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Rick Mears returns from alcohol treatment

MADISON, Ill., Aug. 24 (UPI) -- Rick Mears never considered himself "a party animal." The four-time Indianapolis 500 winner said drinking beer was part of his lifestyle.

When Mears realized he had been drinking too much, too often for too long, however, it was time to get some help.

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On Thursday, Mears completed a three-month stay in a Florida alcohol rehabilitation center, four months after completing a 28-day program. On Saturday, he returned to the race track, where he is driving consultant for Marlboro Team Penske in the Indy Racing League.

"I knew by the progression, just looking back, I could see things progressing with my drinking," Mears said. "It wasn't going to go back the other way unless I did something about it. I caught myself drinking more than I had, drinking more often. There were no catastrophes that caused it or spawned the timing of it. I just decided it was time to slow down."

Mears, 50, is the second former Indianapolis 500 winner who has undergone treatment for an alcohol problem this summer. Last month, two-time Indy 500 champion Al Unser Jr. completed a 17-day program at a Connecticut treatment center.

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Mears was aware of Unser's problem but would not comment on it, believing it is Unser's private business.

Mears completed the 28-day stay leading up to the Indianapolis 500. He left Indianapolis the week before the race to enter the three-month program.

"They spent more time working with me and me working with the program," Mears said. "You learn more about the disease, as they call it, and what you have to do to take care of it. I'd get to come home weekends, so it's not like I was there for the entire three months."

Mears usually could be found with a beer in his hand after a long day at the track, but over time, he believes his drinking crossed the line.

"It becomes a disease more than just social drinking," he said. "Over the years, it finally got to that stage where it becomes a disease and you have to do something about it. I feel much better now, physically and mentally."

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