From Off-road Champion To Indy Champion
Rick Ravon Mears was born on December 3, 1951 in Wichita, Kansas, to Bill Ravon and Mae Louise Simpson Mears. When he was five years old Mears and his family moved to Bakersfield, California. Bill Mears drove stock cars as a hobby and both he and his wife enjoyed riding motorcycles. As young children, Rick and his brother Roger would join their parents for motorcycle rides. Both boys took an early interest in racing. They would race motorcycles in the desert, as well as buggies and pickup trucks. While most Indy car drivers start their careers with sprint cars, Rick and Roger Mears earned their experience and their reputations as off-road drivers.
Mears married at a young age and fathered two sons—Clint Ravon was born in 1973 and Cole Ray was born in 1975. Mears began driving professionally in the early 1970s for car owner and safety equipment manager Bill Simpson. He finished in the top ten of his first three races. In 1976 he drove an old, pink Eagle Indy car at the Ontario Speedway and he met racing legend Roger Penske. "Somebody told me to keep an eye on Rick," Penske said when recalling his first meeting with Mears to Sam Moses of Sports Illustrated in May of 1986. "He didn't know me; I didn't know him—and later on he came around our garage and just sort of hung around in the background and watched." Within a few years, everybody would know Mears. In 1976 he won the United States Auto Club (USAC) Rookie of the Year award.
Penske did keep an eye on Mears. In 1978 when Penske's main driver, Mario Andretti, took a break from Indy car racing to pursue the World Driving Championship, Penske called on Mears to substitute for Andretti on the Indy car circuit. Mears won his first Indy car championship for Penske at the Indy Lights race in Milwaukee that same year. Mears also participated in his first Indianapolis 500 in 1978. His qualifying run was fast enough to earn his the number three spot on the first row. He finished the race twenty-third because of engine trouble, but he did receive the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year award.