Riding shotgun is not usually my favorite thing to do. After all, who wants to be a passenger? Who wants to let someone else control their fate?
When that someone is Rick Mears, sign me up.
I first met Mears back in 1978. I was covering sports for a Phoenix TV Station and decided to do a story on Mears. At that point he was Roger Penske’s back-up driver. He was running a part time schedule, filling in when Mario Andretti had Formula One conflicts. I remember Mears telling me that it was better to drive-part time for Roger than full-time for anyone else. That was a very smart decision on his part. The next year he won his first Indy 500 driving for Penske.
It was a few years later that I had the chance to play passenger. A friend of mine, Harley Cluxton, owned the Ferrari dealership in Scottsdale. As you can imagine, I would regularly find reasons to go by and look at the latest toys (Harley also had a great collection of racing cars). One day, I was there when Mears walked in. Apparently Harley had been trying to convince the Indy champion that Mears really needed a Ferrari 308. Of course, Mears would need a test drive and Harley had the perfect place. His shop was at the Scottsdale Airport industrial park. At that point, the roads were in, but there weren’t many buildings. That meant fresh asphalt with lots of turns and no traffic.
As Mears got ready to take off, Harley turned to me and said casually, “Why don’t you go with him?” I could have kissed him.
The first thing that impressed me was Mear’s driving position. I had expected that classic old-school style with the seat-back arms straight out in front. Not Mears. He had the seat positioned so he his arms were bent in just the right relaxed position. It didn’t take long for Mears to hit race mode. Suddenly he was powering through each turn. As a former off-road racer, he enjoyed the slides. All the while those relaxed arms worked the wheel. He was putting this 308 through its paces to see if it measured up to race standards. He didn’t talk much. Mears was busy evaluating. After all, Ferraris aren’t cheap so he wanted to make sure it met his exacting standards.
While were on the limit the entire time, it was surprisingly calm. I wasn’t anxious because Mears was obviously always in control. Eventually we made it back to the shop. I thanked him for the ride and told Harley goodbye. I have no doubt I went to my car, closed the door and probably screamed. Not from terror but exhilaration. It was the right car, the right track and the right driver.
I regularly see Mears at IndyCar races. I’ve noticed he’s often driving Roger or someone else on the team in a golf cart through the paddock or on to pit lane. Having Mears as your chauffer on any day is impressive. But I got to ride shotgun in a Ferrari with Mears.
Kind of hard to top that.