One of the most intriguing facts about Rick Mears, the man on the pole for Sunday's Indianapolis 500, is that when he won his first 500, back in 1979, he had yet to spin out in an Indy Car. And that included all the practice sessions he had run and all 22 races in which he had competed. That's why his crash in September of 1984 came as such a shock.
No one thought it would ever happen to Mears. Even more out of character, the crash occurred in practice for a race at Sanair Super Speedway near Montreal. Mears, who had won his second Indy 500 earlier that season, was trying to squeeze between two other cars when he clipped one of them, sending his car nose first into a guardrail. He was unscratched from the knees up, but both his feet were crushed. Mears was dazed when safety workers and crew members got to the wreckage.
"Do you know who I am?" asked Roger Penske, his car owner.
"Yeah, I know," said Mears.
"What's my name?"
"Do you know what happened?"
"Yeah," said Mears. "I screwed up."
The only thing that Mears screwed up during qualifying for this year's Indy was his courage. He drove his brilliant-yellow March-Cosworth to a one-lap record of 217.581 mph and a four-lap mark of 216.828. All during the preceding week of practice, before he had traveled faster than any man has ever gone in an Indy Car, it was obvious that Mears was back. Not just "back," for he had returned from the Sanair crash to drive in last year's Indy 500, but confident, comfortable and downright effervescent.
Searching for someone around Gasoline Alley who begrudges the 34-year-old Mears his regained status as the man to beat is a futile task. Certainly that is so in garages A17 through A22, Penske Racing's headquarters for the month of May, where Mears is regarded as the most terrific guy ever to come down the back-straight. If he hadn't had it before, Mears got a lock on his teammates' devotion when he became the key behind-the-scenes element in Al Unser's 1985 Indy Car points championship. Unser had signed to drive only three 500-mile races for Penske Racing last year, but when Mears decided his feet hadn't healed to his satisfaction, he turned his car over to Unser, who went on to compete in 14 of the 15 races on the schedule and win the title. That gave Unser the right to paint No. 1 on his car for this season, but in appreciation he has passed the honor to Mears. However, Mears's car will not be wearing No. 1 on Sunday; the defending Indy champ has that privilege, and that's Danny Sullivan, Mears's other teammate.