs with three laps to go and won by 8.28 seconds. He earned his second and third wins in 1964 and 1967, but would have to wait until 1977, when he was 42, for the fourth.
Unser’s first win came from the pole in 1970. His entry was so strong he lapped the field with 25 circuits remaining in the race. Unser is the only driver of the three to post consecutive wins. His second victory came the following year, with his final two in 1978 and 1987.
Mears accomplished the task with the greatest dispatch. In his sophomore season with Penske Racing, Mears won the pole for the 1979 Indy 500. Although Unser led the first 24 laps, Mears took the lead for the first of three times on Lap 25. After Unser had mechanical issues, Mears battled Bobby Unser and Foyt, finally regaining the lead on Lap 182 and holding the point to the finish. Five years later, Mears drank the celebratory milk in victory lane for the second time.
With wins in 1988 and 1991, Mears collected four Borg-Warner trophies in 12 years – the quickest ever driver to accomplish the task. Little did Mears know after the 75th running of the Indianapolis 500 in 1991, that the next quarter century would fail to produce another four-time winner.
But Mears doesn’t consider the ‘drought’ surprising.
“Yes, I mean, to a point – but no,” Mears said. “That’s the Super Bowl. To have all the stars line up for you to make that happen is very difficult. In that respect, I’m not surprised but, on the other hand, records were meant to be broken. So, no one’s ever won five, but it will happen one day. Somebody will do it.”
The common thread
When it comes to commonalities among the three four-time winners, Mears said it helps to be recruited by a top team – such as he was with Roger Penske early in his career.
“You can’t put the numbers on the board if you don’t have a decent team,” Mears said. “Team Penske is the best in the business. That’s what allowed me to do it. They gave me the tools I needed to get the job done.”
Behind the wheel, patience is key. Drivers have to take care of their equipment over 200 laps and be ready for the end game.
“As far as driving, if I looked at A.J. and Al, they’re totally different personalities outside of the car. Foyt is loud, gruff, you could beat on him with a hammer. Here’s an example of A.J. – When (Gordon) Johncock and I had the battle at the end (in 1981), coming around for the white flag, I came up alongside Gordy and around for the white flag. As we pull into (turn) one, Gordy pulls back. He had a nose ahead of me. It’s Indy. It’s the last lap. He’s going to the bottom whether I’m here or not.
“So I’ve got two choices. I can stay here and we can crash. Or I can pull out and have three more corners to try and get him back. So I pulled out. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure it out. I dropped back and let him go, and tried to catch him at the start-finish.”
Mears led 77 laps, but Johncock led the final 41 laps and beat him to the line by 0.160-seconds.
“After the race, A.J. said, ‘Ah, man, if that had been me, I would’ve won the race.’ I said, ‘A.J., Don’t give me that B.S.’ He didn’t win four of them by doing stupid things. Right? He’s a smart racer. He’s loud outside.
“And Al’s just the opposite. He’s quiet outside of the car. And he’s a smart racer. They both know you can’t win a race unless you finish it. And they both worked very hard on that. That’s what I’ve always done. You can’t win it on the first lap. I don’t get all puffed up and psyched up before the race. I’ve got 500 miles to get excited. I want to relax, take off, see where the track’s at, see where the car’s at, see where the tires are get up the temps and then start watching the competition and gear everything for the second half.
“I think that kind of mentality is what helps you finish races and win championships… I doubt they (Foyt and Unser) would have had that kind of longevity in the sport if they didn’t think that way. It’s one thing to throw caution to the wind, stand on the gas and go fast. You don’t get to the end as often that way. Those two guys were smart enough to get to the end.”
Currently, the only competition Mears, Foyt and Unser have for joining the four-time club is Helio Castroneves. When Dario Franchitti retired in 2013, Castroneves became the only current racer with three Indy 500 wins. Juan Pablo Montoya – another current Team Penske driver – won his second 500 last year, 15 seasons after his first Borg-Warner trophy, and the longest gap between wins. Both Castroneves and Montoya won their first Indy 500 as rookies in the series.
Despite all the hoopla surrounding the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, Mears feels Castroneves, 41, has a solid shot of reaching four.
“I think that’s one of the reasons it’s going to be big,” Castroneves says. “In my case, I have a very good opportunity here to do something that only three guys were able to do. You know, despite it being me, how cool would it be in history. Don’t you think it would be really cool?
“I think a lot of the generation haven’t seen someone win four times. But I know everybody is really putting a lot of effort, not only in the drivers but also in the teams and sponsors; everyone. Because it’s a special day. For us drivers, we understand the tradition. We never forget about this one. But once you close the visor, it’s another race that we’ve got to make it happen.
“It would be great. It would be great to put all the numbers together, and that’s what we’re going for.”
Taking nothing for granted
Both Castroneves and Montoya would love to add to Roger Penske’s Indianapolis 500 win total, as Mears did before them. That number has already reached 16. But as Mears knows, there are no guarantees in racing.
“When I won the first one, it was only my second attempt,” said Mears, who was 27 at the time. “I thought, ‘Cool, I won another race. I’ll come back and do it next year. Then go down the road and run the next one.’
“Then you go a few more years after that, and you don’t win it. I didn’t appreciate it as much. I didn’t understand the speedway. I didn’t know what it meant. It happened so quick. I mean, I appreciated it, don’t get me wrong. But after you run a few more years and you don’t win it, you start looking around and say, ‘Wait a minute, there’s not a lot of people who have had the opportunity to be here, let alone race, let alone win it.
“By the time I won it a second time, another four or five years had passed. It was like, ‘Now I understand how difficult it is.’ So I appreciated the second one even more. Then, that just happened again with the third one.”
With each additional Indy 500 victory, Mears gratitude for accomplishing the feat rose exponentially. After all, in 1984, when Mears achieved his second Indy 500 win, he joined a group of just four drivers with exactly two 500 victories. Six drivers – Louis Meyer, Wilbur Shaw, Mauri Rose, Johnny Rutherford, Bobby Unser and Al Unser – could claim three Indy 500 wins at that time, and Foyt was King of the Bricks with four. Al Unser’s fourth and final 500 victory came in 1987.
The following year, Mears returned to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Winners’ Circle again.
“After the second one, you look around and say, ‘OK, very few people have won it twice,'” Mears said. ‘So what are the odds of winning it three times?’ The odds are getting against you each time. After the third one, the same process. Now, you’re older, you’re wiser, you don’t know how much longer your career is going to be. You look around and there are only two guys that have won it four times, and you ask yourself, ‘What are the odds of that?’
“That made the fourth one more special than any of them – just because of that alone.”
For many reasons, the 1991 Indianapolis 500 was Mears’ most memorable. Mears, who set the record for five Indy 500 poles in 1989, extended his total to six in a backup car after crashing his primary car the previous day. The 39-year-old driver injured his right foot, but continued on after he was cleared for competition.
But the spotlight during the month of May in 1991 was on Foyt. At 56, the four-time 500 winner was expected to make a record 34th and final run. But suspension issues shortened Foyt’s day and he made his 35th – and last – attempt the following year. If Foyt’s fanfare wasn’t enough, there were four Andretti’s in the field to contend with – Mario, Michael, Jeff and John.
In Mears’ previous Indy 500 wins, attrition eliminated his competition. En route to Mears’ fourth victory, Michael Andretti led 71 of the first 108 circuits – and he wasn’t going away.
“I go into every race gearing up for the shootout at the end,” Mears said. “There’s the first half and the second half. The second half is to position yourself if you’re not already there, watch who’s strong and who you’ll have to do battle with at the end.
“I never got to have a shootout until the last one – and then we had the shootout and I came out on top. And that’s a gratifying way to win a race.”
After a century of racing at what’s evolved into America’s most iconic track, race fans are fortunate to have three living legends still walking the Yard of Bricks. Could a fourth emerge on May 29th? Stay tuned.