No question about it, Casey Mears has racing in his blood. His grandfather Bill began the “Mears Gang” tradition in the 1950s, racing anything with wheels while winning the infamous Pikes Peak hill climb during his heyday. But little did he know then that the accolades would get bigger and better for the following generation. Casey’s Uncle Rick won the Indianapolis 500 four times, and father Roger is an off-road racing legend – conveying a passion for motorsports to son Casey that runs deeper than ever these days. Even during a season of struggle — Mears will miss the Chase in his second and final year with perennial contender Hendrick Motorsports — the love for anything motorsports allows to him to see the light at the end of the tunnel during these trying times.
In this latest edition of Beyond the Cockpit, our Amy Henderson sat down with Mears to talk about the driver’s past, present, and future — with a lot of stops in between. The 30-year-old talks about his beginnings in racing, his family’s influence, his friendship with Jimmie Johnson, and the strangest question a fan has ever asked him. It’s one-on-one time with one of NASCAR’s brightest stars, the nicest guy in the garage according to drivers and fans — and the latest generation of the legendary Mears Gang.
Amy Henderson, Frontstretch: Big question first: Any news on your plans for 2009?
Casey Mears: Things are looking good. There are some good opportunities out there, but nothing is set in stone. I’m just talking with different teams right now about what is out there and what’s available. Hopefully, we’ll make a decision soon and let everyone know what we’re doing for next year.
Henderson: You come from a very diverse racing background – everything from BMX bikes to Champ Cars. Can you talk a little about your background, what it was like coming through the different series you’ve raced — and what you learned from each level?
Mears: I grew up racing. I raced BMX, and that was just learning the basics of what racing was all about. From there, I went into 3-wheelers and 4-wheelers, racing flat tracks at Bakersfield Speedway — again, I was so young, just trying to learn the basics with something motorized, just learning what racing was all about. When I was about 12, I got into go-karts, and they were the first thing I raced on asphalt. Learning how to run on asphalt was a little more in line for learning how to run open-wheel, because I mostly ran these karts on road courses.
But shortly after that, I got the invitation to go run the Mickey Thompson Off-Road Series in Superlites. Racing off-road and racing on dirt again was a good experience. We were racing in front of a big crowd in a stadium; it was televised. As far as the racing itself, the thing I really learned from dirt racing and off road was how to adapt to different circumstances. You’d have so many times when the track was dry and it would get hard and slick, and then sometimes it would be muddy and get real slick, and then other days you’d have a nice, real “packy” track. What happens on an off-road course is every time you go back out on it, it’s constantly changing — whether it’s drying up or getting wetter. It depended on the weather that day and how they watered it. You’re always chasing what might be the fast line, and I think it also really teaches you to adapt to long races, when the racing groove really changes and you’re looking for grip on the track and searching for lines that may be better than when you first started the race. So, that was really good [for my career] when I did that.
Then, I started racing formula Mazdas and ran those for about four years, and that was the first real, full-sized open-wheel car that I had driven — I ran for the championship for three or four years, preparing me to move up the ranks in open-wheel. The good thing about that series is you really couldn’t adjust your car, so you might get a car that’s tight, and next time you might get a car that’s really loose and you have to learn to drive around those issues and still win races. When I first started in that series, if the car wasn’t pretty close, I had a hard time winning races, but in my last year or two in that series, it didn’t matter what kind of car I got; I could win with it. It was valuable as far as learning how to adapt to different balances in a car.
From there, I started racing open wheel. I raced Indy Lights for four years, and that’s the series just below getting into Champ Cars or IndyCar. It was just preparing me to go in that direction. Racing on a lot of the same circuits, being around a lot of the Indy guys was definitely key in getting noticed and moving up through the ranks. I ran there for four years, and finished second in the championship one year and third another year.
From there, I was trying to move up. I got a one-off race from Bobby Rahal in a Champ Car and in my first race there I got fourth, which was really cool. From there, I was looking toward to the next season and whether or not to go to Champ Cars or to the IRL, and I decided to go to the IRL — and that just turned out to be a real disaster. The team just wasn’t real prepared and real put together. We had talked about doing a full season, and it only ended up being three or four races — and then, the team ended up shutting down. So, that was kind of frustrating. For the remainder of that year, I went to a lot of different IndyCar races and Champ Car races. When Alex Zanardi got into his bad crash in Germany, I filled in for him for the remainder of the year. I think it was the last four or five races of the season.
After that, I had opportunities in both CART and IRL. But I also had an opportunity to try the Busch Series [in 2002], and I decided to go do that. It was with a team that was struggling, kind of a low-budget deal, and they ended up shutting down the year after I ran for them. [But even after all that], I had an opportunity with Chip Ganassi Racing; and obviously, being in the Busch Series was great to learn the different types of tracks and to learn what these cars wanted. That prepared me to go into Cup [as a rookie for Ganassi in 2003].
Henderson: You have been winning races since you were a little kid. Do you have one that stands out the most?
Mears: The biggest win that stands out to me the most is the latest – in the Cup Series. That was a big one for us, the Coke 600. To win was something I was trying to do at this level [for years], and it felt really good to get that win. I really enjoyed the win I got a couple of years ago in the Nationwide Series, too – my first win there was definitely a big moment in my life. In Indy Lights, the win in Houston on the road course was big because that street circuit is so technical and difficult to drive. I sat on the pole and won the race, so that was a big weekend for me, too.
Henderson: You’ve talked a lot through the years about the friendships you have made in the garage — particularly with Johnson. How long have you known each other?
Mears: We’ve known each other since I was 12 or 13 years old. We raced against each other in Superlites. The last year that we ran Superlites, he was my teammate. We just hit it off real well. He’s a great guy and enjoys having fun. Now, we’ve been friends for so long that I consider him really my best friend.
Henderson: Can you tell any stories on Jimmie that you won’t get in trouble for?
Mears: Oh, man, I don’t know. There’s several good times we’ve had. We get in trouble a lot. Not a lot I’d really want to share with the general public!
Henderson: What would you be doing if you weren’t racing?
Mears: I don’t know. I’d say that I’d get away from racing completely and do something totally different… but I don’t know. I truly love the sport, and it’s hard to imagine not having some sort of involvement in it. I jokingly say that I’d be on a beach somewhere. Open up a surf shop and just enjoy the beach. I’ve always loved the beach and the ocean and the water. I really enjoy going down to Mexico, and that’s what I like. I’d probably just do something to try and get away, and the reason that I say that is I love to race so much that I don’t know if I could be around racing and not be able to get in the car.
Henderson: You’ve grown up in a racing family — your grandfather, your father, your uncle, your brother, and your cousin have all raced. Can you talk a little about growing up immersed in racing, and your family’s influence on you?
Mears: It was a lot of fun — it was great growing up in a racing family. With my dad and my uncle to lean on, it’s made it a great learning experience. All the way through my career, I’ve had two of the best coaches; but especially my dad was the one that I leaned on the most. Then, as I got older and started getting more into open-wheel, Rick started coming more into play. To have those two guys as coaches and as guides to learn from was awesome. At the same time, there’s not a lot of people who can say that they got to race with their cousins, or traveled with my dad and my brother [when they] raced against each other for a lot of years. And obviously my grandfather raced, too — it’s just a lot of fun to look back on everything that my family has accomplished over the years. It’s real easy to get caught up in what’s current and what’s going on, and forget about all the things that my family has accomplished. It’s neat to look back and look at old pictures and really see what everybody’s done — it’s amazing. If you reach out and look at all the cars that my grandfather and my uncle and my dad raced, and then you start throwing my brother and my cousin and I all in, there are a lot of race cars and a lot of races that have been won.
Henderson: You sent your father to the Barrett Jackson auction with a blank check for his 60th birthday. What did he come home with?
Mears: He ended up getting a ’37 hot rod. It actually has a Corvette motor in it and a fiberglass body — a beautiful car. Dad was cool because he saved me a little cash on that deal, too. He was going to bid on it, but they thought it would bid for too much so he worked a deal behind the scenes to buy the car directly from the guy; and that way, he got to build it the way he wanted it and everything else. That was a big deal for my dad turning 60. He’s been by my side through my whole career, and it felt good to be able to do that for him.
Henderson: Many drivers have foundations or support various charity endeavors. Which charities do you support?
Mears: A lot of people have foundations and things like that and I never really started my own foundation, but I’ve always supported a lot of my friends and a lot of fellow drivers. I’ve done things with Elliott Sadler for autism and Target House — when I was sponsored by Target, I got pretty heavily involved with that. Breast Cancer Awareness was a big deal too — when I drove the Target car — to show support. I’ve done some things with the Alzheimer’s Foundation. My grandmother is in an Alzheimer’s care facility, and so I know and understand how frustrating and difficult that disease can be. I’ve done that — as well as anything Jimmie has ever done. I don’t have a specific charity. I’ve just tried to help and support everybody else.
Henderson: If you had five words to describe yourself to a complete stranger, which five words would you choose?
Mears: I don’t like describing myself! These really don’t go together, but I think outside the track, I’m pretty patient. On the track, I’m very competitive. I feel like I’m bragging about myself! I would say I’m very easy going. I’m passionate about my sport. Easygoing, passionate, determined. There are a lot of words, depending on what scenario.
Henderson: Let’s wrap up with a couple of random questions, just for fun. What’s something that would surprise most people about you?
Mears: You know, I don’t know. I don’t really know how I’m perceived as far as the general public goes. I think that I try to be myself when I’m on camera or on TV — I just try to be myself, and I don’t know what would really surprise anybody.
Henderson: Fair enough. What is your guilty pleasure?
Mears: Milk and cookies at midnight.
Henderson: What’s the strangest gift or request you’ve ever received from a fan?
Mears: “Will you marry me?” (laughing) Either that, or one time I signed a diaper. Somebody was asking me to sign this washable diaper, and you could tell it had been used — that was a little strange.
Henderson: Was it clean at the time, I hope?
Mears: They said they washed it, but it didn’t look like they did a very good job.
Henderson: Last time you cried — what made you cry?
Mears: Last time I really cried… I don’t know. I didn’t really cry, but I got teary-eyed a little bit when I was in the ultrasound with my girlfriend a little bit ago.
Henderson: One thing you couldn’t last one day without?
Mears: Other than people? My bed! At least every day I’ve got to be in my bed for a little while!