Race Weekend Central

Rick Mears Passes the Torch: 1992 in Retrospect

On Dec. 20, 1992, three-time Formula 1 World Driving champion Ayrton Senna had a one-day test with Team Penske at Firebird Raceway West in Phoenix. 

By all accounts, the test went well, and by the end of the run Senna was turning laps comparable to fellow F1 champion, 1989 Indianapolis 500 winner and Brazilian compatriot Emerson Fittipaldi.  

The idea of Senna running in the then-PPG IndyCar series is mind-boggling. At the time, IndyCar was heading towards its zenith with a popularity on par with F1. With gorgeous, fast cars and names like Fittipaldi, Unser, Andretti and Rahal on the grid – and F1 champion Nigel Mansell on his way stateside for 1993 – it may have been peak IndyCar.

Alas, the test didn’t amount to much more than a great story that added to the mythical legend that is the great Senna, but the possibilities were endless. And it very well could have been the largest of a series of transitions that were about to change the landscape of the sport if it had happened.

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While Senna’s test was big news, some bigger news hit the wire just 10 days before, when four-time Indianapolis 500 winner and three-time IndyCar champion Rick Mears announced at the Penske Christmas party that he was retiring from racing at the age of 41. 

A winner of 26 career IndyCar races, Mears’ 1992 season started with some promise with a runner-up finish at Surfer’s Paradise, Australia. When he reached Indianapolis in May, his season began going sideways. After crashing for just the second time in his career at IMS in practice and breaking his wrist, he tangled with Jim Crawford in Turn 1 on race day and finished in 26th place. 

Mears, who had finished in the top five in points for five straight seasons heading into 1992, said his desire to race had started to wane at the start of the year. After his struggles at Indy, Mears only raced four more times, with his season ending after a 16thplace finish at Michigan in early August. 

No one knew it at the time, but Mears’ announcement was the first piece to fall in what was a serious shift in the IndyCar paddock, as the old guard was giving way to a new set of faces. AJ Foyt shocked the world on Pole Day, 1993, when he abruptly announced his retirement on pit lane, and it was also the last 500 for four-time winner Al Unser Sr., as well as 1969 champion Mario Andretti. 

Bobby Rahal, the 1992 series champion, famously failed to qualify for the 1993 race, and despite two more Top 5 finishes in points, never won another race before retiring after the 1998 season. Mansell, who finished third in the 1993 500 in spectacular fashion en route to winning the championship, only raced one more year in IndyCar before wearing out his welcome and returning to his home in England. 

In the meantime, new talent was stepping up. Al Unser Jr. was at the peak of his prodigious talent, winning the Indy 500 in 1992 and 1994 and capturing the 1994 championship. 

After spending 1993 in Formula 1 with Ferrari, Michael Andretti returned and finished fourth, fourth, and second, respectively, over the next three seasons and has gone on to be one of the most successful owners in the sport.

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Along with those big names, several others were coming down the pipeline. Jimmy Vasser came to IndyCar full-time in 1993 and won a championship three seasons later, Alex Zanardi became Vasser’s teammate at Chip Ganassi Racing in 1996 and finished third in points, then won back-to-back championships. 

Finally, a young Canadian named Greg Moore arrived in 1996 and won five races and earned 17 podiums in his first 68 career races. 

Mears’ retirement seemed to mark a time of transition for IndyCar, but over the course of the next few seasons, enough young talent arrived in the coming years to allow a passing of the torch to the next generation. Of course, between the 1996 CART/IndyCar split, the defection of drivers like Zanardi to other series, and the tragic loss of Moore in 1999, history eventually told a different story. 

IndyCar is on the precipice of another torch passing over the course of the next few years. Hopefully for the series, a different story will be written. 

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