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From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, November 15, 1982
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. The inner tube drifts downstream, rotating a quarter turn this way and that, while 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 or the whitewater eddies that are just an arm's length away. It stays in the straight and steady part of the stream. A visitor goes away not knowing if Mears is surreptitiously peeking over his shoulder and paddling his arms underwater or if he is simply blessed.
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, "He would sit there for hours, never moving anything but his eyeballs, never running off the track, and blow us all away." Says his mother, Mae, "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 sometime, you know.' " Says his brother, Roger, 35 and also an Indy car driver, "When we were kids I'd get so damn mad at him. 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.
In addition to the 500 Mears won the CART/PPG World Series, as the Indy car championship is called, in '79, 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 won the championship again in '81, 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, 18 months later, 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 grabbed a bottle of firefighting 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, in 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. 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 of a second short of running down Gordon Johncock. It was the most exciting final lap in the 67-year history of the race.
MEARS LEARNED HIS CRAFT BEGINNING AS A TEENAGER IN OFF-ROAD races in the Southwest and Mexico, first on motorcycles and then single-seater buggies and sometimes pickup trucks. He won at both Pikes Peak and Baja. The driving skills needed to herd a car over open terrain might seem unsuited to toeing the Line at 200 mph on pavement, but Mears believes his was the best possible training because off-road driving demands extremes in concentration, endurance, self-discipline, car control and, most important, a feel for the optimum pace of the equipment. "The hardest thing to find in off-road is the speed that's fast enough to win but slow enough to finish," he says. "And that's what I have a handle on now. And when I slid into Indy cars after off-road racing, especially on bikes, it was a cinch physically."
One can easily envision Mears in the desert on a motorcycle, bounding over scrubby hummocks and leaping dunes as if he could fly. That's how he does most things. His body seems designed to wedge easily into small spaces. He's 5' 10" and 150 pounds, with wide, bony shoulders, a 30-inch waist and narrow hips. When he walks he cants forward on his tiny feet, as if he were a 10-speed bicycle stopping with its front brakes. He takes little steps, so light he barely seems to touch the ground. But, oddly, it's his hands that catch the eye. Their movements are so sure, each of his fingers seems to have a presence of its own, and together they make his hands appear larger than they are. It's easy to picture them on TV knobs, adjusting the vertical hold and catching it right the first time.