Rick Ravon Mears showed up at a news conference the other day looking as if he'd just abandoned the controls of a backhoe, after dredging out a ditch.
His face, dark as well-oiled leather, bore the expression of someone tired but hardly beaten by the vicious grind. He wore a faded pullover shirt and a baseball cap that embraced his skull like a monstrous red hand of uncertain purpose. He spent 15 minutes talking about his feet and another 20 or so talking about the 69th running of the Indianapolis 500, scheduled to begin Sunday at noon (EDT). ABC will run a tape-delayed telecast of the race at 9 p.m.
Mears, 33, was involved in a spectacular crash at the Sanair Super Speedway in Quebec less than four months after winning his second Indy 500 last year in the record average speed of 163.612 mph.
When he crashed, he said, he "looked down and saw that I still had both feet and knew that I'd race again . . . I broke every bone in the right foot -- some twice, the doctor said -- and about half in the left foot. I also tore off both Achilles' tendons."
The injuries forced him to miss the last five races of the 1984 season and the first CART/PPG Indy Car World Series event of 1985, the Long Beach Grand Prix. His return Sunday, even after spending weeks of seven-hour days working in and around his March-Cosworth, "will be tough," he said, "but I think it will be tough on everybody differently . . . Some guys will be running a 500-mile sprint race, no doubt, but I'm not going to be. It will be a quick race, depending on the weather and how many yellows (caution flags) we get. The record should fall."
Pancho Carter, whose father, Duane Sr., raced 11 times at Indy but never finished better than fourth, won the pole with a four-lap qualifying speed of 212.583 mph, the fastest ever. The average speed for the 33-car field tops the record qualifying mark set by Teo Fabi only two years ago. The slowest qualifier, Tony Bettenhausen, made the starting lineup at 204.824 mph.
"My dad and I were talking about it the other night," Carter said. "I never thought I'd be on the front row. I always dreamed about winning the race, but never until now -- with so much money involved -- did I think about winning the pole. When you're a kid, you always remember who won the race. Nobody seemed to care much about who won the pole."
The forecast calls for partly sunny skies and temperatures in the mid-80s. Mario Andretti, who won only once here, in 1969, and has experienced mostly hard luck and frustration in his 20 starts, said, "Winning this race is my one concern and burning goal . . . If I was satisfied with (winning here only once), what the hell would I be driving here again for? If you're satisfied, you're a second-class citizen, that's all."
After trial runs over the last few weeks, the drivers have confessed they find it difficult to navigate in the dirty, turbulent air stirred up by other cars, especially in the corners. Rookie driver Ed Pimm said, "It's a little disconcerting to go into a corner with your head shaking so hard you can't see."
Because of the turbulence, Andretti said, "you can feel the difference in the car's balance changing from as far back as 10 car lengths. Theoretically, you should not be as close to the next guy as you might have been in the past . . . But, during the race, you find the condition that affects you the least so you can battle with the guy up front. With this dirty air upsetting most of the field, it will be a definite advantage to lead. Whoever gets in the first corner first will enjoy a few laps better than the rest of us."
Scott Brayton, who will share the first of 11 rows with Carter and Bobby Rahal, compared the turbulence in the first turns to "a whirlwind, a gray haze." He said, "The air is choppy and has no consistent pattern. It moves things around.
"There's unbelievable heat and dust, doing all kinds of crazy things on top of the car. Rookies hear all the horror stories, but you have no idea until you experience it. I've never witnessed a tornado, but it would be almost close to that."
Carter and Brayton, who set a one-lap track record of 214.199 mph during qualifications, are driving cars powered by Buick V-6 engines and stand to challenge the British-built Cosworth engines, which have powered every Indy pole-sitter since 1978. United States Auto Club rules give the Buick turbocharged "stock-block" engines a decided horespower advantage over the competition, mainly because the Buicks are production line-based engines not designed exclusively for racing.
George Snider made the field in a March powered by a Chevy V-6 stock-block, but the 30 other cars use Cosworth power plants. Several drivers said they would be surprised if the two experimental Buicks and lone Chevy even finish.
Asked how he planned to start and pace the field, Carter said, "You won't see any silly mistakes. I don't think you'll see a start like we had three years ago when we were brought down real slow . . . I want to make sure everybody is up in the higher gears. It will be a rolling start, which it always should be, with everybody accelerating."
Mears said the fans should not expect a surprise winner "because the established drivers and teams put out everything they possibly can for such a big race. But, with the superior equipment, there are more potential winners now than there ever were in the past. You can see that in the class of cars in the field. Because the qualifying times were all so close, you have more people who can win out here. But how many and who, I have no idea. We'll have to wait and see."