It is a starry November night, halfway down the lonely Baja California peninsula. Close by Mexico Highway 1, the remote ribbon of blacktop that snakes 1,000 treacherous miles from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas, is a cinder-block farmhouse. A lantern glows inside, spilling enough light through a window to define a corral outside. A soft rumble begins to sound somewhere out in the darkness, and flecks of light appear in the distance, moving toward the farmhouse. They grow bright, then blinding, as the rumble rises to a roar. Now the source of the lights can be seen. It's a pickup truck, a Nissan Hardbody King Cab decked out in red, white and blue and enough lights to illuminate a carnival midway. The truck flies past the farmhouse and heads back into the night, its thunder fading with the crimson of its taillights.
All that remains is a cloud of dust and a question: Who was that madman? Oh, it was just Roger Mears on his way to town in his truck. The town is La Paz, some 992 miles from Ensenada, where Mears had started the previous morning. He's making the run straight through in the Presidente SCORE Baja 1000, the proudest of all off-road races.
Like mountain climbers, off-road racers perform in remote places and before largely unappreciative audiences. This may explain why Roger Mears, 42, a three-time winner of the Baja 1000 in as many classes, is not as well known as his little brother, Rick, 38, a former off-road racer who, in 12 years with Roger Penske's Indy Car team, has won the Indianapolis 500 three times.
That's not the way Roger envisioned it a few years back. Though he has been racing off-road since 1972, he has had his own team only since '85. Until then he, like Rick, had been aimed pretty much at Indy Cars. But while Rick went straight from wrestling with Baja buggies in the boondocks to driving for Penske, the older Mears boy tried to make it by the long, traditional route: from karts to midgets to Sprint cars to Super Vees and, finally, to a ride with the Machinists Union Indy Car team. In 1982, Roger Mears finished ninth in the CART standings and was named its most improved driver, but after two more seasons he concluded that the major force behind winning Indy Car raves was money as much as technology or talent, and he figured that struggling for eighth-and ninth-place finishes with a relatively underfinanced team was not for him. It has been full-time off-roading ever since.
The Mears boys have always been close, though poles apart in their approach to racing. Roger was the charger—foot-to-the-floor, tail hung out, going for it 100% of the time. Rick was the analytical one, his car circling a race track lap after lap in the same groove.
"Roger's style is right for off-road racing," says Rick. "He just fits in a stock car, which is a lot like an off-road truck because you can toss it around, and that movement suits him. I spent my whole life trying to get myself to hold it wide open like him, but I just couldn't do it."
Says their father, Bill, who raced the dirt tracks of Kansas in the early '50s, "I've ridden with each of them. Roger is so fast he scares the hell out of me. Rick is just as fast, but he feels slow, so I'm comfortable with him. All Roger's life, what he thought was slow, was fast. I've been trying to slow him down ever since he started racing. I used to go out on the edge of the track and throw dirt at him, but Roger would just grin, go into a corner sideways and keep going."
Roger and Rick grew up in the backseat of a '50 Chevy, which Bill Mears and his wife, Skip, used to travel to the races he would run, as far as 1,000 miles a week, to tracks in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. If the Mears boys are the most popular and well-adjusted drivers in racing today, it's because of their upbringing. Says Bill, "Me and Skip made up our mind that everything we done would be together. We never had babysitters, so we took the boys everywhere we went." That included long motorcycle rides, during which Roger would perch on the back of Bill's thundering Matchless, and Rick would be tucked between Skip's knees on her Ariel.
In 1955, when Roger was seven and Rick three, the Mears family moved from Wichita, Kans., to Bakersfield, Calif. "I packed them up and headed west in a '49 Caddy with a trailerhouse on back," Bill says. He bought a backhoe and started a one-man excavating company. As the business grew, so did the boys, and they showed they had inherited their dad's inclination for speed.
Bill built the vehicles and the Mears boys did the driving—first in go-karts, then dune buggies, and by the late '60s Roger was broadsliding his way to checkered flags on the quarter-mile asphalt track at Bakersfield Speedway in a modified '57 Chevy. When, in 1972, at 26, he won the annual Pikes Peak Hill Climb (the first of his three victories there) in a home-built, Volkswagen-engined buggy, the name Roger Mears gained national attention.