For Bill Mears, it seems like only a few days ago that he was loading his old flatbed truck with a couple of VW dune buggies in Bakersfield and hauling them over the Ridge Route to Ascot Park where his boys, Rick and Roger, were winning everything in sight on the off-road track.
It was the beginning of "the Mears Gang." It was also 1970.
Fast-forward to 1997. Bill Mears and his wife, Skip, are grandparents now, and another generation is racing in the Mears
family, Clint and Casey. Clint, 24, is Rick's son. Casey, 19, is Roger's son.
It is the beginning of Team Mears.
Clint and Casey will drive Saturday in the PPG-Firestone Indy Lights race, a companion feature to Sunday's Marlboro 500 at California Speedway in Fontana.
Clint won his first Indy Lights race in June on the Milwaukee Mile, the same track where his father won his first Indy car race in 1978.
"I was a nervous wreck," said Rick, who won the Indianapolis 500 four times and took the checkered flag at 28 more Indy car races. "I was a lot more excited watching Clint win than I was when I won my first Indy car race at the same place. It's a lot easier driving the car. Standing on the sideline, you think of everything that can happen--and you have no control."
Clint won the pole, his first as a professional, and led all 90 laps.
"The car came off the truck ready to race," he said. "It felt comfortable right from the start and as the race went along, it just got quicker and quicker. The whole weekend was fabulous. I just hope we can have something like that at Fontana."
The California Speedway is the first oval-track race for the Indy Lights since Milwaukee.
"Milwaukee was one mile and Fontana is two miles, but there's not all that much difference," Rick said. "They'll be able to run wide open. The big difference will be that they must learn to draft. You don't draft on a mile oval, but with the long straightaways out here, there should be a lot of slingshot passes. Like the old days in stock cars.
"When the field gets down to the last few laps, the lead might not be the place to be."
Rick, who also serves as consultant-advisor to Team Penske drivers Al Unser Jr. and Paul Tracy in CART, and Roger, who gave up his career as builder and racer of off-road trucks, formed Team Mears this year.
The idea was born last year at Cleveland. Casey was there, subbing in an Indy Lights car for Robby Unser, who was racing up Pikes Peak. Roger was there to watch and Rick was working with Unser and Tracy. Clint, who had driven in the Formula Atlantic series the year before, was working in North Carolina, hoping to land a Super Truck ride.
"I got to thinking, I had a racing shop in Bakersfield that was pretty vacant so why not use it for the boys' cars," Roger said. "Rick was living in Florida and I was in Bakersfield, where the boys lived, but I thought it would be a good way to get the old Mears Gang back together. We decided to do it."
The decision was made so late that the team was not able to obtain much sponsorship. Consequently, it is running on the financial edge.
"It was like we gave the kids a three-legged horse to race," Bill Mears said. "Without an engineer from the start, it was tough to keep up at this level."
Mark Weida, who has won three Indy Lights championships with Fabrizio Barbazza, Mike Groff and Robbie Buhl, recently joined Team Mears as an engineer. Last May at Indianapolis, Weida helped put Vincenzo Sospiri in the front row for the 500.
Chris Mears, Rick's wife, has been working as public relations counsel for Al Jr., but will leave that position to work with Team Mears next year.
"It was a great way to reunite Rick and Roger," Chris said. "They had been best friends when they were young and racing had moved them apart when Rick went into Indy cars and Roger with his trucks, so this was a way to get them back together, and keep the cousins together."
The old Mears Gang, and that includes Clint's mother, Dina, and Roger's wife, Carol, plus Bill and Skip, is back in operation at all the races.
"I thought we'd gone through all this, but now here we are starting all over again," Bill said. "This time, though, Skip and I just sit around and watch."
They'll be the ones around the white No. 10 and No. 11 Penske Auto Center Lola T97-20s in the Indy Lights pits Saturday--the Mears Gang turned into Team Mears.
Jeff Gordon has a 105-point lead over Mark Martin as the Winston Cup drivers face their final short-track race of the season in the Hanes 500 at Martinsville, Va. Gordon and the Rainbow Warriors will be out to win their third consecutive race in a Chevy on the .526-mile oval and their 11th of the season. Only six races remain to win the $2-million champion's bonus.
Martin, who won last week in a Ford at Dover, Del., gaining 34 points on Gordon in an attempt to win his first Winston Cup crown, started 39th but finished third in the last Martinsville race.