After four years of sweat equity, pouring everything a driver can pour into every single race, coming up just short and enduring whispers and questions from certain factions, Casey Mears stood in Victory Lane at Charlotte Motor Speedway. For a long moment, Mears simply stared at the scoring pylon with his car number at the very top, savoring that moment and letting reality sink in.
The road to Victory Lane in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series had been a long one and anything but easy. Five years earlier, Mears thought his path would lead to one of the premier open-wheel series at the time, IndyCar or Champ cars. He’d had some success running open-wheel cars. His family name is one that was well-known in those circles, thanks in large part to his uncle, Rick Mears, four-time Indianapolis 500 champion and his father Roger, a local off-road legend who also raced both Indy cars and stock cars. If it hadn’t been for one phone call, the road for Mears might not have led to NASCAR at all.
Sitting in a folding chair outside his Germain Racing hauler at Charlotte between Sprint Cup practice sessions on a soft fall afternoon, Mears says that he can barely remember a time when he wasn’t racing something.
“I started out racing plastic Big Wheels when I was about three years old,” Mears says.
Growing up in a racing family – Mears’s grandfather, father, uncle, brother and cousin all raced something or other, as long as he can remember – it wasn’t necessarily expected that he’d race, too. It was just something he’s always done. Almost like breathing.
But if you need to know one thing about Casey Mears, it’s that he is not the spoiled next generation, riding the family coat-tails to the top of the sport. He’s raced his whole life, but he’s put enough sweat and tears into the game to earn his own place.
After he outgrew the Big Wheel, Mears raced BMX bikes, three-wheelers, four-wheelers, go-karts. You name it, he’s probably raced it somewhere.
“I always loved it; it was always fun, but it’s different for a kid who maybe doesn’t grow up in a racing family and then realizes ‘I want to go racing,'” said Mears. “For me, I just always did it. It’s what we did, so by the time I was 12 or 13, I realized that it was something I really wanted to do.”
And it was at that age that Mears says he realized racing was something he could someday make a living at.
“I started racing in the Mickey Thompson off-road series when I was 12 or 13 years old in the super-lite class, he says. “That was fun because it was my first time really on a national stage as far as it being televised on ESPN, and I started doing autograph sessions and all that. You start understanding the business side — we had sponsors and that sort of thing.
“That was my first experience really understanding what the sport is all about behind the scenes and really started to understand that that’s what I wanted to do. I won a few races and got some small paychecks and started realizing that it was a business.”
Mears spent his late teens driving Formula Mazdas and Indy Lights. He had a pair of top-three points finishes in Indy Lights, finishing second in 1999 and third in 2000, leading to a handful of starts in Indy and Champ cars. In five Champ car starts, Mears scored a top-five and two top-10 finishes. When 2001 rolled around, it was decision time: with CART and IRL offers on the table, Mears looked poised to jump to top-tier open-wheel racing.
Mears also suffered through a pair of painful injuries in 2001. A frightening, fiery crash in Atlanta in his Indy car was followed by a spin at Indianapolis.
“In Atlanta, one of the cars that was up in front of us ran out of fuel or had an electrical problem and there was a big pileup,” Mears recalls, his casual tone belying the severity of the incident. “Everybody got in it. It was a pretty wild crash with fireballs, and I had some parts come through the tub and hit me in the back of the leg and beat me up a little bit. And then the very next week we were at Indianapolis, about two weeks into Indy. I wasn’t with a very good team at the time and they left the rear wing loose. I spun out and backed into the fence in turn 1 and separated a rib. So my leg was messed up from the weekend before at Atlanta and I separated a rib. We still got in the car and practiced but we were just too slow. That was probably my worst experience in racing, that year.”
Adding to to the sting was a DNQ for the Indy 500, a race Mears still says he wishes he had a shot at. Running for a small team, the crash also meant an end to the season. He filled in for an injured Alex Zanardi at the end of 2001.
And he also got the call that would change the course of his career that couldn’t have come at a better time.
Mears remembers, “in 2001 it was still unclear whether IRL or CART was going to be the direction to go, and I had some opportunities in both when kind of out of the blue a guy came up to me who used to work for Roger Penske and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got a friend of mine who’s buying part of a Busch Series team who would like you to be involved’ and I went back and checked it out. I was really impressed with all the racing that was going on back here that I never really know about other than watching it on TV from time to time. That was really what got me back here.”
Did the pair of accidents earlier that season influence Mears’s decision to give NASCAR a shot? He pauses a moment, brow furrowed, thinking about it.
“I don’t think it really did,” he says. “It was more so… I actually had an opportunity to go IRL and then one to go into CART. Neither one of them were the premiere, premiere rides, but they were good rides. The simple fact that it was still in such flux and they didn’t know what series was going to be the series to go with, so I thought that well, I’ll try this for a year, and if it doesn’t work out, maybe I’ll know which direction to go.
“That’s really the reason. It wasn’t so much because of that year. I knew the reason why a lot of the things that happened the way they did was because of the team that I was with and we ran as poorly as we did. I knew that if I got a better opportunity in either of those series that it would have been more fun, so I didn’t really let that affect my decision. It was just an opportunity to try something that I never had before.”
Mears spent the 2002 season learning the ropes in the then-Busch Series, scoring a best finish of fifth for a smallish organization in Team Jesel. It wasn’t a bad year for the 24-year-old, but he wasn’t prepared for the call that came from Chip Ganassi, who wanted to sign Mears to drive for his team in NASCAR’s top series.
Mears knew he lacked experience, so when Ganassi offered him a four-year deal, he asked the owner for one promise.
“I remember telling him, ‘Listen, man, I’d love to come drive this car for you, believe me. But I’ve never driven these cars,” Mears recalls. “I’d had a halfway decent year in Busch and that was it. I said, ‘I need more experience. I need that full contract.’ He offered me four years, and I said, ‘I need to know I’ve got those four years. I don’t want to get a year or two into this deal and then be gone.’”
Ganassi agreed, and as Mears had predicted it would, his inexperience showed painfully in 2003. His best finish was 15th at Las Vegas. In 36 races, he finished on the lead lap just seven times, and failed to finish at all 10 times, including six for involvement in a crash.
“Every year, even though I had a contract, I wondered if it was going to be the year that I wasn’t going to be able to come back,” Mears says now. “So even those years, as stable as they were, they were still unstable, mainly because of my experience level and what I had in the sport. But then by the time I got into my third or fourth year, things finally started to come alive. I got a pole at Indianapolis and a pole at Chicago, led a bunch of laps at Texas, led a bunch of laps at Homestead. We came back that next year with the 42 car and ran second in the Daytona 500 and started things off really well and had a lot of promise.”
So much promise that Mears attracted what, at the time, seemed like the offer of a lifetime from Hendrick Motorsports, viewed by many as NASCAR’s top team. Mears had come tantalizingly close to winning a handful of Cup races in 2006, and that second place in the Daytona 500 came while pushing Hendrick driver Jimmie Johnson to the win. Mears counts Johnson as his best friend, and the pair were teammates as teenagers in the Mickey Thompson Stadium Series, so when the offer came for 2007 and beyond, Mears jumped at the chance.
And in the process learned that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the fence.
“I got the opportunity to go to Hendrick Motorsports — a great opportunity,” Mears remembers. “I’d be racing with my buddies and that whole thing. But the [No.] 25 team was behind. When I showed up, we were way off and we couldn’t figure out why. We got about four or five weeks into the year and finally got one of our cars back into the wind tunnel to find out what the deal was and it was way off on rear downforce. They were just building them differently than they were on the 48 and the 24.”
But Mears and his new team went to work, and began turning things around.
“About midseason, we went to Texas and finally with our first new car that was a lot more like theirs and we were quick time in both practices,” the Bakersfield, California native continued. “We went to go qualify and it got rained out. We were about 25th in points or something like that because of the first part of the season. I’ll never forget, someone spun out at the start of that race. We were starting in the back, someone spun out in front of me on the first lap of the race, came back across the hood and killed the car, and we just didn’t get the result. That was also the same year that we came back for the 600 here in Charlotte and ran really well. We ran top 10 the whole race, and I think we were running seventh or so when we ended up getting the fuel mileage and winning the race.”
Which brought Mears to Victory Lane that night in Charlotte, and on Memorial Day weekend to boot, the same weekend that had brought his family so much success before. The celebration was so sweet for Mears. His parents were there. His friends were there. There were hugs and tears and a lot of smiles. He smiles in his easy way now, remembering.
“I can’t ever remember being more excited than I was that day,” Mears recalls, describing the emotions in Victory Lane. “Because I’d already been in the sport quite a while, and knowing the ups and downs that I had to go through to get there. Just a lot of excitement, but also a lot of relief, just, ‘I finally got that win, finally got one of those.’ I think the biggest thing I noticed was that even though we all fight each other, we all race each other — it’s tooth and nail, you fight each other as hard as you possibly can, it was really cool to see just how many people came to victory lane to say congratulations, from all the crew members, to different drivers I’d raced against over the years.
“I think that the people here, we all know each other the best. We can hate each other at times, but we all know each other the best out of anybody. So it means a lot when your peers come and tell you congratulations. That was a lot of fun, and then being there with my parents at the time was exciting because I know that if anybody lives it like I do, it was them at the time. Now my wife and my kids do as well, but at that time it was fun to have them in Victory Lane for sure.”
Things were finally on the right track. The future was bright for the likeable young Californian. The win, he thought – everyone thought – would be the first of more to come. Except it wasn’t. Don’t call it bitterness, perhaps. Maybe wistfulness. But there’s an undeniable edge to Mears’s voice as he continues.
“You could tell things were going in the right direction,” Mears remembers. “That was when Junior came over and when Junior came on, I lost Darian Grubb when he went to Junior’s team to be an engineer. I went to work with Alan [Gustafson] over at the [No.] 5 car and that was also the year that we switched permanently over to the Car of Tomorrow.
“I think it was one of the worst starts for Hendrick Motorsports in like 20 years. For whatever reason, our team at the time just didn’t have a handle on the splitter and the new combination of the car and we really struggled, and before I got halfway through the year there, we knew that Mark Martin was coming. So it’s not a sob story by any means, but definitely when you think about the way things went, right about the time it was getting good, everything kept getting changed.”
A year of constant change with Richard Childress Racing, during which Mears was paired with three different crew chiefs as the organization sought to improve the performance of Mears’s teammates with inconsistent results to match, led to the lowest point the driver had experienced in his life.
There was no ride to go to after sponsorship at RCR didn’t come through. Mears signed with upstart Keyed-Up Motorsports before Daytona, but despite his talent on restrictor-plate tracks, there wasn’t enough speed to make the race. Even in that painful rookie season, Mears hadn’t missed a race, and now, he missed the biggest one of the year, one he’d nearly won just four years before.
Mears describes the painful weeks of early 2010 with measured words, the hurt still evident.
“It was for sure one of the more humbling things I’ve ever been through,” says the 37-year-old. “If you think about it, obviously, I’d been very fortunate to grow up in a racing family. I had raced something from the time that I was three years old until that point, and that was probably the first season where I missed races, where I didn’t have racing and didn’t have it to go to.”
But he’s put it in perspective now.
“It was a struggle, but I think it was pretty healthy at the same time because it made me realize… you’ve raced for so long and you do it every year and you know that you love it and that you don’t want to do anything else, but you really find out how much you love it and how much you want to be a part of it when you can’t have it like you want to,” Mears says. “It was definitely an eye-opener and humbling because I mean, I was going to people – I signed that deal with that [No.] 90 team, and it was God-awful, just painful. I mean, the guys were all trying to do what they could, but we didn’t have at all what it took to do anything.
“I was going to everybody I knew in my sport and begging for parts and begging for sway bars and A-frames and just stuff to get the car on the track, and it was humbling to be in that position and have to do that to get to the track. I think going through all that made me appreciate the opportunities that I have now for sure.”
Mears had a couple of fill-in rides that spring and summer, but he’d be lying if he said he wasn’t worried about his future in the only sport he’d known. But then came the offer from Germain Racing and the stability Mears had been looking for throughout his Cup career. There were growing pains, including another missed Daytona 500 and a couple of seasons where the team couldn’t run every race, and Mears faced the sick feeling of pulling into the garage long before the race was over for several weeks.
But things have improved steadily. He’s had some strong finishes and they’re getting better on a weekly basis. He’s got a legitimate shot at winning every time the Cup Series visits a plate track, and everyone knows it. There’s real confidence in Mears now, and in his team – so much so that they recently inked a contract extension that will keep Mears and sponsor GEICO insurance with the team for three more years. For the first time, Mears is the focus of a race team, and he’s happier here than he ever was on the bigger teams.
Has there been added pressure on Mears to perform because of his family name? Well, yes. Sponsors expect a certain level of performance, and having a name associated with so much success brings a certain expectation. But these days, Mears says that if there is extra pressure because his last name is Mears, it’s coming from him.
“I guess I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t some (extra pressure), but I never really let it get to me a whole lot,” he says, thinking about it. “I knew that when you performed, you did well, but when you didn’t perform, there might be some people outside the sport that maybe expected more, or less, or whatever, maybe, because of what my family did, but I always knew that when I talked to my family or when I talked to the guys that I was working with that none of that really mattered.
“So I never let it get to me a whole lot. I can say that there were times when, it wasn’t like I was feeling pressure like I had to perform, but it was the pride of wanting to honor my family name that’s always done so well in motorsports. I didn’t care about the guy who maybe thought I should have run better than I did, but it was more wanting to feel proud of being successful so I could bring it back to my family and feel proud and good about that, so I guess if you look at that type of pressure, I put pressure on myself because I want to succeed.”
Mears has grown up considerably since the days of racing off-road with Johnson and their other friends. He’s got a family now, with two young children, which has given him perspective as well. He laughs softly when reminded that he once had a bit of a reputation for being a little wild.
“I guess everybody just grows up, but I don’t think you ever completely grow up,” he says. “I mean, I can’t say this for everybody, but for me, as soon as I had kids, it changed my perspective on a lot of things. I’m glad I had fun when I did, when I was younger and we had a lot of good times that I’d never take back. At the same time, having kids and a wife is the best part of my life to this point, but it definitely changes your perspective.
“You know, it’s funny; I remember being single and hearing rumblings about other guys having kids and ‘oh man, he’s going to be sidetracked, and he’s not going to do his job,’ people just think that. But to me, honestly, I don’t know a dad out here who doesn’t want to bring a trophy back to his kids. So talk about motivations for success and motivation to work hard — I’ve got more motivation now than I’ve ever had to bring back one of those trophies to my family.”
And with a new deal done and a team on the rise, Casey Mears is closer to that than ever.