Rick Mears joins the four-time winner club at Indy (1991)

In what was expected to be a passing of the torch, with original four-time Indianapolis 500 winner AJ Foyt planning to retire after the 1991 season (though he would return for one more run in 1992), Rick Mears grabbed the torch and ran with it. He ran directly to victory lane, becoming the third four-time winner in the race’s history along with Foyt and Al Unser Sr.

In his first fourteen Indy 500s, Mears posted an incredible 28 percent win rate, adding five other top-five finishes to his four wins. In fact, the 39-year-old Mears was tabbed as the likely first five-time winner of the 500, but it was not to be. After suffering only his second crash in his 15 years at the speedway during practice in 1992, he would then crash out of the race for the first time early on that year. He would run only four more races in 1992, then announced his retirement at the Team Penske Christmas party at age 41.

As of 2013, Foyt, Unser and Mears remain the only four-time winners, with only one active driver — Helio Castroneves — within striking range of the four-time winner crown with three victories.

Mears the legend now

Indianapolis — One last time, Rick Mears raced against AJ Foyt and his Indianapolis 500 legend — and won.

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On the day Indy was supposed to bid a fond farewell to its first four-time winner, it welcomed Mears as a new one.

Mears did it with a daring pass of Michael Andretti that would have made a young Foyt envious and joined his boyhood hero and Al Unser as the only men in 75 years to win Indy four times.

rick_mears_1991And while the 56-year-old Foyt is wrestling with second thoughts over his plan to quit after 34 consecutive starts, the 39-year-old Mears is far from finished.

In only 14 Indys, he has four firsts, one second, two thirds and two fifths, and in the process he has stamped the last laps of the world’s biggest race as Mears Time.

“It gets sweeter every time,” Mears exulted Sunday. “I can’t believe this one yet.”

He should. He was on the pole for a record sixth time, and twice before he won from there.

He beat Foyt, in the middle of the front row, at the start, led the first 12 laps and then laid back, running as low as sixth in the middle of the 200-lap grind before pulling away at the end.

“We just tried to get a good start, as good as we could and string it out as long as possible,” Mears said. “You don’t win this race until the last lap.”

The race came down to Mears and Andretti on the last 14 laps, and Mears won it with an I-can-top-that pass.

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Andretti pitted for a splash of fuel during a caution flag with 16 laps left, giving the lead to Mears, who had made one less pit stop worth an 11-second edge.

When the green flag fell again, the two were nose-to-tail, mere inches separating them at 217-plus mph.

Andretti, looking for his first Indy win and the first by an Andretti since father Mario won in 1969, went outside, then squeezed to the inside as they flew into the first turn.

The crowd of 400,000 gasped, then roared.

But Mears, who also won here in 1979, 1984 and 1988, had one move left.

The next time around, he pulled alongside Andretti at the finish line and made a breathtaking pass on the outside in the first turn for the 19th and final lead change of the day.

“On the first restart, he went outside and pinched me,” Mears said. “When it came my time, I got high. It was the only choice I had. You’ve got to take the shot.”

When was the last time he had passed on the outside like that?

“I don’t know if I ever have,” Mears confessed.

Still, Mears had to overcome one final restart, this one brought on after the seventh caution flag when Mario Andretti stalled at the pit entrance on lap 191, letting Michael close the gap once more. The crowd booed loudly and Mario’s team was left to deny he had done it deliberately.

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No matter to Mears.

“I’ve never been against yellow. What are you gonna do?” he shrugged. “If you’re not strong enough, yellow helps you. But we’ve always been strong enough.”

When the green flag came back out with six laps to go, Mears, the master of Indycar oval racing, was ready.

He got the jump and pulled steadily away, clocking 221.6 mph — his fastest of the day — on lap 196. It was Mears Time, and team owner Roger Penske, about to win his record eighth Indy, counseled his driver by radio.

“We’ve been here before,” Penske said. “You know what to do.”

Mears went on to win by 3.1 seconds, finishing the 500 miles at an average 176.460 mph, slower only than Arie Luyendyk’s record 185.981 last year.

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