Mears takes Indy 4th time, edging Michael Andretti Winner grabs lead on the 188th lap

May 27, 1991|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,The Evening Sun

INDIANAPOLIS -- Rick Mears says he never dreamed abou the Indianapolis 500.

As an off-road racer, bouncing through the Baja Desert, he never saw himself sitting in victory lane at the Indianapolis 500.

"I always thought Indy was out of my league," Mears said.

Yesterday, in the 75th running of the Indianapolis 500, Mears put himself in a league with the best this race has seen.

Driving the last six laps at speeds in excess of 220 mph, Rick Mears pulled away from the field to join A.J. Foyt and Al Unser as the only four-time winners.

Averaging 176.460 mph, Mears won by 3.17 seconds over Michael Andretti. They were the only two on the lead lap. Last year's winner, Arie Luyendyk, finished third, one lap down.

Mears, driving his Marlboro Penske Chevy 91, put himself in position, with his typical patience and cunning. He laid back off the pace most of the afternoon, saving his car "for when it would be needed."

Then, on lap 188 of this 200-lap race, Mears pulled off a decidedly untypical move to put his stamp on history.

In a sport in which outside passes more often than not are considered foolhardy exhibitions of bravado, Mears took the high road around Michael Andretti in the first turn and pulled away.

"I didn't think Rick would be as crazy as me," said Andretti, who had made the same move a lap earlier for what he had hoped would give him an unbeatable edge. "I thought if I could get around Rick, it would be very difficult for him to retake the lead. Obviously, I was wrong."

No one ever should underestimate the desire Mears brings to the racetrack. He may be so relaxed that he actually has fallen asleep in his race car before the start, but he also has one of the most competitive souls in the sport.

And, he's a quick learner. Beat him one way one time, and it isn't likely to happen again.

In 1982, he was beaten to the finish by Gordon Johncock, who went into the gravel on the bottom of the track in turns three and four to pull out the closest race in 500 history.

Mears lost, he said, because he hesitated, considering the odds of going lower on the track to pinch Johncock out of his line.

Yesterday, there was no hesitation going into turn one.

"I don't think I've ever done that before," Mears said. "But I knew I had a good set of tires, and I thought they might have enough to stick it out. So I went for it and I was probably a little lucky my front end stayed glued to the track."

Mears drives for the Roger Penske Team. It has been the overall best team in Indy Car racing for more than a decade.

Penske's team has eight 500 victories. Mears owns four of them.

He also is the only six-time pole winner; and three of his four wins have come from that No. 1 starting position.

With his other victories coming in 1979, 1984 and 1988, Mears has earned No. 4 in an incredible 14 tries.

And he won't be 40 years old until December.

"I can't believe this one," said Mears. "It just hasn't sunk in yet. I don't even know the meaning of what I've done. I've said before, I never think about these things before they happen. And now it has to soak in. I'll probably be excited about it tomorrow."

In comparison, Foyt, who was driving what was supposed to be his last 500 yesterday, needed 22 years here, thus making him wait until he was 43 to get No. 4. Unser, who did not have a car in this race, also needed 22 years before notching No. 4 in 1987, at age 48.

"I'm very happy for Rick, because he's one of the best of all-time," said one-time winner Danny Sullivan, who finished 10th yesterday. "But I feel a little for A.J. and Big Al, because Rick's going to be the first five-time Indy 500 winner."

The first time Mears came to the Indianapolis 500, he still wasn't sure he belonged.

"I tried to qualify for this race, and I scared myself a lot," he said. "I was running bad equipment, and I couldn't make the show. The next year I came back with Penske, in top-of-the-line equipment and put the car on the front row."

It was the first of what is now a record-breaking 11 starts at the head of the pack. He didn't win that 1978 race, finishing 23rd, but he did wind up Rookie of the Year, and the Penske/Mears relationship was cemented.

"As I've always said, Rick is outstanding," said a somewhat subdued Penske. "I was biting my nails in the pits, and Rick kept his cool. I told him, 'We've been here before, and you know what to do.' "

When the equipment is right, Mears is, too. In fact, he has always said the team and the equipment has more to do with winning than the driver does. And yesterday, his team worked hard to get his car right over the first several hundred miles.

And yet, as impressive as he was at the finish, he was, 180 miles in, within moments of not getting No. 4 at all.

Andretti had Mears in his sights. Right there, square in front of him on lap 73.

"I was just seconds from putting him down a lap," said Andretti, who had just lapped his cousin John, who was running sixth. Suddenly, he just started going backward.

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