But by then, Rick was also racing. The previous season the Mears boys had won 20 of 27 sprint-buggy events at Ascot Park raceway in Gardena, Calif., south of Los Angeles. Rick had edged out his brother for the championship, but Roger was getting the most attention because of his spectacular driving style. The brothers' rivalry never made it past the pit wall. On Saturdays the whole Mears family—which by now included Robin, seven years younger than her brother Rick—would load up the motor home and drive 120 miles from Bakersfield to Ascot. Often a bunch of hometown fans would come along too, and the group became known as the Mears Gang. Today Bill runs the family T-shirt business, while Skip sells "Roger," "Rick" and "Mears Gang" versions of the shirts at races in which one of the boys is driving.
Bill, 61, still operates the backhoe and, when necessary, still lends a hand to help his racing sons. Like the time at the 1981 Indy 500 when Rick's car caught fire during a pit stop. The fuel used in Indy Cars burns without a visible flame, but when Bill saw Rick writhing in pain he grabbed an extinguisher that an excited fireman had dropped and doused his son. Though Rick suffered serious burns on his face, Bill's quick action kept the fire from being fatal. A year earlier, Bill had driven the final half of the Baja 1000 in relief of Roger, who had started the race with mending arms—both had been broken in an end-over-end flip in a midget-car race six weeks earlier. Dad didn't do too badly in Baja. The father-and-son team finished second, in a Jeep Honcho pickup, which allowed Roger to claim his first off-road season championship.
Two years ago, Roger built his own race facility-tire distributorship in Bakersfield. It is situated on five acres and employs 20 people, including Roger and his third wife, Carol, who manages both operations. Out back is a test track, mostly used to develop the smaller Nissan Hardbodys that Roger races in the Mickey Thompson stadium series, which he won in 1985 (he finished fifth in '89). There's big money in that 10-race series, because it fills places like Anaheim Stadium and can be easily covered by television, but racing a truck on a motocross course laid out on a baseball or football field can't compare with the surreal experience of a top-speed, round-the-clock run down Baja.
The Baja 1000 is considered by many to be the most difficult off-road race in the world. To hold expenses down, most years the course is a loop that starts and ends in Ensenada, a town about 60 miles south of the U.S. border, but every four or five years the Baja 1000 is run straight down the peninsula to La Paz, as it was last year. Mears had won the second of his class championships in 1986, which was the last time before this year that it was run straight through. Loop or straight-through, any Baja 1000 includes rocky mountain passes, inferno-like lake beds, knee-deep silt beds, neck-deep mud bogs, impenetrable fog and beaches washed out by high tides.
One person often does all the driving, even if the vehicle is a two-seater. The "codriver" is usually a mechanic who rides shotgun and supplies a body to push when the vehicle gets stuck. For a day and a night, driver and codriver will bounce around as if their bucket seats were bolted to jackhammers; their ears will be assaulted by noise; and their eyes, throats and lungs will be tortured by dust. There's the risk of slamming into wandering livestock—say, a cow or a cactus "monster" (in the middle of the night exhausted drivers frequently hallucinate). And throughout all this is the unrelenting pressure of the race, the need to go faster than anyone else over unfamiliar terrain.
The course is clearly marked, but, Mears says, "a slow curve is marked the same as a fast one, and all the markers are placed about two feet before you go into the turn, or at least they seem that way. The difference between going fast and slow in Baja, as well as staying out of trouble, is knowing all 992 miles like the back of your hand."
To that end, teams that have the time and money always prerun the course, which is marked a few weeks before the race. A team maps it out, memorizes the difficult or dangerous sections, plans each pit stop, rehearses refueling strategy and searches for, ahem, shortcuts. The entire course can't be monitored by officials, so discreet detours around the meanest obstacles are considered fair by the racers—if not by the officials. "There are lots of things like silt beds that you have to find a route around," says Mears, who preran the course for eight days, with five vehicles and 10 men, before last year's Baja 1000. "I needed 30 days," he says.
A lot of teams go down to Baja and just wing it, finishing the race being enough of a challenge for their egos and their bank accounts. But if you are Nissan and you want to win so you can sell more pickup trucks, you go full tilt. The Mears Gang that assembled in Baja last October consisted of 60 men and two dozen vehicles (including two 18-wheelers and a big box van), plus three airplanes to monitor Roger's progress along the peninsula and to keep in radio contact with his codriver, Tony Alvarez. Seven chase vehicles took turns following Mears's Nissan as it sped down Route 1, leapfrogging to the next of the 12 pit-stop locations. Logistics were directed by pit boss Jerry Mooney, who rode shotgun in a Nissan Pathfinder driven by—this should come as no surprise—Bill Mears.
Roger Mears's Hardbody is about as close to the vehicle you see in a Nissan showroom as NASCAR champion Rusty Wallace's Grand Prix is to anything available at your local Pontiac dealership. Basically, Roger Mears Racing hand-built the truck, including its V-6 engine. The one-of-a-kind vehicle is valued at $200,000 and features a chassis designed by Trevor Harris, the English engineer who created the Nissan GTP, the world's quickest sports car. The two-wheel-drive truck's suspension is worthy of the Golden Gate Bridge's and includes 10 shock absorbers, each the size of a small bazooka.
For the 10:30 start of the 1989 Baja 1000, a bizarre array of vehicles was gridded on the wide boulevard that runs along Ensenada Harbor: "heavy metal" pickup trucks with bellowing V-8 engines; rasping Porsche-powered single-seaters; almost-stock-looking Volkswagen Beetles (Baja Bugs); even a Russian Lada (a wide-eyed Soviet driver at the wheel). Mariachi music played, vendors hawked tamales, and TV helicopters hovered just above the crowd.