Across the street from Rick Mears' hotel room there are two pop-up trailers from which toothless men sell Hoosier fried rabbit, elephant ears and Tonka cars and trucks. The Mears' driver dolls have black hair, the Mario Andretti dolls brown, the Gordon Johncock white. Except for their hair color and the numbers pasted to the doors, one could not tell one driver from another.
But the real Rick Mears, sitting on the second floor of the cinder block hotel with his curtains drawn, staring at the cheap cardboard print of a seaside over his bed, is not wearing an Alumicron suit with racing patches on the chest and sleeves. Instead, he wears old corduroys, turf hugger shoes and a cheap polo shirt he could have bought at a K-Mart blue light special. Ricky Rayvon Mears, 31, is modest, inconspicuous, would wear the Pennzoil cap with his name scribbled across the brim only if there was no other, and only if the sun was blinding.
"I never dreamed I'd be driving an Indy car much less even sitting in one," Mears, winner of the 1979 500 and two-time Indy car points champion, says. "I feel real good about all the success I've had, but I'm still the same man I was 10 years ago driving my daddy's backhoe. I honestly don't feel any different now than I did then."
Mears, who set a qualifying record here in 1982 with a one-lap speed of 207.612 and finished second to Johncock by .16 of a second, the closest in Indianapolis history, will run in the third position in Sunday's 67th running of the 500, behind rookie Teo Fabi and Mike Mosley. Pole-sitter Fabi's qualifying time this year was 207.395 mph; Mears ran the 2.5-mile track in 204.301.
"This is just another race for me," Mears says. "It might be a little bigger and a lot more hectic, but it all comes down to days like today, sitting around waiting for it to come. The wait seems to last forever.
"Some drivers prepare differently than I do," he says. "I like to keep calm, stay relaxed, away from all the fuss. I think if I keep to myself and think about what must be done, about what must be accomplished, I'll be more relaxed on race day and my chances will be better."
Mears grew up in Bakersfield, Calif., after his father, Bill, a backhoe operator, moved the family from Wichita. Before beginning his pro career driving sprint buggies at Ascot Park in Gardena in 1970, Mears drove motorbikes and dune buggies across the sandy terrain of Southern California with his brother, Roger, also an Indy driver who qualified for Sunday's race in the eighth position with a time of 200.108.
Roger Penske hired Mears in 1978 to join Mario Andretti in his Gould Charge. Running from the pole, Mears won the Indy 500 the next year, his first on the circuit, with a patient, conservative style of driving. His cautious approach is the antithesis of the hard-charging traditionalists like A.J. Foyt and Johnny Rutherford, whose competitive egos demand they start and stay far in front of the field, daring fate or foolishness to spoil their adventure. "I like to set a pace that I feel is slow enough to save my car and win the race," Mears says. "The race comes to you; you don't have to go to the race."
Although he claims never to think about it, Mears says he doesn't want to die racing cars around Indy's macadam track. In the 1981 500, while refueling only minutes after having taken the lead, the nozzle of the Methanol hose stuck open, spraying fuel all over Mears' car. Methanol, used in all championship cars, burns with no visible flame. For far too many mortal moments, only Mears, still in the car, knew his face was burning. He couldn't breathe, couldn't get his helmet off, and watched helplessly as a track fireman dropped his extinguisher and walked away. Later, he would say, "If I was that volunteer fireman, not wearing a fireproof suit, I would have done the same thing. The guy was there . . . on a lunch-box deal that gives you a free ticket to the race. He's not to blame."
Mears burned for 35 seconds before his father, working in the pits with the Penske team and one of the few who was aware of what was happening, picked up an extinguisher and sprayed fire-retarding foam on the car, then under his son's helmet.
"There are some things you don't think much about," Mears says. "Dying never comes to mind. And the sense of speed and danger doesn't, either. I race for the competition. And I don't care if we're going 35 or 235, as long as ours is 35 and theirs is 34.
"I drive defensively. It's everything to me to know who I'm running with. You need to know your opposition as well as you know yourself; know their techniques, their styles, and who you can run close to and who you can't.
"Five hundred miles is a long way," he says. "It's important to remember that you survive the first half of the race, and race the second half.
"You're bound to have doubts before a race. There are some things you'll never know . . . But after all the miles you've run the car and all the testing, you know it and feel comfortable with it.
"The car is very much an extension of yourself, you know it so well. And you go out there and run your race and overcome the unknowns when they do arise. If I said I didn't get nervous, I'd be a liar. But, like I said, the more relaxed you are, the better your chances. That's why I like to take it easy and spend so much time alone."
Although Mears is known to sometimes fall into a nervous slumber behind the wheel while waiting for the green light, he is completely tuned into his sojourn the moment he presses his foot against the pedal propelling him into Indy's thundering herd. He loves the race, he says, and will continue driving cars at ridiculous speeds "until I find something I like better and consider worth doing. But I still have a few more years left. And I still have the big one Sunday."