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Making Waves At Indy
Sam Moses
June 04, 1984
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
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June 04, 1984

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

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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.

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