The 30 seconds before an Indianapolis 500, Rick Mears says, "I'm trying to relax myself, to settle down, and I'm talking to the car, 'Take me home, take me home.' "
In a 200-mile-per-hour hurry that some think is too fast, Mears figures to get home before 32 other drivers in Sunday's $2 million race starting at noon, weather permitting. There were thunderstorms and flash flood warnings in the area today, but the forecast cites only a 20 percent chance of rain Sunday.
Qualified at a record 207.004 mph in a Penske-perfect racer, Mears also is a winner here (1979) who easily ran off with this season's first two Indy-car races by building huge early leads.
"If we can lead the race at a comfortable pace, we'll do it," Mears said of strategy for the 66th running of a race expected to draw upward of 300,000 fans to Indianapolis Motor Speedway. "If not, we'll see how the others run and make our plans accordingly.
"The 500 miles will the biggest competitor we've got . . . And there'll be a lot of guys running hard: Kevin Cogan, A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Gordon Johncock, Tom Sneva, Danny Ongais, Al Unser."
The fastest field ever, averaging above 197 mph, also includes contenders Pancho Carter, Geoff Brabham and three-time winner Johnny Rutherford, who for one thinks former driving champion Jackie Stewart is off base criticizing Indy's speeds.
"After the average fan has seen 207," Rutherford said, "he's not going to be satisfied with 180." It's scary to have nine rookies flying at 200, Rutherford admits, but he believes the cars are safe if no one gets foolish.
After Gordon Smiley died two weeks ago in a 190-mph crash, Rutherford said Smiley foolishly had tried to correct a high-speed mistake. That correction took him head-on into a wall. Mears said, "You couldn't hit that wall at 130 and be safe. The whole thing has been blown out of proportion."
The 36th driver killed here, Smiley is the first since Art Pollard in 1973.
Mears and teammate Cogan, the fourth-place finisher as a rookie last year, start from the first two spots. Alongside them is Foyt, Indy's only four-time winner, making his 25th start here and approaching 10,000 miles of 500 racing.
"I want to win very, very badly," said Foyt, the only starter from the 1958 Indy 500 still driving. "All it means, this 25-year stuff, is that I've been very lucky." Of the 1958 drivers, 13 were killed racing.
For the first time in 20 years, Bobby Unser, last year's disputed winner, will not drive. Though he hasn't retired, Unser is crew chief to the young Mexican charger, Josele Garza. Garza, who led briefly last year, struggled to qualify this time, earning the last spot at 194.500 mph.
"Sure, I miss it, I'm itchy as hell," Unser said earlier this month.
"He wants to get in the race car," Garza said, laughing. "I got to keep mine under lock and key."
Unser won his second 500 only after a nine-month administrative battle. He finished first but was penalized a lap the next day for having improved his position during a caution lap. Andretti was moved up from second to first. Andretti now is so weary of the controversy that he won't talk about it; the other day he passed out five-page transcripts of an interview on the subject.