Top 10 Indy 500s, No. 7: Rick Mears becomes a four-time winner with thrilling pass
(Editor’s note: NBC Sports has selected the Top 10 Indy 500s of All-Time through an esteemed panel of former drivers, broadcasters, journalists and historians. The countdown continues today and will run through the 107th Indianapolis 500.)
There was history made on many fronts for the 1991 Indianapolis 500 -- starting at the front.
Rick Mears became the third four-time winner of the Indy 500, joining legends A.J. Foyt and Al Unser, by winning from his record-setting sixth pole position.
Mears led the first 11 laps but didn’t return to the point until Lap 139, lurking in the typical style of the Team Penske star while Mario Andretti, Michael Andretti, Al Unser Jr., Emerson Fittipaldi and Bobby Rahal took turns at the front.
INDY 500 PRIMER: Questions and answers for the world’s biggest race
But the No. 3 Chevrolet put its stamp on the final 150 miles of the race as Mears returned to the Brickyard winners circle where he also had celebrated in 1979, ’84 and ’88.
“When it’s your day, it’s your day, and I never dreamed of getting one here, let alone four,” Mears said. “I’m just tickled to death.”
Michael Andretti led a race-high 97 of 200 laps and dominated the middle section of the race, nearly putting Mears a lap down and out of contention.
“I really didn’t think anybody had anything for me at that point,” Andretti said in 2011. “(Mears’) day would have been over, and then I get a flat tire and had to pit. That’s the thing that changed the race.”
Mears started first beside IndyCar legends Foyt and Mario Andretti in what many consider the most legendary front row in Indy 500 history.
Also in the field were the race’s first African-American driver (Willy T. Ribbs) and Japanese driver (Hiro Matsushita).
The 1991 Indy 500 also marked the first time that four members of the same family competed against each other with Mario, Michael, Jeff and John Andretti all in the field.
NBC Sports has ranked the Top 10 Indy 500s through a panel that judged through scores of 1-20 in five categories (with a total of 100 being perfect): quality of racing, memorable moments, strength of competition, historical impact and spectacle.
Here’s a look at No. 7 on the list:
Winner: Rick Mears
Margin of victory: 3.149 seconds
Lead changes: 18 among six drivers
Cautions: Seven for 35 laps
Other contenders: Emerson Fittipaldi, Mears’ teammate, led 46 laps before a gearbox failure. … Mario Andretti led 22 laps for Newman-Haas Racing before the Chevrolet engine failed in his Lola. He finished seventh (behind son Michael in second and nephew John in fifth).
Winning move: On Lap 188 of 200, Mears made a thrilling move past Michael Andretti on the outside into Turn 1, a daring maneuver rarely tried at nearly 230 mph.
“That was the fastest I’d gone into that corner all day,” Mears said. “So it’s unknown territory. You run it in there, hold your breath and hope you make it out the other side. As it worked out, it did.”
Said Andretti, who had taken the lead by passing Mears in the same spot the previous lap on a restart with 14 laps remaining: “I had all the respect in the world for Rick. He’s one of the best to race against, and we knew the other guy would give room.”
How the voters saw it: The 1991 Indy 500 received three perfect scores of 100 from the panel (which awarded only five total perfect scores).