Mears Odyssey Ends With IRNLS

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It appeared to be a no-brainer: A young American driver with a famous name like Mears turns in a eye-opening performance in his first race in a major auto racing series, finishing fourth.

It would only be a couple of weeks, at most, before a car owner with an eye for talent had him signed up for two or three years, right? Wrong.

Roger Penske never called. A.J. Foyt never called. Heck, it seemed as if nobody even had his number.

More than two months went by before Casey Mears could announce that he had a full-time ride lined up for 2001.

It’s true. Even with the famous name, the impressive first-time performance and the stellar record in a development series, Mears went without a ride for two-and-a-half months.

Even now, Mears is only guaranteed a four-race run with Galles Racing in the Indy Racing Northern Light Series.

He’s not complaining, though. At least not too much.

"Obviously it was disappointing, but at the same time I’m extremely happy to be where I am right now and to be affiliated with the people that I am," Mears said. "I think it’s disappointing to think that in any series in the states right now that there can’t be an opportunity for a young guy like me coming up to get an opportunity to be in the seat."

To truly understand the scope of Mears’ odyssey to find a ride, go back to mid-September.

Mears, along with Bruno Junqueira, Nicolas Minassian and Buddy Rice, was testing with the powerful Target-Chip Ganassi Racing juggernaut. Ganassi evaluated the four drivers at Firebird East in Phoenix in an attempt to find replacements for Jimmy Vasser and Juan Montoya.

A month went by before Ganassi announced that Junqueira and Minassian would be his drivers for 2001. At about that same time in October, Mears was testing with another CART team. This time it was Team Rahal. The test went well and Mears was given a ride in a third Team Rahal car for the season finale at California Speedway.

It was all smoke and mirrors, however, because at the same time owner Bobby Rahal made it clear he would not field a three-car team in 2001.

Back to square one.

Next up was Bruce McCaw’s CART outfit.

"I tested with PacWest a couple of times," said Mears, 22. "John Anderson (vice president of racing operations) was kind enough to get a few of us Indy Lights guys in there and do a test."

PacWest was also kind enough to give its open ride to Dayton Indy Lights champ Scott Dixon.

Then, Mears began what he calls his only "serious" discussions of the off-season.

"Really the only serious discussions that I had with anybody in CART were with a guy by the name of Barry Brooke. He’s starting a brand new team running Ilmore engines and year-old Bettenhausen chassis," Mears explained. "It probably would have been a good opportunity, but this deal here with Rick just seems like really a dream come true to get the chance to go run at Indy and be involved with guys like Al Unser Jr. and Rick Galles here."

At one point during his quest for a ride, Mears considered running in the Formula 3000 series oversesas.

"But I really want to be here in the states," Mears said. "That’s my thing right now and I’m going to focus on that."

Another unsubstantiated rumors had Mears in line to drive for Chip Ganassi in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. There will indeed be a Mears working for Ganassi’s Cup team, but it’s Casey’s father Roger, who may be responsible, in part, for Mears hooking up with Galles.

"I’ve known this family since 1977 when we went off-road racing with (the Mears family) and actually gave his dad (Roger) a ride," Galles said. "When we had the opportunity to get Casey we jumped at it because we think he’s the No. 1 young American star coming up.

"It was something I had to make happen."

Uncle Rick also played a part in Mears turning to Galles and the IRNLS.

"To be honest, Rick was a big part of my decision-making process this year," Mears said. "I called and talked to him and asked for racing advice through him all off-season and during the season last year.

"He was very supportive of my decision and I’m sure will be a big part of me while I’m at Indy."

It’s hard to keep those four-time winners away from Indianapolis.

It’s hard to keep racing families away, too. Just ask Casey Mears. Roger Penske or A.J. Foyt might even be talking with him. Nah, they don’t even have his phone number, let alone his car number.

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Auto Club 500

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Saturday, October 19, 2013
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