Driver Rick Mears generally adheres to the notion that auto races should be won by the slowest possible speed. ''The race backs up to you,'' he's been known to say.
It may seem somewhat ironic, then, that the resident of Bakersfield, Calif., became the fastest Indianapolis 500 winner in history last weekend by averaging a record 163.612 m.p.h. At the finish, he was two laps or five miles ahead of his nearest pursuer, the biggest victory margin in 17 years.
For most of the race, he had battled pole-sitter Tom Sneva. But when Sneva exited to the garage, Mears saw no reason to ease off the accelerator.
It was an impressive win, Mears's second at Indy. His first, in 1979, was partially overshadowed by a governance dispute between two rival racing bodies. During the last few years, though, Mears has been a regular Speedway headliner.
In 1981 he made news during a freakish pit stop, when methanol fuel spilled on his racing suit and burst into invisible flames. Rick's father, a former racer himself, acted quickly to extinguish the fire.
Two years ago, after winning the pole, he ran 16 hundredths of second behind Gordon Johncock in Indy's closest-ever finish. Rick was third last year, which helped earn him the circuit's ''triple crown'' for best combined finish in three 500 milers - Indianapolis, Pocono (3rd), and Michigan (4th).
As a youngster Rick dropped out of motorcyle racing at his mother's urging.She thought it was too dangerous. From there, however, he got into racing dune buggies across the Southwest and eventually moved onto the track. During the last five years he has been the most successful driver on the Indy car circuit with 15 victories. Olympic potpourri
* The Olympic Torch Relay is such a meticulously orchestrated event that reporters must be accredited to cover it.
* An optimistic ABC television executive believes the Soviet withdrawal may actually enhance viewership of the Los Angeles Olympics, since more Americans will win medals.
* The producer of the closing ceremonies says you'll be able to see the light of a $250,000 fireworks display in San Francisco, 400 miles away. Tests gauge fitness
Thousands of people curious about their physical condition took part in National Fitness Testing Week earlier this month. The National Fitness Foundation devised a five-part test and criteria to gauge performance levels. Everyone was at least a ''bronze medalist,'' and many participants achieved silver and gold ratings. Complete results, however, will not be available for several months.
As an example of the standards, men between age 30 and 39 had to do a minimum of 45 pushups for a gold, 22 or more for a silver. Women in the same age category did 40 or more modified pushups (on their knees) for a gold, and 12 or more for a silver. Participants also did curl-ups (abbreviated situps), an arm hang, a sit-and-reach flexibility test, and a 3-minute step test.
An Optional Challenge Series that included a 600-yard swim, 3-mile walk, and 11/2-mile run was offered to anyone engaged in a regular fitness program for six weeks or more. For a gold in the run, men 30 to 39 needed to break 10 minutes, women 13 minutes.