The star of automobile racing's biggest show was unavailable. He -- ships may be regarded as female but it's unthinkable to refer to a growling Indy car in anything but masculine terms -- was otherwise occupied, undergoing testing and tuning for his next performance in Milwaukee on Sunday. Fortunately for all those car buffs in New York, his chauffeur and spokesman made the trip.
This was particularly good news for officials of Marlboro, who happen not only to sponsor the Penske Racing Team, owner of the Penske Chevy '91 that took the checkered flag at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway last weekend, but the Meadowlands Grand Prix, where the Indy cars will run in seven weeks. The people entrusted with introducing Rick Mears certainly were glad to have a four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 in their midst Wednesday. But they insisted on describing the man as a budding legend.
I have a problem with that. My personal standards limit legendary status in the sport to those who have died in flaming wrecks, cantankerous oldtimers who don't know when to quit (A.J. Foyt comes to mind for some reason), drivers with fathers, brothers, sons and cousins who crowd onto the same track (Andrettis are particularly plentiful this year) or anyone who has raced in Monte Carlo while wearing a scarf and drinking a glass of champagne. Mears doesn't qualify on any of those counts.
While the man may be more daring than previously credited after charging around Michael Andretti to retake the lead at Indy, he lacks the charisma to emerge as a public figure outside his sport. Place the winning car and the winning driver at opposite corners of Fifth Avenue and see which would draw a bigger crowd.
Mears, his wife noted Wednesday, has been known to fall asleep in the car while his crew makes adjustments. "Not in a race," Chris Mears hastened to add. "Just in practice." But the same calm that enabled the man to deal with a crash at Indy before qualifying and then take the pole position in a backup car restrains him from excessive displays of emotion. His idea of a real thrill, she decided, would be "a big marlin. Or a hole-in-one."
Fishing and golf are among his hobbies. Driving is his identity. Celebrating is foreign to his nature.
"Last night he came out of the room (at the hotel)," she recalled, "and said, 'You know what?' I thought he was going to tell me about something he saw on television. There was a big grin on his face. He said, 'I won the Indy 500 four times.' It finally hit home."
Then again, it's not something the man ever dreamed about, joining Foyt and Al Unser as the only four-time winners of the country's most prestigious race. Nor does he expect to be consumed by the prospect of an unprecedented fifth triumph at the Brickyard. "I never dreamed of (winning) one, let alone four or five," Mears said with conviction.
His father had raced in the Midwest but then, when Rick was approaching school age, Bill Mears got out of the business, packed up the family and settled down in Bakersfield, Calif. Rick and brother Roger competed on motorcycles and then in off-road races as taxing as the Baja and as bizarre as the Bonnie and Clyde 350 (Don't ask -- I didn't) strictly for enjoyment. "I started racing on the weekends as a hobby," he said. "I worked construction during the week."
One thing led to another. He moved into the professional ranks on the Formula Vee circuit, made his Indy car debut as the result of a chance meeting and did well enough to attract Roger Penske's attention. Penske offered him a position as a substitute for Mario Andretti when the patriarch of that family dynasty was off racing Formula One cars. He won the second Indianapolis 500 for which he qualified and now is one measure of success in the race.
"I have so many people walk up to me and say, 'How do I get there? What's the best way?"' Mears noted. "The truth is I don't know. I just did what I did because I enjoyed it. You have to concentrate and enjoy what you're doing and let things take their course."
Legends keep the pedal to the metal, on and off the track. Mears would just as soon wait for the race to develop before he pushes himself or his car. "I don't jump out of bed and take off at top speed," he said, smiling. "I never have. I don't think I want to."
The man comes across as the guy next door, an affable, neighborly type who happens to make his living making a mockery of the speed limit. He believes in a pace "fast enough to win but slow enough to finish." His philosophy has earned him in excess of $9 million in winnings and kept the damage to his person to a minimum.