By Joey Barnes, Editor-in-Chief
INDIANAPOLIS – Rick Mears is arguably one of the greatest drivers at the Indianapolis 500 and for team owner Roger Penske.
The four-time Indianapolis 500 champion has enjoyed several special moments at the 2.5-mile oval, but aside from his victories, one of Mears’ favorite memories was his first pole.
The legendary driver jetted to the top of the pylon in 1979, the same year he won his first Indy 500, in a Penske PC-6. Recalling the joyous memory, Mears shared it with the media on Fast Friday.
“For me, my next special memory ranks right up there with the four wins is my first pole. When we sat on the pole here, that was the first pole I ever had, period, in a race car, in an IndyCar. So that jumps out for me as very strong. It was only our second year and it was still, ‘Rick who?’ And we were the last car in line waiting to qualify that had a shot at it. I think (Tom) Sneva was on the pole at the time and Foyt was just ahead of me getting ready to go out. (A.J.) Foyt went out to make his run and his first couple laps I think was quick enough to bump Tom.
“So the announcers were going crazy as he was making his runs. And I guess his third lap he lost a spark plug or something, dropped a cylinder and speed started tapering off and they go, ‘Oh, man, it’s all over. Sneva’s got it. Foyt can’t do it.’ I’m sitting there thinking ‘Wait a minute, guys. I haven’t gone yet.’
“I wasn’t sure at that time if we could or not. I knew we had a good car. The guys had given me a great car to run. It was a matter of going out and trying to put the four best laps in we could. One point in that run in particular I was still learning the limits and where everything was at. And I remember coming through (Turn) 3, I was trying to run wide open and coming through (Turn) 3 on I think the second lap, I started losing the front end right in the middle of the corner and the thing started widening out and I thought, “Oh, man, this is going to be close. I can either lift and make sure or leave it and hope.”
“So I decided to leave it. I even started leaning over in the car and bracing myself. I thought I was going to bounce off the fence off of (Turn) 3. We made it. We cleared if. I thought, ‘Whoa, that’s great.’ Right?
“When I came around the next lap, I thought I was like this from it. We came around the next lap, going through 3, I was looking at my black mark, and I still had about six, eight inches left, so I had a lot more room out there than I thought. I was still finding the limits. But that run, when I came in and saw those smiles on all the guys’ faces, to me it was kind of payback for all the hard work they do, if we can go out and put the numbers on the board. That was what jumps out at me.”
Moments after reminiscing over the drama Mears encountered during qualifying in ’79, Penske egged him on to tell all about what happened during the Indy 500 the year before. A moment that Mears had difficulty seeing, literally.
“(In) ‘78, I remember I couldn’t see the first laps,” Mears continued. “I kind of forgot to buckle my helmet. I was trying to be calm and relaxed, and I didn’t want the pressure to get to me. I kind of laid back in the garage and waited and trying to stay relaxed. I was so relaxed I was late getting in the car. So then I had to hurry, and I got in a rush and I somehow screwed up my buckle on my helmet (and) didn’t get it done.
“First time we took the green, went into the corner, the window on the helmet started going up like this (indicating). So I’m stretching my neck trying to stay with it. Pretty soon I had to grab it with one hand, so I’m running the first few laps with one hand and holding my helmet down. And I hated to make that call in, you know. ‘Hey, guys, I forgot to buckle my helmet.’
“So I ran as many laps as I dared, and I thought, this is really dumb. So I made the call. Fortunately about the time I made the call, we got a yellow and we got to come in and it give us a little time to get it buckled and take off again.
“So that was exciting, also. That doesn’t quite rank with the pole, though.”
Image: Bret Kelley/INDYCAR