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 sometime, 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.
Mears feels better appreciated nowadays as racing people have come to realize he's more than lucky. He also feels more pressure to run up front—hence the six lap records—because it's now expected of him. "But I'm in no big hurry for recognition," he says. "Things come in time." More small steps. Mears can afford to be patient. The Foyts and Andrettis et al. are more than 40 years old, and there are no stars between them and Mears. Mears is ambitious enough to be keenly aware of the opportunity that is coming his way: to become one of the greatest drivers of all time.
They're certainly on the lookout for him in Europe. Formula I awaits him, even eagerly. During a test for the Brabham team at Riverside International Raceway two years ago, he was three seconds faster than Brabham's No. 1 driver, Nelson Piquet, who would win the world championship in 1981. Last May after Gilles Villeneuve was killed at the Belgian Grand Prix, a Ferrari rep phoned Mears, feeling him out as to whether he'd be interested in replacing Villeneuve. Given the fact that Mears has never raced in Europe, it was a remarkable gesture of confidence.
If Mears does take up Grand Prix racing, he would certainly be the first driver whose path to Monte Carlo bounced and weaved through the desert. He learned his craft in offroad 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 offroad 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 offroad is the speed that's fast enough to win but slow enough to finish," he says (Is that Fangio calling?). "And that's what I have a handle on now. And when I slid into Indy cars after offroad 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 things, such as his niche in life. He's 5'10" and 150 pounds, with wide, bony shoulders, a 30-inch waist and hips so narrow that his T shirts look like they came from Joan Crawford's closet. When he walks he cants forward on his tiny (size 8½) feet, as if he were a 10-speed bicycle stopping with its front brakes. And his stride isn't a shuffle or spring; he takes those little steps, 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, getting it dialed. His high school crafts teacher, Russell Kominitsky, whom Mears blew away at slot cars, says Mears was the best student he has had in 20 years of teaching shop. He still uses some of Mears's projects—model boats and planes and the like—as examples of superlative craftsmanship.
Mears's wife of 10 years, Dina, says she has never seen him tense before a race—once Mears fell asleep, his head thrown back, in the staging area just in front of the starting line before an offroad race; he was awakened by young tormentors lobbing ice cubes into the irresistible target created by his drooping jaw—but she's seen her husband fall apart over pursuits that didn't come easily to him. A few years ago he tried racing remote-controlled model cars and found himself getting beaten by old men and little kids. "He would nearly break into a nervous sweat before those silly races," she says.
Mears's parents moved to Bakersfield from Wichita in 1955, when he was four, and the family has lived there ever since. He and Roger (they have a sister, Robin, 25) were literally raised on motorcycles, young Ricky Ravon—his given name—riding between his mother's knees on her Ariel, Roger on the back of his dad's Matchless. And if it got cold, Rick would shift to the Harley, squeezing between his dad and Roger for warmth. Later, when Rick was in high school and "hanging out with the dopers," Roger would provide more big-brotherly protection from the elements. Rick says if it hadn't been for Roger's threats, he might have shot ground-up reds into his arms like many of his buddies.
Until Rick began racing Indy cars Roger was the star because his driving style was spectacular—so sideways he almost seemed to back into the turns. The brothers raced offroad buggies on dirt ovals and generally finished one-two or vice versa, but Roger was the one everyone talked about. Now, after four hard years of trying to crack Indy car racing, Roger is completing his first full season. He has had four crashes this year. And though he's a SCORE offroad champion in his 4WD Jeep pickup, he now carries the burden of being the "other" Mears. He handles it well, because there is genuine admiration and affection between the brothers. "Rick's just so heady," says Roger, tapping his own temple. "It's calmed me down a lot just watching him. I've learned everything the hard way, but his way is like a gift."
In 1974 and '75 the Mears brothers ruled the sprint buggy class at L.A.'s Ascot Park, with their dad, who had raced jalopies back in Kansas and still sometimes co-drives with Roger, acting as their crew chief. In the grandstands there was always an enthusiastic contingent of fans who had driven the 150 miles down from Bakersfield. They became known as the Mears Gang. Today, the senior Mears sells MEARS GANG hats and T shirts out of his motor home at Roger's offroad races and many of Rick's Indy car races.
The Mearses' unofficial fan club might be more appropriately named the Bakersfield Gang. The family itself is large and close enough to qualify for the Mears Gang title without drafting any outsiders. Because of a predilection for young marriages on both Rick and Dina's sides, their sons, Clint, 9, and Cole, 8, have six great-grandparents, all living in Bakersfield. Rick married Dina in 1972, when he was 20 and she 19, and the marriage is going strong. It might be unfair to Rick to say it was Dina who rescued him from a life of operating a backhoe—he ran one for his father, who has a backhoe construction company—and cruising around Bakersfield in his '65 Impala lowrider. But marriage seemed to make him a responsible citizen in short order. Or maybe it was Clint, who was born nine months and three weeks after the Mearses were married. For a while back then, Rick's lunch money sometimes came from collecting the deposit on pop bottles he spied from the seat of the backhoe, and Dina washed her father-in-law's dump trucks for spending money. When Rick was starting to make himself known as a racer, Dina could have stayed home, but to back up her husband, she too went off to the desert, where she changed diapers while Rick raced. Today they are reaping the rewards of their faith in each other. Rick is setting records in Indy cars, and Dina drives a red Ferrari 308GTS with license plates 1 INDY 79. But she still tubes down the river with him as she has for the past 10 years.
Dina is what might be described as a looker: tall and pretty enough to be striking, without being flashy. She's outgoing enough to make Rick look hopelessly reticent—he would certainly never admit going to pieces over remote-controlled cars—and earthy enough to make him look like a stuffed shirt. There may be a connection between her earthiness and the fact that she grew up, with her three brothers, close to it—in the aptly named town of Oildale, across the Kern from Bakersfield. Dina speaks in gushers. "It worked out really good," Rick says of their first date, a fix-up. "She did all the talking, so I never had to say a word."
Because she's more mortal than her husband, the eddies nip more boldly at Dina's ankles when the Mearses tube down the Kern, and when she paddles to avoid the rocks, you can see her arms move, and she's not always sure if she's paddling away from danger or toward it. The GTS was a present from Rick to himself after he won Indy. "Rick wants a Ferrari Boxer now," she says. "Shoo. That's all he needs."
"It'll make Dina nuts," he grins. "Give her something else to spin out."
As if the words "spin out" were a cue, Dina tells the story of the same title. It begins on a rain-slicked freeway on-ramp; Dina shifts into second gear; the Ferrari loops and alights like a seesaw atop the median strip, its front wheels dangling over the northbound lane and the rears hanging over the southbound. The $50,000 car was undented but undrivable, because a part of the suspension had broken. "At least the license plate wasn't facing traffic," she says.
Driven home by a highway patrolman, who knew the car and its owner's accomplishments well ("I wanted him to hit me on the head with his club so at least I could have a bruise to show for it."), Dina says she had no more than opened the front door when the phone rang. It was Rick.
"What's going on?" he asked, unsuspecting.
Short on guile at such times, Dina blurted out, "I just spun the Ferrari!"
"Are you all right?" he asked.
"Oh, I'm all right," she said.
"Where's the car?" was the obvious next question.
"They're taking it off the wrecker right now."
"I about died," says Rick. "I had visions of them taking the Ferrari off a truck in little pieces and laying them down all over the yard."
It would have had plenty of company there. The Mears house is a large two-story model on the corner of an exclusive tract among parched rolling hills near Riverside. Fancy as the 22-month-old house is, the backyard is still dirt. Mears hasn't gotten around to doing any gardening yet, busy as he has been with the yard's contents: a water-ski boat with a 454-cubic-inch Chevy engine and jet conversion; his "bass boat," a V-6 outboard only slightly slower than the jet boat; a motor home; and a pile of inflated inner tubes, stacked in the corner against the tall grapestake fence that separates the yard from the Rio Bravo Country Club. He keeps the Ferrari, a restored Model A, a bunch of ATCs and a big model airplane in the garage, and two cockatoos in the kitchen. Parked in the driveway are an Eldorado and a Chevy pickup, Mears's choices from team owner Roger Penske's dealerships. Mears has just enough redneck in him to like going places in the tall truck, a can of beer in his hand and a tin of snuff in his hip pocket.
When he's not racing or testing cars, Mears plays with his toys, from the Ferrari to the cockatoos. He calls himself a bum, as in beach bum or ski bum, only his claim is broader. It's something of a family joke. Here he is, floating down the river: "This is why I never get anything done," he says. "There's a ton of mail back in my office. I just let it pile up until it's so old it doesn't matter anymore and I can throw it all out." He laughs.
What the best race drivers usually want most out of their sport is to beat everybody else at it. Mears is competitive, of course, but what he most wants is to have fun at racing; witness his wide-eyed effusiveness after this year's Indy. He really thought that it was neat, exciting, terrific, fun...everything the spectators thought it was. But none of them had just missed winning a second 500 by half a car length.
Former Penske teammate Bobby Unser once watched Mears in the Penske garage at Indianapolis, first assembling a remote-controlled car and then racing it away. Unser could neither approve of the activity nor figure it out; he mumbled something about Mears not becoming a real race driver until he grew up and faced the hard work. Mears says the toys are just relief from the work and recalls that his is a job that risks his life. But the work is also play to him. What Unser couldn't figure out is that Mears doesn't need to grow up. When life is like slot cars to you, you can go through it without much hustle and bustle, so long as you blow them all away.