One of the most intriguing facts about Rick Mears, the man on the pole for Sunday's Indianapolis 500, is that when he won his first 500, back in 1979, he had yet to spin out in an Indy Car. And that included all the practice sessions he had run and all 22 races in which he had competed. That's why his crash in September of 1984 came as such a shock.
No one thought it would ever happen to Mears. Even more out of character, the crash occurred in practice for a race at Sanair Super Speedway near Montreal. Mears, who had won his second Indy 500 earlier that season, was trying to squeeze between two other cars when he clipped one of them, sending his car nose first into a guardrail. He was unscratched from the knees up, but both his feet were crushed. Mears was dazed when safety workers and crew members got to the wreckage.
"Do you know who I am?" asked Roger Penske, his car owner.
"Yeah, I know," said Mears.
May 25, 1986
"What's my name?"
"Do you know what happened?"
"Yeah," said Mears. "I screwed up."
The only thing that Mears screwed up during qualifying for this year's Indy was his courage. He drove his brilliant-yellow March-Cosworth to a one-lap record of 217.581 mph and a four-lap mark of 216.828. All during the preceding week of practice, before he had traveled faster than any man has ever gone in an Indy Car, it was obvious that Mears was back. Not just "back," for he had returned from the Sanair crash to drive in last year's Indy 500, but confident, comfortable and downright effervescent.
Searching for someone around Gasoline Alley who begrudges the 34-year-old Mears his regained status as the man to beat is a futile task. Certainly that is so in garages A17 through A22, Penske Racing's headquarters for the month of May, where Mears is regarded as the most terrific guy ever to come down the back-straight. If he hadn't had it before, Mears got a lock on his teammates' devotion when he became the key behind-the-scenes element in Al Unser's 1985 Indy Car points championship. Unser had signed to drive only three 500-mile races for Penske Racing last year, but when Mears decided his feet hadn't healed to his satisfaction, he turned his car over to Unser, who went on to compete in 14 of the 15 races on the schedule and win the title. That gave Unser the right to paint No. 1 on his car for this season, but in appreciation he has passed the honor to Mears. However, Mears's car will not be wearing No. 1 on Sunday; the defending Indy champ has that privilege, and that's Danny Sullivan, Mears's other teammate.
"Turning the ride over was just a common-sense decision as far as I was concerned," Mears says. "It would have been cheating for me to drive instead of Al—cheating me, Roger, the team. I knew the races couldn't be done the way they should with me driving. I'll never feel like I earned No. 1, because I didn't, but I'm proud to carry it for the simple fact that Al gave it to me."
Such sentiment fairly oozes out of the Penske garages, and it's real. In a sport in which two-car teams consistently fail because of the me-first nature of the sport, Penske Racing has managed to make a happy family out of a three-car team.
Dr. Terry Trammell is the Indianapolis-based orthopedic surgeon who put the pieces of Mears's shattered feet back together again after the crash in Canada. It happened on a Friday, and Penske immediately sent his corporate jet to Indianapolis to fetch Trammell, who is regarded as a miracle worker by the racing fraternity. Mears's feet were so swollen—they had puffed up like footballs—that Trammell wanted to wait before operating. But by Monday, after Penske's Lear jet had flown Mears and the doctor back to Indianapolis, Trammell was forced to perform emergency surgery: The swelling was choking off circulation to Mears's right foot.
"Half the bones in his left foot were broken, and his right foot was basically a bag of mush," says Trammell, one of 11 surgeons who make up Orthopedics Indianapolis, Inc. In addition, Mears's feet had been folded up against his shins, a wrenching that ripped both Achilles tendons loose from his heels. In an exacting operation at Indianapolis Methodist Hospital, Trammell threaded thin wires through Mears's toes to hold the pieces together like beads on a string, and encased the feet in stainless-steel cages, using adjustable rods and pins inserted into the bones. For the first few days after the operation, Mears's room was kept at 95° to promote healing by increasing circulation to his toes.
"It was real touch and go," says Trammell, who stayed at Mears's bedside through that first night. "For a while I thought Rick was going to lose most of his right foot. That was the scariest part."
"Dr. Trammell told me I'd set a record: My feet were the worst he'd ever seen on a person who was still alive," says Mears. "But as soon as I looked down and saw that they were still there, I knew I'd be driving again. It wasn't a matter of if, but when."
"After the foot was out of danger, I told him that, yes, he would be able to drive again," says Trammell. "I just didn't know if he'd walk again."
Mears, who has won more Indy Car races (20) than any other driver in the last 10 years, is a natural athlete. He moves with quickness and grace, and eats whatever he wants without adding to his 150 pounds or his 30-inch waist. He has enviable endurance although he does not work out, an activity he hates. "Water-skiing is my kind of exercise," he says. According to his older brother, Roger, a successful off-road racer, occasional Indy Car driver and Rick's closest friend, "I've learned everything the hard way, but his way is like a gift."
After some early years as a slot-car prodigy, Rick began his driving career as an off-roader, too, desert racing on motorcycles and, later, in buggies and pickup trucks. He has won at both Pikes Peak and Baja. In fact, young Mears virtually grew up on a motorcycle. He was taken on long rides through the boonies around Bakersfield, Calif., cradled between his mother's knees as she rode her Ariel, while Roger hung onto the back of their dad's Matchless.
"I remember the first time I saw him at Indianapolis, in 1978," says Peter Parrott, Mears's English-born chief mechanic, who has worked for the likes of Jackie Stewart, Jack Brabham, Jochen Rindt and Graham Hill, Formula One world champions all. "Roger [Penske] had hired him to drive the third car, and when Rick walked in the garage I didn't know who he was—no one had ever heard of Rick Mears. I was about to throw him out. I asked another mechanic, 'Who the bloody 'ell is that?'
" 'That's our driver.'
" 'But who the 'ell is he?'
" 'Some off-road racer.'
" 'A what?'
"Then he got in the car, and it wasn't long before we knew that Roger had himself a find. You always look to see how they're breathing when they come back, how tense they are. Rick would come back after going considerably faster than anyone expected him to and say, 'Well, I can go quicker if you want me to.' He was very cool. It seemed to come to him very effortlessly. We were very impressed. Marvelous. He qualified on the outside of the front row at 200-point-something miles an hour, this rookie, this chap we'd never heard of. Amazing.
"I don't think he's changed a bit, really, from the first time I saw him," Parrott adds. "He's just gotten smarter."
Penske tells of the time he first spotted Mears: "It was out at Ontario Speedway, in 1976 I think, and Rick was driving this old Eagle Indy Car that was painted pink. He and his dad were pushing it around the garage area, trying to get it started. Somebody told me to keep an eye on Rick—he didn't know me; I didn't know him—and later on he came around our garage and just sort of hung around in the background and watched. He was real quiet and wore this big leather cowboy hat. He ended up finishing eighth or something in that old car."
Adds Penske, "The thing that makes Rick so great is his credibility with his peers. Walking down pit road, you can't find a guy who doesn't have high praise for him, both as a driver and a guy. Remember how he kept right on working with Danny, even after Danny got all that publicity after he won Indy last year?"
Mears was lucky to have someone who was willing to work with him during the time he spent recuperating at Methodist Hospital. That someone was his fiancée, Chris Bowen, who had studied nursing for two years. They had met in 1983, in Reading, Pa. when Mears came East to Penske Racing's permanent headquarters for its annual Christmas party. The party actually was held in January for Mears's benefit, because in December he had undergone plastic surgery on his nose, which had been badly burned in a pit fire at the 1981 Indy 500. Rick and Chris hit it off right away. Each being fairly fresh from a divorce, they had something in common. "I was fed up with men, and he was fed up with women," Bowen says. She began going to races and "loved it right away." By October 1983 she had moved to Bakersfield, where Mears has lived off and on since he was five.
"Chris stuck to him like glue those weeks in the hospital," says Trammell. "Roger got her a hotel room, but she spent maybe two nights in it the whole nine or 10 weeks Rick was in the hospital. There were a lot of mornings I'd walk in the hospital room and literally step over her, because she'd slept on the floor. She treated him the way a tough old Army nurse would have. Told him what had to be done, and that was it."
"People have told me the way I took care of him was something special," Bowen says, "but I don't see what's so terrific. Sure, I stayed in the hospital and washed his hair and helped carry him to the bathroom and changed his dressings and slept on a cot, but I would have gone crazy if I couldn't have done that. What was frustrating was I couldn't do anything to take away the pain. That was the hard part. The true test would have been if Rick couldn't have gotten back in the car."
In the first three weeks after the accident, Mears underwent two major restructuring operations on his feet, and in the following months he had many more operations to remove spurs and bone chips. The most serious problem came when an area of burned skin around his right heel died, leaving the bones and tendons exposed. Three months after the crash, Dr. Harry Buncke, a San Francisco plastic surgeon, headed up a microsurgery team that performed a 10-hour operation, removing a six-inch section of skin and fat from Mears's left shoulder and successfully grafting it onto the heel.
The Penske team was without Mears for eight months. "It was quite bad for a while," says Parrott. "It was the first time in eight years we hadn't had Mears around, and that was a strange thing to get used to. Personally, it was terrible for me. I couldn't see myself working for anyone else.
"I think he had a greater influence on the team than people were aware of until he was gone. Rick's unselfish, no-superstar attitude rubs off on the team and sets the standard. Over the years it's had an effect. And we especially missed his test driving, although Danny took up the slack and did a superb job."
Last year's Indy 500 was Mears's comeback race. He got around Gasoline Alley on a battery-powered cart because walking was still too painful. But that didn't affect him as much as the mental aspects of his recovery.
"His mind wasn't quite there," says Parrott. "He was in a lot of pain. But every time Roger came in the garage, Rick would get up and walk, whether it hurt or not. That's another thing about him—if there's a problem, he never lets on. He never wants to be the guy to let the team down. He wanted so bad to be back in the swing of things, but it was too soon."
Nevertheless, Mears's performance in the race was one that would have excited many drivers. He qualified 10th, and at the start he dropped back, cautiously regaining his timing in traffic—a far different situation from qualifying, when each car is sent out on the track alone. Mears apologized to his crew over the two-way radio, saying, "We're a little rusty, but we'll get it back." He did.
On the 14th lap he recorded the fastest lap of the race, 204.937 mph. He passed eventual winner Sullivan and "kind of went on, as a matter of fact," said Mears. But then his gearbox linkage failed, and he wound up in 21st place. "I guarantee you, we had a shot to win that son of a bitch," he says. Mears brags so infrequently that when he does, you know it's straight-up.
Mears is particularly good on oval tracks; Parrott considers him the absolute master of big ovals like Indy, Michigan and Pocono. Even Sullivan says, "Rick is the best I've ever seen on an oval track," a compliment Mears returns in kind, saying the same about road circuits and former Formula One driver Sullivan.
"One thing you don't see is new guys coming in and smoking the ovals," says Mears. "On a road course you can get a guy who might brave it up a bit, and scare himself and get away with it, but you can't carry a car on an oval. You have to make it right. And it takes longer to learn an oval because you have to adjust your lines to so many things—every slight variation in your tires, the changing groove. "Even the short ovals like Sanair [.826 mile] can be tricky. That place owes me one."
One track that doesn't owe Mears is Pocono. Last August he won the Pocono 500 in typical fashion—with his head. He stayed near the front for most of the race and kept dialing in his car's chassis to make it work better. "When it came to the last leg, we had the best car on the racetrack," Mears says. The victory made his season for him—"I was able to please my ego." Having done that, it was easier to offer the remainder of the season to Unser for his pursuit of the points championship.
Says Parrott, "Working so close together, your life on a race team is an open book. Everybody knows your temperature. When Rick won, we all felt what he did. We were thrilled. It was exactly what he wanted, what he needed. He was back where he belonged, winning."