INDIANAPOLIS — No driver in history ever had the success in the Indianapolis 500 that Rick Ravon Mears has had.
He won the second race he was ever in. He finished only .16 of a second behind the winner another year. He won by two laps a third year and set a speed record--163.612 m.p.h.--erasing one that had stood for 12 years.
He set records for the fastest first lap, fastest second lap, fastest 10, 25 and 50 laps.
He finished all 200 laps in four of the last six races he has driven in, and 199 laps in another. In the other one, his car burst into flames in the pit when somebody forgot to pull the fuel nozzle. He has led for 234 laps overall.
No one ever went faster, farther than Rick Mears. Not A.J. Foyt, the Unsers, Rodger Ward, Barney Oldfield, Mauri Rose, Wilbur Shaw. He has averaged 163 laps a race, has won two and finished second and third in two others. He was the first rookie to go over 200 m.p.h. in qualifying.
Whatever mysterious chemistry it is that makes one man drive a race car faster and hold it together longer, Rick Mears has it in abundance.
You would think, then, that the 1985 Indy 500 would be a foregone conclusion. It would seem to be a parade, not a race.
Rick Mears in a Roger Penske car would seem to rob the event of a lot of suspense. Man o' War against platers, Babe Ruth against a low-ball pitcher, the 49ers in the Super Bowl. A mismatch.
Except that Rick Mears is going to try it without feet this year.
He's spotting the field everything from the ankles down.
It's not that the racing Establishment took him out behind the garages and took baseball bats to the soles of his feet. It was a guard rail at a track outside Montreal that did it.
It happened last Sept. 7. Mears was, characteristically, running fast practice laps at the Sanair oval in St. Pie, Quebec, a tight little seven-furlong bullring with no room for a car sideways.
Mears got his sideways.
He swung wide to pass another driver, Bobby Rahal, coming off a turn. At the same time, Rahal swung out to pass another driver, Corrado Fabi.
That was a lot of metal for one small corner of the world. Suddenly, there was only one direction left for Mears--straight up. Unfortunately, the car didn't fly. Instead, it careened into the guard rail.
The metal guard rail peeled the nose off the car and would have sheared through Mears' feet except that it hit the brake and clutch pedals first. So it merely drove Mears' heels and Achilles tendons up into the calves of his legs--shattering every bone in the process.
Mears' feet disappeared, followed shortly by his consciousness.
The doctors were faced with a delicate restorative process. First of all, the toes were pointing the wrong way. The heels were missing. Each foot looked like a mashed potato. It would have been easier to put them on backward.
They had to reach back up into the leg to pull the heels and tendons out. After that, it was more like taxidermy than surgery.
When Mears asked the doctors "Will I be able to drive?" they answered "Oh, sure." They thought he meant a wheelchair.
Rick Mears' feet today look a little as if they came off a cabbage-patch doll. It not only hurts to walk on them, hell, it hurts to look at them. They're not feet, they're paws. They range in color from magenta to cerise. They look like a sunset in Canada.
The heels were put back on with screws. The operation was part surgery, part carpentry. Mears will give new meaning to the term leadfoot.
The problem is, can a man who cannot walk without wincing, keep a throttle floored without screaming?
Mears thinks feet are not that critical.
"In the first place, you don't use brakes in this race unless you run into crash tactics," he said. "You don't even let up on the throttle in the corners anymore.
"I have pain in the foot at all times, anyway. So, this is no better and no worse. If I had to stand for three hours, that would be a problem."
Lots of guys have been carried out of this race. Rick Mears may be the first one who has to be carried into it. It's almost like watching Babe Ruth being wheeled up to the plate, having to help Jack Dempsey into the ring.
They're expecting the kind of race where a man may need all his eyes, ears, hands and fingers, to say nothing of feet. Every car in it got there by going 200 m.p.h. Not till 1978 did any car go over 200--and, of the three that did then, one was Mears'.
Mears considers himself lucky it's something he can do sitting down. For him, it beats walking.
Still, if he wins it this year, his battle cry can be, "Look, Ma, no feet!"
And for an encore, they may decide to make him do it next year with no hands. Blindfolded.