We start this next column by focusing on the year 1991. The growth of the CART series was beginning to rival F1 in terms of talent and was allegedly making Bernie Ecclestone a bit wary. The likes of Bobby Rahal, Danny Sullivan, Al Unser Jr. and Michael Andretti were beginning to replace figures like AJ Foyt, Mario Andretti, Al Unser Sr. as the “faces” of the sport. In the “midst” of those two eras was the driver named Rick Mears. The former off road driver began making his mark in the late 70s as CART was “founded”. He found himself winning the “500” in it’s first year of creation. He followed that up with wins in 1984, 1988 overcoming a massive shunt in Sanair Canada that sidelined him for several years.
Mears as an individual has formally found himself as a part of the lore of the Indianapolis 500 and the sport of Auto Racing as a whole. “Mears” was a household name, to the point where he was referenced on “Saturday Night Live” this very year. Future NASCAR stars in the form of Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon all were watching in awe wanting to someday emulate his success.
I bring up the 1991 race because I feel that’s a decent starting point to capture Michael’s unsuccessful attempt to capture the “Biggest Race” in the world. It would have perhaps had the biggest impact on his career and the success of the sport itself.
One could argue that “1992” was a more dominant performance, but the winner (Al Unser Jr.) and the finish itself became a part of pop culture lore. Michael took an ill-attempted jab at Formula 1 in 1993 so that year is not up for discussion. 1994 is also a scratch, no one was beating Penske that season. 1995? It feels like Jacques Villeneuve had a great impact for the race and the sport itself with his victory. We can cover his efforts in the new millennium for another time, but for now? I’d rather focus on his career in the 90s
So with all of that out as context. Let’s examine what an alternate version of 1991 would have given us Auto Racing fans. The “pass” he puts on Rick Mears in the high grove going into the short shoot likely is mentioned as a “Career defining” moment, but in a different way. The camera would have probably shifted to see a celebrating Sandy Andretti and Mario pulling along side Michael on the cool down laps. The media is probably a “buzz” as well. The Andretti name after all is perhaps even more universal than Mears. I imagine much in the way one saw quite a bit of Al Jr. merch in 1992? The same could be said even more so for Michael.
Michael captures the PPG IndyCar World Series much like in our timeline an would have likely still caught the eyes of Ron Dennis at McLaren. It could be debated that he makes the move to F1 a year earlier as a result. Could that happen? Difficult to say. It’s not “impossible” though considering the fact he had knocked out a major career goal at that point with the “500” title and with a PPG Indycar title on the horizon.
The situation though would perhaps be different. Perhaps unlike in our timeline? He’s able to be the American driver that the sport had truly been lacking since Eddie Cheever and Mario Andretti hung it up. Maybe he garners more respect in the paddock and with his own team due to the confidence of winning (again) the biggest race in the world.
….Then again? F1 is IMFAMOUSLY political. Gordon Kirby relayed a piece about how Al Unser Jr. was treated with an insane lack of respect from Williams engineer Patrick Head in 1992. (This being 2 years removed from his National Championship and the year of his FAMOUS Indy 500 win)
So who knows really.
As for Mears? We are perhaps robbed of the lore of adding another “4-time winner” to a club that includes Foyt and Al Sr. That is actually very important to the Speedway itself and those who are fans of the sport of Indianapolis Car Racing. I also think Mears would have retired after 1992 much like our current timeline. So there’s not even a chance for him to get a much needed 4th win in 1993.