INDIANAPOLIS – When drivers look for help figuring out the treacherous track at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, they often turn to Rick Mears.
It’s been 18 years since “The Rocket” joined A.J. Foyt and Al Unser as the only four-time winners of the Indy 500.
But Mears remains the most sought-after mentor for young drivers hoping to conquer the narrow, flat-ended 2.5-mile Brickyard oval.
“I appreciate the help I got along the way,” said Mears, a consultant and driving coach for Penske Racing, which has accumulated a record 14 Indy wins, including the Mears victories in 1979, 1984, 1988 and 1991.
“I remember when I first came to the speedway, Bobby Unser drove me around the track in his rental car telling me what to do and what not to do,” Mears said.
Mears, who came to Indy car racing from off-road competition, said he also got plenty of good advice before he got to the speedway from drivers like fellow Californian Parnelli Jones and, after he got here, from team owner Roger Penske and his many teammates over the years, including Mario Andretti and Tom Sneva.
Now, the 57-year-old Mears spends much of his time here and at other racetracks guiding young drivers in the ways of the open-wheel sport.
“When you get to this stage, these guys know how to drive race cars,” said Mears, who is working with driver Will Power as he prepares for his second Indy start and first with Penske on May 24. “So it’s really more dealing with traffic, race strategy – racecraft as they call it, A picture of the race itself.
“Each driver is different. Each driver struggles maybe a little bit more in one area than another. You’ve got to listen to them and see where they need help the most.”
The 28-year-old Power finished 13th in the 500 last year after making the transition from the Champ Car World Series as part of the unification of the two American open-wheel series.
He’s certainly not a novice, but the Australian driver said he appreciates what he’s learned from Mears, including several talks last year while he was driving for rival KV Racing Technology.
“Actually, I sat down with Rick last year after running a couple of times and asked him a few questions,” Power said.
Now, the two are part of the same team and Power, who qualified ninth last Saturday, the first of four days of time trials at Indy, is taking advantage of having Mears available.
“He’s got so much experience and understanding of the track that he sort of points you in the right direction,” Power said. “Rick has been a huge help. He’ll be there all month and we’re looking for a good result at the end, not at the beginning.”
Only 22 of the 33 starting spots were filled in the first weekend of time trials, with the rest of the lineup to be set Saturday and Sunday.