Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Friday October 18, 2013
A champion owner who risked everything he had to take his team in a new direction. A popular crew chief who never really had an opportunity to shine. A driver whose once-bright star had tarnished. If they were characters in a movie, it would end in Victory Lane, with everyone smiling. The story would be almost too perfect to be believable.
No, they haven’t made it to Victory Lane yet; that part of the script remains to be written. But the people are real. Bob Germain has two NASCAR Camping World Truck Series titles and certainly could have competed for more in that series. Instead, he made the move into the ultra-competitive Sprint Cup arena where his team was no longer a big fish but a terribly small one… the kind that the big fish have been known to eat for breakfast.
Robert “Bootie” Barker is one of the most popular crew chiefs in the NASCAR garage, thanks in part to his television presence on the old SPEED Channel’s NASCAR Performance show. Barker called the shots for teams like Haas CNC Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing, before the latter was a Chase contender, and has the reputation as a smart, forward-thinking head wrench. Still, he has never had the chance to work as part of a large, upper-echelon organization.
Casey Mears is a Sprint Cup winner and a top-15 driver, but in 2010, he was wondering if that was all in the past. He bounced from organization to organization after losing his ride with Richard Childress Racing his team shut down due to lack of funding. He was enduring the hardest season of his career, running for backmarkers just to stay in the game, when Germain came calling, looking for a driver to replace part-time wheelman Max Papis in the No. 13.
Mears remembers the days when the Cup team had to hide their equipment from poachers at the Truck shop. “When I first came over here, there were 100 employees and about 93 of them worked on the truck teams, and we were in the other shop; we were kind of the stepchild,” he said last week at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “We were just scrapping together parts, trying to put together a decent program. When we first started, it’s kind of funny now, but we were such a big organization (overall) that we felt like the tagalong program when they had full Truck programs. A lot of times, when we were out of town, we had to lock things up because we’d come back and our sway bars would be missing and all that kind of thing. Bob has really put a lot of focus on this 13 car and restructured the whole team to be focused on it.”
It would get much, much harder before the team finally began to see the light of day. With only enough funding from sponsor GEICO to run a partial schedule and few other sponsor prospects, the No. 13 often pulled into the garage early in 2011 and ’12. It was the hardest thing that Mears ever had to do in his racing career. He and the team knew why they had to do it, but they still hated hearing the call on the radio. It was especially difficult when they were having a solid run, passing cars and moving through the field… something that began to happen as the team found its footing in the sport.
2013 saw marked improvement. Seeing the potential that the team had so carefully fostered, GEICO signed on for enough races that the No. 13 car could run to the finish every week. And as the season got underway, the finishes started to get better. Mears had some terrible luck on track in early spring, but he also had some serious success, climbing as high as 17th in the driver standings at one point. Mears is currently 23rd, the best among those running for single-car and other smaller teams. For these underdogs, plastered across NASCAR’s national touring series, being “best in class” is a big deal, a goal to be reached and an accomplishment to be celebrated. The team knows how far they’ve come, how much of a success story they’ve been.
“This year, being able to run our first full season was a big step in the right direction,” says Mears, “But at the same time, it was one of those things when we were all very excited about it and, all of a sudden reality set in. We were like, ‘How are we going to make this work? Logistically, how are we going to make sure that we have all the cars prepared and ready, on time with the guys we have?’ Our guys have stepped up and done a great job. To see it build to this point, we’ve been hugely successful, really, in how we started out to where we are now.”
But how much further could this single-car team take things? As good a team as Mears and Barker have become, without input from other drivers, other crew chiefs, they were limited. At the top of their own tier in Sprint Cup, they were still a big leap away from the next one. A second team wasn’t an option; the team had tried that in 2011, with little reward, and without the resources, it would only drain what they did have faster. Sure, Germain was successful — for an underfunded, single-car program. Germain, Barker, Mears and the entire team knew they could be better than that.
“To see it build to this point, we’ve been hugely successful, really, in how we started out to where we are now,” Mears says. “But to make that next step and crack the top 20, top 15 on a regular basis and have an opportunity to win races… That’s one thing I really have to compliment Bob on. Slowly, over these last three years that I’ve been here, at the end of the day, every time it was time to step up and reaffirm his commitment to what he’s doing, he always has. And he did it again this year; he’s made another big step financially and personally to the program. It’s exciting. We’re getting close to being a viable race team.”
By now, every race fan knows the story of another single-car team, Furniture Row Racing, who formed a technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing in 2013 that gave the team an open book with RCR’s teams for information, as well as race chassis and Earnhardt-Childress power under the hood. The team went from limited success — they did win at Darlington in 2011 — to a Chase berth in the span of one season. It was a wonderful success story, a once-in-a-lifetime deal for a small race team. It was exactly the kind of deal the Germain bunch needed to move to the next level.
And last week in Charlotte, they got it.
Germain and RCR formally announced a deal to form a similar alliance beginning in 2014. It’s a deal that in today’s NASCAR is perhaps the only way for a single-car team to advance beyond small-time status, offering full access to RCR’s technical information as well as equipment. RCR driver Kevin Harvick is currently within striking distance of this year’s title, so the parts and pieces they’ll provide are as good as any.
For the No. 13 team, it’s a thrilling opportunity, and the energy it brings them was palpable at Charlotte. “It’s a huge step in the right direction for our program,” says Mears. “The biggest thing that we’ve lacked is quality teammates and partners to be able to gauge ourselves off of. I know from being with big teams in the past that there’s just so much information coming through in practice; having that firsthand knowledge of what the other cars have in them and what guys are doing for tire pressures, what they change throughout practice. All that stuff is going to be a huge benefit. What we understand we’re going to get is a ‘wide open’ book. If that’s the case, it’s going to be a really, really positive step in the right direction for our team.”
Will it be easy? No, and nobody expects it to be. At the next tier of competition in NASCAR, there are a lot of teams fighting for top finishes, and they’re all good, all capable of taking a top 10 or top 5 away from the elite teams. It won’t be a cakewalk… but it will be a chance.
For Mears, what looked like a last-ditch effort just to stay in the game now looks like an opportunity to prove himself as one of the best. He’s proud to have been a part of building the No. 13 team to the level they’re poised to take; he’s an integral cog in the wheel here, something he didn’t always feel driving for the big teams at Ganassi, Hendrick, or Childress. Now, someone from one of those high-level programs respects him enough to go out and take a second chance on his ability.
“It’s not just me, for sure. I feel like I’ve been one of the components, but all these guys on this team have contributed a lot,” says Mears of the differences with Germain – and what happens next. “I’ve had a good relationship with Richard even before I ever drove for him. He’s always been one of those guys — it’s kind of funny — he’s always kind of kept his eye on me. Whenever I had a good run in the 41 car, he was one of the first guys to stop me and say, ‘Man, you did a hell of a job,’ or really give comment, so I always appreciated that from him. When I started driving for him, I really enjoyed it. He gave us all the tools to figure out how to go fast. I really enjoy driving for Bob (Germain) right now, but to have the alliance with RCR and to know that there’s that level of confidence from that organization in my ability is exciting for sure.”
But this team won’t be content just seeking out RCR’s information. They want to be the ones getting sought out, too. “They need to know that we’re taking what they’re giving us and doing good things with it,” Mears continues. “We don’t want to be a team that is just taking from them. We want to contribute to the whole program. The only way we can do that is to utilize that information the best we can and make it to where our program is a viable program to look at from their end, to look at and gain something from as well.”
Germain Racing expects to be able to do that. After all, Barker has made a career out of making more out of less, of turning what a driver tells him on the radio into what the driver needs on the track. His calls have helped the No. 13 take home their first-ever top 10 on an oval this year as well as a handful of top-15 finishes. Mears says the RCR deal gives Barker the ability to do much more.
“Bootie has never really been in that situation before, so I’m excited for him,” says Mears. “I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of some big organizations where you had guys to lean on. But Bootie’s never really been in a situation like this. When he was a crew chief with Haas, it was just growing and they didn’t really have the same level of alliance with Hendrick at that time. He worked for Bill Davis in Nationwide with Scott Wimmer, and they had some success, but they did a lot of things on their own. I think it’s exciting on a lot of fronts, but Bootie’s excited about it as well because he’s never really been in a situation where you get all that information and he’s excited about it.”
There’s a lot of work ahead for the team; the alliance means they’ll move from Ford to Chevrolet, their second manufacturer switch in two years, and that means changing out many parts and pieces while building new bodies for the race cars. It takes time away from getting chassis ready to race, because they have to start from scratch in some areas. It won’t be as simple as it sounds on the surface.
But it’s a chance. The team is already competitive among its peers. “I would say that we are probably 90% of the time beating the guys we should beat,” Mears says. “Probably 30 to 40 percent of the time, (we’re) beating guys that we probably shouldn’t.”
Now many of the teams that Mears and Co. shouldn’t be beating become the teams they should be competitive against. That will require them to set a new goal for 2014.
“We’re hoping this relationship with RCR really puts us in that next tier where we’re viewing ourselves as a viable, consistent top 20 to top 15 team,” explains Mears. “In my mind, that’s what we need to do. At that point, if we can get running there on a consistent basis, you can start looking at lap times. Usually, the lap times from fifth to 12th or 15th aren’t that different. Once you start getting in that range, you really have something. Once you can say you can run top 15, that means that you can make the right calls, make the right decisions, qualify a little better than the next guy, and have a legitimate shot of being inside the top 10 or top 5 or wins. That’s really where we need to be setting our goals for next year.”
Can they get there? With a lot of hard work and a little luck, yes. Mears is a proven winner. Bob Germain is a proven winner. Barker is hungry to prove himself a winner. If this was a movie, they’d be in Victory Lane at Daytona.
But this is real life, so only time will tell how far Germain Racing and Mears can take the opportunity they’ve been given. At least they have a chance to compete now. Someone believed in the team enough to give them that chance. No, it’s not the silver screen, but for one small team, a sliver lining is plenty.
Want to see Amy’s complete interview with Casey Mears from Charlotte? Check out Beyond the Cockpit to see the whole conversation.
Connect with Amy!
Contact Amy Henderson
©2000 - 2008 Amy Henderson and Frontstetch.com. Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!