Rick Mears, a Champion's Hero
Jimmie Johnson’s career path is undoubtedly an unusual one: from motocross to off road trucks to asphalt and eventually to the front of the pack in professional auto racing. But Johnson isn’t the first dust devil driver out of Southern California to do just that: it was Rick Mears who blazed the trail.
Mears is one of Johnson’s lifelong racing heroes, who he says “gave me hope as a driver coming out of the off-road ranks that I could race in IndyCar or go to the asphalt and race.”
Rick Ravon Mears, born in Kansas in 1951, found himself in a family of gearheads who relocated to Bakersfield in Southern California at a young age. Parents Bill and Skip nurtured their two son’s passion for speed and planted the seed for two very successful careers in racing. Rick and older brother Roger cut their teeth in the California dirt and sand, first on motorcycles, then to off road buggies and trucks. Roger pretty much stayed the course and off the asphalt, showing the world how to make a living playing in the dirt better than anyone before or since. Rick, on the other hand, found himself on the fast track to stardom as he chose the less bumpy route and went Indycar racing.
Perhaps all of this sounds a little familiar? Might it ring a bell that Gary and Kathy Johnson’s three boys grew up terrorizing the same SoCal landscape on two and four wheels as well? That the second son, Jimmie, was a heck of a motocross rider by the time he hit adolescence, and just like Mears boy number two had to trade in his two wheels for four (and a roof) due to some maternal urging? And that they both raced various types of vehicles on and off the dirt (and won in all of them) on their way to the top? Yeah, you could say Rick Mears and Jimmie Johnson have a little bit in common.
Mears finished eighth in his first USAC (now IndyCar) start at Ontario Motor Speedway in Southern California in September of 1976, just days before little Jimmie Johnson celebrated his first birthday. “I was more the kid that stood at the fence and watched, and I don’t believe I ever watched Rick race live.” The same year that Johnson competed in his first motocross race (1979, age 4), Mears won his first Indianapolis 500 in his second Indy start, driving for the Captain, Roger Penske.
So by the time Johnson could even think about where he was headed, Mears was already his inspiration, “Rick’s success in moving on into open wheel and doing all that he did inspired all us off road guys and motorcycle guys, all the dirt guys in Southern California, that that could happen and that you could go down that road.”
Fast forward to 1992. A year after Mears became the third (and so far final) member of the record holding four-time Indy 500 winners club, he announced his retirement at the Team Penske Christmas party. At the same time, Jimmie was really starting to turn some heads in off road buggies (in particular, Chevrolet Racing’s Herb Fischel; for that story check out this article from last year). As the book closed on one illustrious career, highlighted by a record tying four Indianapolis 500 wins, three CART Championships, and 29 career top level open wheel wins, the first pages were being written on another.
Fast forward again to 2012. One would think that with five straight NASCAR Championships and a Daytona 500 victory to his credit, there wouldn’t be much more for Jimmie Johnson to accomplish. But in July he captured his fourth win at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which tied a NASCAR record with his teammate, friend, and mentor Jeff Gordon. But more than that, he tied his hero Rick Mears.
In an interview with AutoWeek after Johnson’s win, Mears answered the question if Johnson’s four victories in the closed cockpit and fender realm of the Brickyard 400 were as meaningful as four triumphs in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the Indianapolis 500: “I’ll say this, Indy’s our Super Bowl. Daytona is NASCAR’s Super Bowl. Winning multiple races on any race track is big. Winning anywhere is tough. Trying to compare this is like comparing apples to oranges…How do you compare the Brickyard and Indy? I don’t know. But winning is winning no matter what.”
As many purists will agree, Mears very diplomatically said absolutely not. Which Johnson seems to agree with, "To win here, granted it's in a different vehicle, but it still has so much meaning to me because I sat on the couch watching it for years, the [Indy] 500, with my dad and my grandfather, and it really was the race for me growing up.”
But Indy is the race his hero won, not Daytona. For Johnson, it is next to impossible to say which race is bigger to him: “Clearly, I learned about Daytona later on and have been very fortunate to experience both. It's hard to pick one."
In the same AutoWeek interview (which can be found here), Mears paid Johnson perhaps one of the biggest compliments he could receive: “As far I’m concerned, I don’t think he’s gotten the credit he’s due as far as the ability he has and what he does behind the wheel. I’ve watched him run all the time he’s been in [NASCAR] and some of the things I’ve seen him do with a car, being able to run very free and very loose and still consistently hang onto it, and still run quick and not lose a lot if it gets loose, that’s car control. But he’s not the kind of guy that goes out and seeks [attention], either, which is why he doesn’t get the attention. Some guys go out and seek it even if they don’t deserve it. I think that’s one of his great attributes in my eyes. To me, he’s been right there with all the rest of [the best] for a long time. How do you win that many championships and not be?”
Johnson can’t say enough nice things about the nice guy Mears, who famously writes ‘Thanks’ with every autograph he signs: “I’ve been looking at that Mears Gang sticker for a lot of years...I’m all about the Mears gang they’re great people and have done wonders for auto racing.”
As it turns out, Jimmie Johnson has a lot in common with Rick Mears. They grew up much the same and shared strikingly similar paths on their way to becoming household names. They both drove for one owner for all of their professional wins, Mears with Roger Penske and Johnson for Rick Hendrick. Chevrolet is the only manufacturer Jimmie has ever been affiliated with, and Chevrolet powered Mears’ IndyCars for most of his career. Goes to show that loyalty is important to these two notorious nice guys, as is the respect for their heroes and those that paved the way.
In typical well-spoken Rick Mears fashion, he may have summed up Johnson’s feelings towards Mears himself, when speaking of his own racing heroes: the first two members of the elite four-time Indy 500 winners club, AJ Foyt and Al Unser. “Those guys are my heroes. And even though the number of wins are there, I’ll never feel that much of a total part of their group. Those guys, they’re icons in the sport.”