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One of Rick Mears's favorite things to do when he's at home in Bakersfield, Calif. is to float down the Kern River in a big inner tube. He fits inside it like a little boy in a grown-up's overcoat, his arms and feet dangling in the cool water and a can of Bud Light balanced between his knees. As the gentle current carries him along, Mears, a two-time Indy car points champion and winner of the 1979 Indy 500, wears an expression that says: This is what people were meant to do. As the inner tube drifts downstream, rotating a quarter turn this way and that, Mears, who's facing upstream, appears unburdened by any need to direct the craft. But it doesn't wander off course into the rocks or the low-hanging branches along the bank. It stays in the straight and steady part of the stream. Even through white water, the eddies that could hang up Mears and his craft remain an arm's length away. It seems that Mears must be peeking over his shoulder and surreptitiously paddling his arms underwater to keep on course. But if he is, there's no evidence of it, and a visitor goes away not knowing if Mears is blessed or if he's simply got it all dialed.
Mears, 30, has long had this understated system for getting where he wants to go: small steps, no spinouts. He started winning at motor racing when he was a kid hanging out at a Bakersfield slot-car parlor. Says one opponent from those days, who would become Mears's high school crafts teacher a few years later, "He would sit there for hours, never moving anything but his eyeballs, never running off the track, and blow us all away." He has little feet, and he walks up on things with small steps. Says his mother, Mae, who's better known by her nickname, Skip, "When he learned to drive he'd pull up at a stop sign and he'd look and he'd look and he'd wait and wait. He'd be so darn careful I'd say, 'Rick, you can go some time, you know.' "
Rick has a brother, Roger, 35 and also an Indy car driver. "When we were kids I'd get so damn mad at him," says Roger. "We'd be riding motorcycles and I'd try to get him to do wheelies, but he'd say, 'No!' I'd say, 'All you got to do is yank on the handlebars, just do it!' He'd say, 'No!' He just wouldn't do anything until he had it completely wired. Like water skiing. When we were learning, he sat in the boat and watched me bust my butt. He was just sitting back, figuring it out. Then he went out and did it without falling."
"It's always been obvious to me," says Rick. "Even when I was a kid I could see it. If you take big steps it's too easy to cross The Line."
What Indy car racing is all about is The Line, the border between getting the most out of a car and getting too much; giving The Line too much berth will make you a loser but crossing it can kill you. Mears won the Indy 500 before he'd ever spun out in an Indy car race, which would surely be a record if such records were kept. Small steps. In his seven-year, 71-race Indy car career, Mears has spun only once. When he finally did, at Mid-Ohio Raceway track in his third year, it was a relief—sometimes not spinning out can mean a driver isn't pushing enough. "I'd wondered for three years: Where's the limit?" says Mears. "Once I found it I realized I'd been awfully lucky a lot of times." He's a natural, and his instincts had told him where The Line was before the rest of him found it.
Mears won the CART/PPG World Series, as the Indy car championship is called, in 1979, only his first full season on the circuit, after having been signed following his rookie year by Penske Racing, the most successful Indy car team over the last decade. He also won the Indy 500 in 1979, driving a predecessor version of the 800-horsepower car he drives today, which is officially designated the Penske-Ford Gould Charge but is generally known around the pits as simply a PC-10.
Mears won the championship again in 1981, after having been burned in a pit fire while leading that year's Indy 500. His car was being refueled when the shutoff valve on the filler hose nozzle stuck open. An unknowing crewman yanked the hose out, and there was a methanol downpour. Mears knew he was in trouble when he saw the fuel flow over his visor in a thin, deadly wave. A split second later it ignited. Mears's fire-resistant driver's suit protected most of him, but his nose, which was sticking through one of the eye openings in his balaclava, was burned, and today it looks as if an animal chewed on it. Still it could have been a lot worse were it not for the quick action of Rick's father. Because methanol burns with almost no visible flame, the firemen in the pits didn't realize Rick was on fire. But his dad, Bill, working in the pits with the Penske team, saw his son batting and slapping at himself and, being a former driver himself, realized what had happened. Bill Mears grabbed a bottle of fire-fighting foam from a pit worker and sprayed down Rick and then jammed the nozzle under his son's helmet to douse the fire burning inside. Plastic surgery this winter will mend the damage Bill wasn't able to prevent.
Maybe it was some perverse kind of motivation, but since the fire Mears has dominated Indy car racing. He sat out only one race because of the burns and then won six of the last nine in '81, the first two on the day of his comeback, when he beat Johnny Rutherford and Mario Andretti in separate hard duels at Atlanta International Raceway, the fastest course on the Indy car circuit. This year he has won four of 11, had four more in hand until car trouble struck and set six lap records in qualifying. In mid-September at Road America, at Elkhart Lake, Wis., a fifth-place finish gave him the points title again, despite the fact that two races were still left to be run in the PPG series: Michigan International Speedway, where after winning the pole position his engine blew and he only completed one lap—and Phoenix last Saturday, where Mears finished second. And there was this year's Indy 500, where he streaked to the pole position at a record 207.004 mph. In the race, after a slow pit stop with 17 laps remaining, he fell just .16 seconds short of running down Gordon Johncock. It was the most exciting final lap in the 67-year history of the race that bills itself as the "Greatest Spectacle in Sports."
With such credentials Mears is still something of an undiscovered phenomenon. The fact that he's an adherent of the Juan Manuel Fangio theory of driving—win the race at the slowest speed possible, a very alien Argentinean notion to most American drivers—has limited the recognition he has gotten. His statistics are sensational. He has won 24% of his races, possibly the highest percentage of any Indy car driver ever, but the household names of the sport, such as A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Johnny Rutherford and Al and Bobby Unser, continue to overshadow Mears because they charge to the front and dare misadventure to catch them, as it frequently does. Mears watches them the way he watched Roger water ski. "It's stupid to take chances and be hard on your equipment until it's necessary," he says. "Nine times out of 10 the race will back up to you instead of you taking yourself up to it."
The expression "the race backs up to you" is one he uses deliberately these days. Too often in the past he heard it applied in a belittling way to himself. During his first couple of years in Indy cars, he was considered lucky and he didn't like it. He knew the difference between playing it smart and playing it safe, but wished the distinction was clearer to others. He wished they'd notice that if the chargers didn't break down, he was perfectly willing to go after them, late in the race when charging makes more sense and is worth the risk. It wasn't as if aggressive driving was something he wasn't up to; he just believed—and still believes—that race drivers who are steely and unafraid are fools. But Mears admits he likes close calls—or, more precisely, he likes the specter of the unexpected and the satisfaction of having "saved it." He likes getting out of his car with wobbly knees. "That's what keeps you coming back," he says. After all, a close call is still on this side of The Line.