After going flat out his entire racing life, Rick Mears is getting comfortable with a different pace these days.
The four-time Indianapolis 500 winner and three-time Indy car season champion has dialed back his responsibilities in the past year with Team Penske, where he drove his entire career before working as a driving coach and Helio Castroneves’ spotter.
With Castroneves stepping out of the NTT IndyCar Series last year – outside the INDYCAR Grand Prix and Indy 500 – Mears’ schedule changed as well. He missed six of the 16 race weekends in 2018 and plans on a similar schedule this year.
He admits there was some adjustment last year, but he enjoys running at this speed now.
“I’m just slowly dialing it back,” Mears said. “It’s very gracious of the team to allow me to take it at my pace. But I feel a little guilty. I feel like I’m not holding up my end of the bargain very well. I still enjoy the events and the people, and this industry is like family. But I’m starting to enjoy a little more time at home. TV does such a great job covering the races now that I’m enjoying watching them on the tube a little bit.
“But,” he added, “it’s time. I’ve been traveling a lot of years.”
Mears, 67, keeps busy at his two homes, in Florida and North Carolina, with a boat and a couple of hot rod pickups, a 1952 Chevrolet and a ’55 Ford, plus a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and some remote-controlled toys.
“I’ll golf for a while. I’ll fish for a while. I’ll do the motorcycle thing or the hot rods. And I’ve always played with R/C stuff off and on – helicopters, planes, cars, whatever,” he said. “I’ve always enjoyed working with my hands and tinkering with things. When you get out in the garage, you get to turn your head off and get away from everything and relax a little.”
Mears, who still proudly wears the ring he earned for his final Indianapolis 500 win in 1991, has entered that delightful phase of life when he can do what he wants, when he wants.
“It’s incredible, it really is,” he said. “But you can’t just shut everything off. I’d probably go stir crazy if I tried to do that. I’ve always had to have a project of some sort. My latest was remodeling the home in Florida a little bit. I’d been there for 20 years, and we freshened things up inside and outside.”
Even when he’s home, Mears stays close to racing, watching anything that goes fast.
“I’m a race nut anyway,” he said. “If I’m not home, I’m recording everything, whether it be our (NTT IndyCar Series) races, the (NASCAR) Cup races, offroad races, it doesn’t matter. I like racing.”
Mears finds the perspective much different – and better in many cases – watching from home versus the spotter’s stand.
“It’s totally different because you get to see more of the race and more of the bigger picture, which is the nice part about it,” he said. “When you’re at the event you don’t get to see it as well. You’re more involved with the spotting and things that are taking place throughout the weekend, working with the guys and everything else.”
Mears joined the Penske team at the first two NTT IndyCar Series races this year, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and the INDYCAR Classic at Circuit of The Americas. He’ll be back atop the Turn 3 grandstand at Indianapolis Motor Speedway as Castroneves’ spotter for the 500, hoping to assist the Brazilian in joining the exclusive four-time winners' club that currently only houses Mears, A.J. Foyt and Al Unser.
Beyond that, his schedule isn’t certain. He’s mindful of the amount of walking he’ll have to do at certain tracks on feet that suffered wicked injuries in a 1984 Indy car crash at Sanair Speedway in Quebec.
“We look at the schedule and see what works travel-wise,” Mears said. “I look at some of them that kill my feet a little more, getting around. Toronto is the first one that I missed (last year). I love the town and everything else. The track itself, where we park underground and walk in and out, by the end of the weekend my feet were yelling at me pretty good.
“There’s no set schedule; the team allows me to play it by ear. But if there’s a spotter who has something come up and he can’t make it and they need me to fill in, I’ll be there in a heartbeat.”
Absent that, Mears is prepared to step back again this season and enjoy a few more race weekends at home.
“We used to go so much. You couldn’t wait to get home,” he said. “And after you’d been home about three days, you’d be scratching at the walls wanting to go again. But I’m getting into that mode now where spending a few more days at home doesn’t bother me so much.”
As he said, it’s time.