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Rick Mears, on the Road to Recovery After Sept. 7 Crash, Is Testing Cars

United Press International

When Rick Mears woke up in a Montreal hospital, he gazed down the bed at his legs.

“I saw that my feet were still attached,” said Mears. “I started to go unconscious again, but I did say to myself, ‘You’re going to drive again.”’

It has been 10 months since the practice crash that broke both of Mears’ feet but left his spirit intact.

When Mears next awoke, he was in an Indianapolis hospital where microsurgery and skin grafts eventually repaired his feet. In all, he was in several hospitals for a total of three months.

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“I was generally pretty foggy during the first few weeks because of pain killers,” said the 33-year-old resident of Bakersfield, Calif., and a two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 (1979, 1984).

“But one thing was clear--I was going to come back and drive again. That’s my job, my calling. I really don’t know what else I’m capable of doing right now.”

The accident occurred on Sept. 7 at the Sanair track, the site of the Molson Indy.

“Basically, I stuck my nose in where it didn’t belong,” said Mears, a three-time Indy-car champion (1979, 1981 and 1982). “I was trying to get by (Bobby) Rahal, and a dropped down below him. But Rahal speeded up, and the hole closed.

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“I clipped the front tire of Corrado Fabi, who was warming up low. The impact threw my car against the fence and the pain knocked me out.”

Mears remembers team owner Roger Penske “asking me if I knew his name. I told him who he was, but I had a very bad concussion and blacked out.”

Mears says the accident did not intensify a fear of racing.

“Fear tends to blunt the risks you feel like taking,” he said. “I’ll definitely think twice before trying to pass somebody like that again.

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“But I’m not scared to have a steering wheel in my hands again. Maybe a bit apprehensive, but not scared.

“I think it’s far more frightening standing at home plate with a bat in my hands and have a pitcher throw 100 mph fastballs at me. Now, that’s scary.”

During his recovery, Mears has been traveling and testing cars for the Pennzoil team that is guided by Penske.

Mears was present but unable to compete in the Cleveland Grand Prix July 7.

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“The Burke Lakefront Course requires 16 shifts per lap as compared with few or none during 500-mile layouts,” he said. “My feet hurt a lot, and I can’t do that much footwork just yet.

“But I do a lot of testing, a lot of seeing what the cars can do. I could sit at home, but that wouldn’t be right. I can’t let the sport pass me by while I continue recovering.”

Mears did compete at Indianapolis this year, finishing 21st when a gearshift linkage on his Pennzoil March 85C snapped.

“I was a bit nervous, but I settled down to pass four or five guys before I broke,” he said. “I know the reflexes and the feel are still there.

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“I don’t have anything to prove to anybody, except to myself and I’ve done that. In the meantime, there’s no substitute for practice.

“But I was nervy, like I usually am before races. To relax, I take a nap while I’m waiting on the grid for the checkered flag to drop. It’s cramped in the car, but it can be comfy.”

Penske chuckled at Mears’ catnapping, and termed him “a professional in every sense.”

“No one is making Rick come to the races he isn’t driving in,” said Penske, who also doubled as the race director of the Cleveland event. “Big Al (Al Unser Sr., who finished third in the Cleveland race) is subbing for Rick.

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“But Rick’s a team man. He wants to help in any way he can during the race. Frankly, I don’t think he could stay away.

“One thing about Rick -- he never blames the equipment or the crew for anything that might happen. He’s a true pro.”

Mears was “grateful” for Penske’s comments.

“Roger was the man who offered me my first permanent Indy-car ride, back in 1978,” he said. “When I got my first win (at Milwaukee), he told me there would be more if I stick to it.

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“I believe very strongly in loyalty -- I’ve stuck to it.”

Mears says the secret to a successful racing career is survival.

“Survival’s the nature of this game,” he said. “A guy who wins is a guy who understands the nature and limits of his equipment. In the heat of the battle, though, the best of us make mistakes. I cannot empasize how important self-control, self-discipline is.

“The important thing is to finish, not to win. If you don’t plan on finishing, you can’t plan on winning.”

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During practice and qualifying, Mears signed autographs and shook hands.

“Fans are important to me,” he said. “You meet a few wise guys, but I need them. I really do. I’m no different than anybody else because I’ve won a couple of Indys. I was Rick Mears before I started winning, and I’m still Rick Mears.

“Nobody puts more pressure on me than myself. People ask me if I’ll win any more Indys -- I’m only thinking about the third one. One at a time.”

Mears readily admits that the sport has made his life “a bit more complicated, a bit more hectic.”

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“Granted, I’ve won 19 Indy-car races -- my earnings are over $2 1/2 million, and I can live a lot better now,” he said.

“I just think it’s funny how, people change more toward you than you change yourself. Like I said, being successful hasn’t made me any different. Some folks just assume that you’re suddenly arrogant, and that’s sad.”

Mears is divorced after a 10-year marriage and admits that being married to a race driver is “difficult to say the least.”

“There was no fuss, no shouting between Dina and I,” he said. “We just grew gradually apart, and we both knew it. My two sons, Clint (12) and Cole (11) live with their mother. They’re wonderful boys.

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“But I’m a guy who needs to be married. I’m not a swinging single, and I don’t patronize bars looking for company. I need a wife, and I admit it.”

Would Mears be able to adjust to life away from racing?

“You mean a 9-to-5 job?” he asked, grinning. “No way, I’d die in such a job.

“I wouldn’t know what to do if I couldn’t drive. When the time comes to retire, I’ll still be with the sport. But for now, I’m hooked--I’ve got methanol in my blood.”

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