Rick Mears says changes are sign of the times

IndyCar commentary — By on May 21, 2010 9:28 pm

(Originally posted by Paul to Planet-IRL.com.)

When four-time 500 champion Rick Mears speaks about Indianapolis — any aspect of it — it is prudent to listen closely.  Not only did Rick win the 500 four times in 15 attempts, he sat on the pole a record six times and started from the front row an astonishing 11 times in his career spanning 1978-1992.  There has been, quite simply, no better driver at Indianapolis than Rick Mears, especially when you look at qualifying achievements alone.

One might expect that, given his dominance with the format that ruled for so many years during the Month of May, Rick would be somewhat disappointed in the recent changes to the schedule and format of the Indianapolis 500.  Not so, says the man that many refer to as Rocket Rick.  He believes the condensed schedule at Indianapolis is good across the board for drivers, teams, fans, and media.  The shorter schedule will generate more on-track activity and lends to more action throughout the available days.  With the availability of instant media and live streaming information, Mears understands that many people don’t see the need for coming to the track as they did even 20 years ago.  Unfortunately, the media tend to focus on the reduced crowds, though Mears points out that there can be a lot of people on the grounds of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and still have it look empty as a result of the sheer size of the facility.  However, by compressing the schedule and hoping that crowds that were spread over two weeks now attend track activity over the course of a single week, more people will attend on a given day and create a better atmosphere.  “It’s not a question of whether it should be done or it shouldn’t,” quips Mears.  “It’s just a sign of the times.”

When it comes to development of chassis and engines, Mears points out that teams and drivers are going to use whatever time is made available to them.  Mears says, “If they give us four months to test and practice, we’d test and practice for four months.  If you give us two days, we’ll do it in two days.  If we just line up and qualify, that’s what we’ll do.”  With regards to the current chassis that has been in use in the IZOD IndyCar Series for the past eight seasons and the perceived lack of additional development, Mears believes that “finding the limit” just means you need to find other areas to improve.

When you get to a limit, that’s the limit.  Now, how do I go beyond the limit?  What’s holding me back?  Pinpoint it and improve that.  That moves that limit a little further.  Now I’ve hit the limit again.  Now what’s the biggest problem?  That’s ongoing; that’s development.  It doesn’t matter what the rules are.  It doesn’t matter how long the rules stay a certain way.  You’re just working at small increments.  I think the rules being stable for a long period are good because it tightens up the field, but you will never have — it’s physically impossible to have — 33 cars on the pole.  It’s impossible; it can’t happen.  But you can have 33 cars within half of a tenth of  second of each other and from the middle back, it would still be unfair, unequal.  Our society today is ‘everybody wins.’  That doesn’t work.

Of course, when it comes to the lack of passing at some tracks over recent years, Mears says you need to be careful what you wish for.  By removing most of the aids available to the drivers (traction control, computer-driven elements, anything that’s handled automatically), Mears believes the integrity of the sport is maintained and keeps a driver from racing against another driver’s computer guru.

Furthermore, Mears says he believes in equalizing the equipment but does not believe in equalizing it in such a way that it equalizes the drivers.  To that end, Mears believes that the cars need to be at least “a little difficult” to drive.  “If everybody can [drive the cars fast], where do you get your separation?  If everybody can do it, if you can take anybody and put them in the car and go out there and run the same as the other guy, you have no passing.  That’s what happens when you equalize the car to where it equalizes the driver.  The more difficult it is to do, the more the driver stands out, the more the ability shows.”  Finding the balance between safety and difficulty of driving the cars is the hard part of formulating the rules and is a continuously ongoing evaluation that the Indy Racing League must conduct.

With the cars of the current IZOD IndyCar Series being generally so equal, the conversation naturally turned to the issue of driver etiquette and what is expected of each other on the track, particularly what is expected of non-lead lap cars and backmarkers.  Rick says that no “unstated” rule exists and that, naturally, your opinion on the subject depends on your position on the track.  Over the course of a race or a season, Mears believes that incidents between the leaders and backmarkers have a way of working themselves out and that the number of times a driver is disadvantaged generally balances with the number of times he or she receives the advantage.

Taking the issue of fairness in racing a step further, Mears believes the issue of driving hard against the leaders parallels the issue that participants raised in the late 1970s when the yellow flag pack-up rule was first initiated.  Again, Mears believes that situations tend to balance themselves out over the course of time.  Says Mears, “There’s only one guy that’s unhappy when the yellow comes out.  So the way I looked at it, eight out of ten times, I’m not the leader so it’s going to help me more times than it’s going to hurt me.  And if I am the leader, I’m leading for a reason.  Put them on my bumper — I don’t care. I’ve got them covered!”

Mears views the current argument of removing lapped cars from the restart line in much the same manner.  He takes a big-picture approach in that, as there is only one leader, removing the cars from the restart order is more often than not a benefit to a driver.  Furthermore, Mears realizes that such a change would help to improve the show, although he recognizes that there are other aspects of the change that would need to be investigated before any decision could be made.

Rick Mears is accepted by most to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest, qualifier ever at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  He says qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 was one the toughest things he would do in any season, but it was perhaps the most gratifying.  Because the line around the track is very narrow and mistakes often have dire consequences, coupled with the enormous pressure of simply trying to make the field of the Indianapolis 500, most drivers are prone to “take a couple percent off their pace.”  “The hard part,” he says, “is running that couple percent more than the other guy and not making the mistake.  That’s the limit, and that’s what’s hard to do around [Indianapolis] for four laps without making the mistake.  Who can run closest to that limit without stepping over it for four laps?”  Conquering that limit is what Mears loved most about qualifying. The added pressure of having to be “on” for four laps, without resting and without back down, required a completely different mindset than the race itself.

Mears was always known as a driver that took care of his car throughout the race and always ended a race with a better race car than he started with.  One of his most famous sayings (though he probably wasn’t the first to say it) was “to finish first, you must first finish.”  Rick embodied this theory every time he stepped into a race car.  He points to his famous duel in the 1991 Indianapolis 500 with Michael Andretti following a lap 185 restart as the epitome of his racing theory but insists that his theory of saving the car and getting it right works as well in a 200-mile shootout as it does in a 500-mile marathon race.

My last win, passing Michael on the outside in [turn] one — would I do that 10 laps into a race?  No! Absolutely not!  It wouldn’t even cross my mind to do that.  Why?  That’s a high-risk roll of the dice.  If I had the same opportunity 10 laps into the race, I don’t want to do it because 10 laps from the end he may already be out of the picture.  Why do I want to take that risk on somebody that may not be there at the end and I may not have to take a chance of taking myself out?  That’s the mindset.  That works in a sprint race or whatever.  You might do it sooner in a shorter race than in a longer race.  That’s how you weigh it out.  That’s how I look at it.  I ran the same way in short races.  I just changed my pace and where I wanted to be and when.

When asked what current driver in the IZOD IndyCar Series approaches a race most like himself, Mears says one only needs to look at the drivers with the most race victories and championships to see “who subscribes a little bit to that theory.”  He says there have been many drivers over the years that have run fast but failed to finish because they are more focused on leading than winning.  What set Mears apart from other drivers is that he understand the theory of winning races even after the visor went down; it was second-nature to him because it was simply how he knew to race.

I’ve thought many times over the years of whether Rick Mears would be the master of racing today that he was 25 years ago.  Racing has changed much since Rick’s time, helped (or hindered) in no small part by the reliability that today’s IndyCar machines possess.  Moreover, drivers seldom approach the first 100 laps of a race to simply make it to the second 100 laps.  From the drop of the green flag, many races on the IZOD IndyCar Series calendar are 300-mile sprint races that allow little time to “make the car right.”  Yet Rick was too skilled of a driver to not have succeeded in today’s Series.  There simply never has been (at least within my 29-year lifetime) a driver with the talent and mental composure to race like Rick Mears did.

The driver in my opinion that most closely embodies Rick Mears’s driving style is Scott Dixon.  Scott’s skills and ability to maintain cool under pressure have often drawn comparisons to Mears in my mind as I’ve watched him race.  I have no doubts that if Rick Mears was driving in his prime today, we would be speaking of him still as we spoke of him 20 years ago.  I hope the current generation of race fans is lucky enough to see a driver like Rick Mears in their time.  I consider myself lucky, to this day, to have seen two of Rick’s Indianapolis victories (1988 and 1991) and will always consider him the greatest driver to ever circle the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.