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Now, Mears Is Ready to Get Back to Work : Six Months After Surviving Wreck, He Returns to Make Indy 500 Lineup

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

Rick Mears calls it a six-month vacation. Anyone but a race driver would probably call it six months of painful rehabilitation.

The smile on Mears’ face as he pulled off his yellow helmet after Saturday’s Indianapolis 500 time trials was that of a man about to start a vacation, not end one.

“I’m happy to be back,” he said. “This vacation was too long for me.”

After five operations, three months in the hospital and six months and two days after a horrifying wreck in Canada, Mears was back at work, running four laps to qualify for the May 26 race.

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Mears is defending champion in the Indianapolis 500, but few questions have been asked about his repeating as champion. The questions have all been about whether he would be able to race at all.

The first act is over. Mears qualified his Roger Penske-owned March-Cosworth at 209.796 m.p.h. and will start on the inside of the fourth row.

“I wouldn’t say it was what we wanted, but we’ll sure take it after all the problems we had,” Mears said. “Earlier in the week we had it running good, and then kind of lost it and never got it right again.”

Mears ran a lap of 213.371 m.p.h. last Wednesday--at the time the fastest lap in Indy history--and said he expected to go even faster.

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“I had to lift toward the end of turn four to avoid hitting the fence,” he said. “I left it there as long as I could, and I thought I was going to hit the wall. In fact, I was braced to hit, but I didn’t. That cost me a mile an hour, we figure.”

Friday, in the final hours of practice before qualifying, he blew the 750 horsepower turbocharged engine in his car.

Owner Penske used his corporate jet to fly the engine from here to Reading, Pa., where accessories were taken from it and installed on a fresh engine. That engine was tested on the dynamometer, then flown to Indianapolis and installed by the crew at 6:30 a.m. before the time trials.

With a gusty wind making it difficult to attain top speeds, Penske had Mears pass his normal qualifying effort to gamble on a fast lap late in the cool of the afternoon.

“As it turned out there wasn’t really much difference as far as the weather was concerned,” said Mears after falling nearly three miles short of Pancho Carter’s pole speed of 212.583.

Still, he is qualified, which means, in effect, that he is driving before he is walking.

He can hobble around on his tender feet, but he rides a one-man cart between the garage and the pits and keeps his walking to an absolute minimum.

“Dr. (Terry) Trammell says my feet may hurt for another year or so, and when the weather is bad they may hurt forever, but from the moment I looked down at my feet and saw that they were still attached to my legs, I knew there was no doubt I would be back,” Mears said. “The only question was when, not if.”

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Mears was driving at Sanair Speedway, near Montreal, last September when he tried to squeeze between two cars and didn’t make it. When his car stopped sliding, it was wedged beneath a metal guardrail.

“The impact crushed both feet,” he said. “Every bone was broken in the right foot and half the bones were broken in the left foot. Both feet were folded back against my shin bones when the car slid under the rail. It pulled both Achilles heels off the bones, but fortunately the bones broke, instead of the tendons being pulled loose. I say fortunately because bones heel quicker than tendons.”

Dr. Trammell, an orthopedic surgeon at Indianapolis’ Methodist Hospital who has worked on the legs and feet of Derek Daly, Kevin Cogan, Danny Ongais, Pancho Carter, John Paul Jr., and Shirley Muldowney, says Mears is underestimating the damage done to his right foot.

“He broke every bone in his foot, that’s right,” Trammell said. “But he also broke some of them more than once.”

Mears insists that he has no psychological effects from the accident that could cloud his future racing ability or confidence.

“I know exactly what happened,” he said. “It was a driver error on my part, and a mistake I never expect to make again. If the accident happened and I didn’t know why, I might have some doubts, but the way I look at it, it was a lesson.”

The lesson has been a hard one.

Once Mears was released from the hospital, he went home to Bakersfield to live with his brother, Roger, who has temporarily left Indy car racing to develop his own off-road truck-racing program.

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“Getting the full use of my feet will be a lengthy process,” Mears said. “I spent three to four hours daily in therapy. I start out with both my feet in a hot whirlpool. While they are still warm, a therapist works both feet. He works every joint. I didn’t know there were so many joints in a foot. The idea is to get them limber, more limber than the time before.”

More operations are due in the future to properly set the shattered foot.

Railbirds doubt that Mears, after sitting so long with his feet propped up in a wheelchair, will have the stamina to finish 500 miles.

“I don’t see why it should be difficult,” he said. “There is little braking, or shifting, to do. That’s why I passed Long Beach, because we felt it might be too much to ask of my foot to keep busy on a tight road circuit. But in 500 miles here, the thing to do is pace yourself, your car and your equipment, things like the tires, the gears, the brakes. All I want is to stay on the leader’s lap and be ready for the battle at the end. I feel I can run a comfortable pace early, which shouldn’t prove a problem to my feet.”

The element of danger is always there, he said, but that is what sets a race driver apart from the crowd.

“This business we’re doing here isn’t supposed to be for everybody and his brother. This is supposed to be the top of the line racing in the United States. If there wasn’t any danger, everyone would be doing it.”

Only two drivers, Steve Chassey and Chet Filip, were added to the Indianapolis 500 field Sunday as most of the drivers took the afternoon off after Saturday’s busy day.

Chassey, 30, from nearby Carmel, Ind., ran 204.224 m.p.h. in his Chevy V-8 powered March, a record for a normally aspirated engine. It bettered the 203.622 set last year by Kevin Cogan with a Pontiac engine.

Filip, 28, of Odessa, Tex., ran 203.661 to become the 29th qualifier. Qualifying sessions next Saturday and Sunday will determine the remainder of the 33-car field for the May 26 race.


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