The best word to describe Casey Mears’s Sprint Cup career is “roller coaster.” To say it’s been a wild ride for the 32-year-old Bakersfield, Calif. native is an understatement, moving from job to job at Chip Ganassi Racing, Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing before getting what appeared to be a final pink slip at the end of last season. But after months of fighting for a future, hopefully his career has hit a new, permanent level of stability as Mears settles in at Germain Racing. With the move to the No. 13 Toyota, he finds himself the focus of an up-and-coming team within a championship organization, and – for the first time in his career – the journeyman knows exactly where he’ll be next year. What’s less certain is sponsorship, as the team searches for a company to fill half the season that GEICO will not be on the car, but no matter what it’s a step in the right direction for a career that’s once again on the upswing.
Mears sat down with Amy Henderson at Martinsville to talk about his trying 2010 season, his new home at Germain, the truth about starting and parking, and yes… he eats the hot dogs.
Amy Henderson, Frontstretch: When we talked earlier this year, you had just stepped into the No. 83 at Team Red Bull. That ended up not working out, but has that been a blessing in disguise for you?
Casey Mears: It’s been good. When I was at Red Bull, it was an awkward time I think for the whole team. Right at that time they were trying to find their way, so I kind of stepped into something just as it had gotten bad and they were trying to figure it out. So, yeah, in a lot of ways the fact that things didn’t work out over there and I was able to get over here sooner than later was a good opportunity, for sure. They’ve really got pretty good resources here with MWR, and the cars are good. The simulation programs are really good; Bootie (Barker) is really good at understanding all of it. It’s a good environment for me.
Being at Hendrick and being at RCR, I think going in to those situations, I was thinking that being a third or fourth wheel of a team like that had to be better than being the first wheel somewhere else. You just have that mentality, thinking that fourth-best there has still got to be pretty damn good. It’s not that it’s fourth-best, but you’re the fourth team to get the emphasis when it needs help or changing. When I made those decisions, I thought I was making the right decision, but then to come here and to be the guy that they’re focused on and care about and want to make things work [is better]. I’m able to make a bigger difference here and probably have more success at a team like this than I would even at a bigger organization.
Henderson: It seems like you and Bootie Barker have really been communicating well. Talk about your relationship. Why is the chemistry so good?
Mears: I think it’s because he’s very smart. With his engineering background, he really understands telemetry, he understands the data and the sim programs, but he’s also very much a common sense person. He’s very matter-of-fact and he uses the tools, but he doesn’t get lost in it like a lot of guys do and use it as gospel. He knows at the end of the day we’ve still got to make good calls and be smart about what we’re doing.
I think that with my experience of working with several different crew chiefs now; if you’d have asked me four years ago what do I need out of a crew chief, I’d have said, “I don’t know, let me work with a few guys and then I’ll tell you.” Now that I’ve worked with so many different guys, we were able to sit down even before we ever started working together and go, “here’s things that I like, here’s things that I don’t like,” and we had a direction before we ever got started, which helped, I think.
Henderson: You have kind of been a pinball the last few years. It must be a relief to be in a situation where you know what you will be doing next year.
Mears: This is the first season in probably four or five years that I know what I’m doing next year. Not only do I know what I’m going to be doing, but what I’m doing next year is the same.
Henderson: Does that give you an advantage, knowing that you can prepare now for 2011?
Mears: Yeah. We’re going to be more prepared to be successful out of the gate than I have been in a long time. We’re still working hard at trying to get the full year funded, which is an issue. Hopefully, we can do that because this team really deserves it. We could be contenders if we could run every week.
Henderson: Bob Germain seems to be very committed to building this organization. How reassuring is that when other teams, even ones like Richard Petty Motorsports, have been struggling? To have a team owner willing to go out on a limb is a rarity.
Mears: Bob’s a great guy, and their whole family is a part of the organization. Bob’s the guy who leads the way as far as the motorsports side of things, and I can see that he really enjoys it and has a lot of fun with it, and that’s what you need to have. Fortunately, we got funding through GEICO that’s our stability, and then you have a guy like Bob Germain who can back it up.
Henderson: You have had to start and park a few times this year, and that has become more of a reality of the sport as it becomes more and more expensive. But how do you defend that to race fans who don’t understand that reality yet?
Mears: The best way to defend it is, we all hate it. We do. There isn’t one guy here who wants to come to the race and not run the whole thing. I think it tortures us and upsets us more than it does anybody else who doesn’t like it from watching it. The one thing that it does do is, number one, NASCAR scores you for the number of attempts that you make. So, by having the attempts, if it rains out (qualifying) at a race that you are going to run, you make the show, which is important.
Two, you learn. At the tracks that we start and park at, we still run Friday just like we would at a normal race weekend. We run Saturday just like we would a normal race weekend, and that’s valuable information. Constantly the tires are changing, the tracks are changing, and you keep up with that. You’re keeping up with everybody, and you’re understanding what’s going on and you’re more prepared when you come back to race. The hardest thing for me to do in my career was the first time I ever had to pull in. I’ve raced since I was three or four years old, and I’ve never pulled in halfway or partway through a race. It’s one of the most painful things I’ve ever done. But the flip side is staying home and not being here. That’s worse.
Henderson: You hear every week about how teams are struggling, how the fans aren’t watching. How do teams react to that? What are your concerns?
Mears: To be honest, as a small organization, if we didn’t have GEICO, we couldn’t do what we do right now. Bottom line, if we lost them, we wouldn’t be here. At the end of the day, we’re just like anybody else who needs money to go racing. But quite honestly, we feel like we’re in a better position than some of the bigger teams are. When you are in a position where you can get your cars from MWR, and your support and everything for a fee and not have the overhead of an engine program and 600 employees, really, if it continues to go down the road that it’s going down now, those (teams who do have that overhead) are the teams that it’s going to hurt more than the littler teams. It’s going to be those teams with all those employees and they have to have that $15 or 20 million sponsor to keep it working.
I think nobody likes to see the state of our country, period. Really, that’s what needs to be looked at when we talk about all this stuff. There’s a decline in absolutely everything. It’s easy to say “man, NASCAR’s going downhill,” but relative to the rest of the world it’s pretty even. It’s scary to everyone, to be sure. Nobody likes dealing with the unknown, but I think NASCAR’s been through a lot and I don’t think it’s ever going to go away — it’s just a matter of what level are we going to be at two years from now.
Henderson: Let’s end on a more positive note. In honor of being at Martinsville, do you eat the hot dogs?
Mears: Yeah, I had two yesterday and I’m getting ready to go have a couple more! I’ve always enjoyed them. I don’t know why. I mean, you go there partly because it’s tradition and partly because they’re good. I’ll never forget that year when they were going to stop serving them and we all had to protest and fight to get them back. I’m glad they’re back.
Henderson: They’re kind of compelling; you don’t want to eat one, but you have to.
Mears: Yeah, you don’t want to look at it. Eating it’s one thing. If you can eat it and don’t look at it, you’ll be fine.