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Later Model Mears

Rick's nephew, Casey, took the Winston Cup road to get to Indianapolis, site of the Brickyard 400 on Sunday

August 02, 2003|Shav Glick | Times Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS — Casey Mears was never here to see his Uncle Rick win the Indianapolis 500 four times, nor did he see his father Roger race in the 500 twice in the early 1980s.

Nor has the 25-year-old second generation driver from Bakersfield ever raced on the hallowed Indianapolis Motor Speedway track, but he hopes to add his name to the family heritage here this weekend.

Mears, a NASCAR Winston Cup rookie, will be in one of Chip Ganassi's Dodges, the red-and-white Target No. 41, in the 10th annual Brickyard 400 on Sunday.

"I saw a lot of Rick and Dad's races on television, but I never saw [the speedway] until 1996 when I came for the USAC banquet," Mears recalled after arriving at the team hauler Friday from a trip to New York. "I had just won the Jim Russell Triple Crown in a Formula Mazda. I looked at the picture from the banquet the other day and there was Tony Stewart and Steve Kinser and Jacques Villeneueve. He'd just won Indy and the CART championship."

Mears was 17 at the time.

"It was January and there was snow on the track, but I got a chance to drive around the track and it was just awesome," Mears said. "I got goose bumps when I came to that spot where Rick passed Michael [Andretti] to win for the fourth time. The track looks so much narrower than it does on TV."

No matter where he qualifies today, or where he finishes in the race, this will have been a good week for Casey. On Thursday, he was one of the participants in "Regis and Kelly's Dream Date Search."

"It was a great night out," Mears said. "They gave me a Viper for the evening and the first thing I did was do a burnout for my date, a girl from Wisconsin.

"Then we went for a boat ride, saw a show and went to some fancy restaurant near the Brooklyn Bridge. It was cool. I had a lot of fun. I think she did too."

Now it's back to the serious business of racing against the world's finest stock car drivers. It's not where Mears expected to be at this stage of his career, having prepared himself for Indy cars before a chance opportunity arose to run a 500-mile engine test for Ganassi in early 2001 at Lakeland, Fla.

"I was 22 and had never been in a stock car when Chip needed someone to drive one of Sterling Marlin's cars to test the new Dodge engine," Mears said. "I had tested for one of Chip's champ car rides that year, but he hired a couple of other guys. I was driving an IRL car for Rick Galles at the time and he had a three-car team with Al Unser Jr. and Didier Theys that was really underfunded."

All three tried to qualify for the Indy 500, but only Unser made it, and he was on the bubble when qualifying ended. If anyone had bettered Unser's speed, he would have been out of the race, so Galles wouldn't let Mears take another run. Mears went to Derrick Walker and asked for a last-minute try in Sarah Fisher's backup car.

"All month I had never been better than 218 [mph] in my car and my first lap in Derrick's car I ran 215.7," Mears recalled. "All I needed to beat Junior was a 215.5 average, but I couldn't hold it and we just missed. But it helped me leave Indy with a positive feeling. I had really been down on myself because I'd been running so poorly, but that time in Derrick's car told me it was the equipment, not me."

Several open-wheel teams were interested in Mears' services, but the confusion brought about by the IRL-CART split caused him to turn to NASCAR.

After only one season in the Busch series, Ganassi announced last December that Mears would drive a Winston Cup car for him this year.

"It's a privilege for me to drive for Chip," Mears said. "You know, he has quite a history at Indy too. He drove in the 500 and he's won it twice as owner. I know he'd like to add a win in the Brickyard to his Indy resume."

Through the first 16 races this year, Mears has yet to finish in the top 10, but he's getting close. In the cash-rich Winston Cup series, he has won $1,560,375 in prize money.

Last week, at Pocono, Pa., Mears qualified 10th and led for eight laps before eliminating himself by running into a fence late in the race.

"I really don't know what happened, I was leaving the pits after a splash and go and heading for the first turn to get back racing when it just got away from me and got up into the fence," he said. "The car wasn't handling very well, it wasn't a top 5 or a top 10 car, but I felt terrible because the guys had worked very hard on it and I just made a mistake."

During the Pocono weekend, Mears also ran in two 200-mile ARCA races, one Friday and one Saturday, and won them both.

"I need seat time in races more than anything else and the ARCA cars are very close to Cup cars, so we took advantage of the opportunity," he said. "I think it helped me on Sunday. When I had the lead, I held off Rusty [Wallace] for a while.

"As much as I know [Winston Cup] is where my future is, I still would like another chance at the 500. All my life I have wanted to race in it, but now we are so focused on the Winston Cup schedule that it's hard to think about anything else."



* Site: Indianapolis

* Schedule: Today, qualifying (TNT, 8 a.m.); Sunday, race (Ch. 4, 11:30 a.m.).

* Track: Indianapolis Motor Speedway (rectangular oval, 2.5 miles, 9 degrees banking in turns).

* Race distance: 400 miles, 160 laps.

* Last year: Bill Elliott passed Rusty Wallace with 11 laps remaining and cruised the rest of the way to win.

* Fast fact: Tony Stewart was fined and put on probation for the rest of the 2002 season for punching a photographer after last year's race.

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