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But now along came another brilliant young second-generation driver. Al Unser Jr., 22, had charged up from his 15th starting position to fourth and was beginning to take small bites out of the hot dogs in front. Little Al passed Mears to go into third and then invited himself in on a sensational dice for the lead that was engaging Mario Andretti and Sneva. For several laps the four of them put on a show, driving bravely and expertly, darting and weaving and squeezing through traffic as if the world would come to an end if they eased off on the throttle.
On the 59th lap, after a yellow flag that put Mears back in the lead—he was able to get his wing readjusted during a pit stop—Pat Bedard crashed into the infield fence between Turns 3 and 4. It was a horrifying wreck. An immense ball of flame blew up around his car as it first hit the steel guardrail. Fortunately it flamed out as the black car flipped and corkscrewed through the air, throwing off its wheels and bodywork, leaving nothing but a crumpled inner chassis cartwheeling across the grass. What was left of the car came to rest upside down. Track workers cautiously levered it upright. Bedard, a 42-year-old journalist with a master's degree in engineering, was lifted out limp and unconscious. He regained consciousness in the infirmary in the infield. A helicopter took him to Methodist Hospital, from which eventually there came a wonderfully amazing report: A broken jaw and concussion were the worst of his injuries.
As the yellow lights came on and the cars began pitting, the race was thrown into high-tech confusion; the scoring computer had gone down. Because it kept track of every driver's position and fed the huge infield tower scoreboard, the only people who could know what was what were the official scorers and teams keeping track, and they were too busy to talk to anyone. Somehow, in the tumult, Teo Fabi, the 5'5" Italian who was last year's pole sitter and Rookie of the Year, slipped into the lead. He held it for 13 of the next 17 laps, but on Lap 104 he dropped out with fuel problems, and the race between Sneva and Mears was on again, with Little Al still hounding them. Mario Andretti was fading with a broken exhaust pipe. He would have to drop out for good on the 153rd lap, when he smashed the nose of his Lola against Josele Garza's March. Garza had cut him off coming into the pits. Mario had won Indy in 1969, but now he was bitten by the Brickyard snake once again.
Misfortune had also overtaken two-time winner Gordon Johncock, who had ignition trouble early on and had been pressing to make up for lost time. On the 103rd lap he got out of the groove exiting Turn 4 and bounced off the wall. He somehow herded his spinning car into the pit entrance, only to clout the inner wall and carom back across pit road into another wall, in the process breaking his left ankle.
With 350 miles completed, the front of the race was as it had been in the beginning: Mears was running off from Sneva, and now he had a quarter-mile lead. But Sneva had made adjustments to his own front wing—had it dialed in just right, he figured—and soon began to go after Mears.
Little Al Unser's water pump failed, ending the most spirited drive of the race, and the scoring tower now had Roberto Guerrero in third behind Sneva, followed by Al Unser Sr. and Michael Andretti. Guerrero, a Colombian educated in England, had switched to Indy Cars after two winless seasons in Formula One. His crew chief is George Bignotti, who had been top wrench for Sneva last season. Guerrero spun coming out of Turn 2 but showed his cool by not stalling the engine. "I just lost all my grip and spun. I was lucky I didn't hit anything," he said, adding that he was too busy to count how many loops the car had made. And before that his left rear tire had been run over by Danny Sullivan's Lola, when they came into the confusion of the Bedard crash. But Guerrero was charging now, cutting 203-mph laps.
With the stage set for a final duel to the finish between Mears and Sneva, the curtain never quite made it up for the final act. Sneva retired on Lap 168 with a broken universal joint in the left rear axle. Then it was only a matter of waiting for Mears to run out the race. He kept asking Penske over his radio, "Are you sure I'm a lap ahead?"
Said Mears after the race, "When I won in 1979, I didn't know what it meant to win the Indy 500. It didn't soak in until a week later. This year it tried to soak in before the race was over." He wasn't able to breathe freely until he got through the fourth turn on the final lap. "That's when I knew if the wheels came off the thing, I could still slide that far," he said.
Mears may have had a trouble-free race, but it wasn't without its scares. "I don't have enough fingers and toes to count the close calls," he said. "I had to pull my elbows in a few times to keep from scraping them against the wall."
It was a comeback for both Mears and Penske. Last year hadn't been Mears's best, either; his marriage had ended. But now owner and driver are on top again, having gotten there in the stylish and professional manner they've displayed from the beginning. In the seven years Mears has driven for Penske, he has become not only a superb racer but also one of the best test drivers in the business, a fact Penske must have taken into account when he decided to ditch his own cars. The Captain has never been more worthy of his stripes.