Casey Mears is at a crossroads in his career. Shuffled to a different race team in all but two of his eight Cup Series seasons and left without a ride after sponsorship at Richard Childress Racing dried up, the Bakersfield, Calif. native finds himself on the “other side of the fence” in the Cup garage. Left out in the cold once the Silly Season merry-go-round came to a halt, the 31-year-old resorted to signing a deal to drive the first few races in newly-formed Keyed Up Motorsports’ No. 90 Chevy. With no owner points to lock the team into the first five races and little funding, the No. 90 team began the season head and shoulders behind everyone else.
So far, they’ve struggled, going 0-for-3 in qualifying for races in 2010 heading into Atlanta. The sponsorship front has gone slightly better, as the team managed to sign Juice Automotive Air Fresheners with the “SmellMyCar.com” emblem emblazoned on the No. 90’s rear quarterpanels. Just before the first practice session, longtime Cup crew chief Doug Richert and Mears discussed the car and seemed upbeat. The team members had pep in their steps as they tweaked the blue and white racecar for its first laps of the weekend. But trouble in the first few minutes of practice sucker punched any progress they made, as a sour motor on the car blew just a handful of laps into the session – keeping Mears on the sidelines and forcing him to qualify the car with little to no notes on the setup. Unsurprisingly, he clocked the second-slowest time in the session and missed the race… continuing a slump he’s never experienced in this transition from riches to rags.
After his laps, Mears sat silently in the No. 90 car, helmet on, visor up. A couple of team members consoled the frustrated, sullen driver, but could do little to shine any light on a dark reality. Mears would miss his fourth race in a row, an unprecedented road bump after making 252 straight starts over seven seasons with teams that had millions in funding to back them up.
“We’ve got to step it up and get better cars and better motors,” a dejected Mears stated, still seated in his slow vehicle.
For Keyed Up Motorsports themselves, they hope these struggles are simply part of the growing pains of entering the sport’s top level. Owner Raymond Key announced their Cup effort late in 2009 in an offseason where, just like the year before, several teams announced ambitious plans to tackle the competitive Sprint Cup tour. Numerous team mergers and contractions, combined with a turnover in old Cars of Tomorrow due to technological innovation, have allowed startup teams to purchase race-ready materials at a fraction of their listed cost.
But just because these cars are available doesn’t automatically mean they’re top of the line. Without a sponsor, Keyed Up could only muster the funds to buy cars from Paul Menard’s 2007 and 2008 fleet from the now-merged Dale Earnhardt Inc. In fact, the team’s pit box has an old, familiar look – it’s yellow with the old No. 15 emblem on it.
That unpainted purchase is a sign of how hard the team is working – but also a symptom of financial shortcomings that leave them a step behind the rest. When asked what he needed first to help change the fortunes of the team, Mears pulled no punches in saying improvement may be as simple as cold, hard cash.
“We need something other than two-year old cars,” he said. “Maybe a year-old car would work. And a better motor. We’re a couple of steps behind guys we are trying to beat into these races.”
He added, “We’ve got to step it up and decide whether we’ve come here to race or just to ride around. And if we’re going to race, we need to get our act together.”
Even though Mears noted that the men working around him were working harder than some he had ever seen, he has reason to be frustrated with Keyed Up’s poise. As of this past Monday, Raymond Key’s Keyed Up team officially severed ties with the more-established Key Motorsports one that has run in the Nationwide and Truck Series, owned by brother Curtis Key. This upheaval has forced Keyed Up to move to Tommy Baldwin Racing’s old shop, meaning less time was spent this past week on refining the shoddy equipment the team already had to try and get their Chevys up to speed. It’s an added hurdle Mears claims the team didn’t need when they’re trying to get firmly established in Cup.
“Sure [moving shops] plays into it,” he said. “Instead of focusing on what we’re gonna do, we’re moving shops. We’re taking what little equipment we have, we’re borrowing jacks and pit boxes. We’re behind the [eight] ball.”
Mears is signed only through the races at Bristol and Martinsville. When asked if he would leave KUM if sponsorship were ever found at Richard Childress Racing to revive the No. 07 or even if another opportunity somewhere else opened up, Mears was noncommittal. Would there be a breaking point for the beleaguered driver to bolt from the struggling team?
“Right now, I’m just focused on trying to run week in and week out,” he explained, but added, “If we don’t step it up, I’ll have to look somewhere else.”
Keyed Up Motorsports’ future itself remains a bit uncertain. Without funding, the team eventually will not be able to run each week. One source within the organization says if funding and performance do not soon turn a corner, the No. 90 may find its schedule trimmed back to around a dozen races.
But for Mears, he has no choice but to make this work. Other prospects in the Cup Series remain nonexistent, and even opportunities for a Nationwide Series or Truck ride with funding are slim to none in the current economic climate. So for now, if Mears wants to remain on the Cup circuit, he must endure dysfunctional growing pains he has never seen in his formative years at Chip Ganassi Racing, Hendrick Motorsports and RCR. After spending his entire career with NASCAR’s upper class, he now needs this fledgling team to simply keep himself in sight and in the mind of others – and this small team needs Mears, too.
Now, it’s just a matter of if the chemistry clicks before it’s too late.