Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Unser Ready to Add to Penske Legend Ex-Indy Winner Fills Mears' Racing Shoes

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Unser Ready to Add to Penske Legend Ex-Indy Winner Fills Mears' Racing Shoes

Article excerpt

If there is one young lion about to take charge in IndyCar racing, it has to be Al Unser Jr.

The next Rick Mears, he is.

"When we lost Rick Mears, I wanted to be sure that I had someone for the long term," said car owner Roger Penske, the kingmaker at Indy.

Mears, a four-time Indianapolis 500 winner, remains a consultant with Marlboro Racing-Team Penske. A three-time PPG Cup champion and the first IndyCar driver to win $10 million in the sport, "Rocket Rick" helped build the legend of Penske racing. He won 29 IndyCar races and 40 IndyCar poles.

In 1989, Mears won the pole at Indy for a record fifth time. In 1991, he captured his sixth Indy pole and his fourth Indy 500 title, tying A.J. Foyt and Al Unser for most victories in the world's most famous race.

Mears looked to be a shoo-in to be the first driver to win five times at Indy. But he stunned the racing world at the end of 1992 by announcing his retirement at age 41.

Many figured that Mears had 10 more years in him, considering that Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt and Unser Sr. were racing well after reaching 50.

But Mears had suffered injuries to his lower legs and feet in crashes against concrete walls, and he made the decision to retire while he still could walk without too much pain.

"Winning my first Indy 500 was something I never dreamed would happen," Mears said. "But winning it a fourth time was even more unbelievable."

After being a driver on Penske's team since 1977, he chose to get out of the cockpit and work behind the scenes.

Penske still had Brazilian Emerson Fittipaldi, 47, as a driver. He won the Indy 500 and the PPG Cup in 1989 and was a winner again in the 1993 Indy 500. Canadian Paul Tracy, 25, also was on the team. Tracy won five races and sat on the pole three times last year, his first full season with Penske. Tracy's peers voted him most improved driver. Mears was like a private tutor for Tracy.

But when it became apparent that Unser Jr. was willing to leave the Rick Galles Racing Team after last season, Penske upped his ante.

"The commitment we made to run a three-car team was to get Al on the team," Penske said. "That shows you how important he is to us."

In Mears, Penske had the perfect driver. He could back off to preserve the equipment early in the race and go fast when the race was on the line. Mears worked well with the pit crew, and with the engineers and designers when the cars were developed in the offseason.

He was the consummate "team player" and certainly a tough act to follow.

Fittipaldi, undoubtedly one of the world's top drivers, is at his best on race day. Tracy is young and untamed, and crashes more than Penske would like.

Unser Jr., on the other hand, was the perfect replacement for Mears. Unser, 32, already has raced at Indy 11 times. …

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