Last month, the famed Mears Gang returned to a portion of Mexico that Roger and Rick had made famous some 45 years ago.
The first appearance at the legendary Baja California desert course for the Mears Gang was in 1973 when dad Bill took brothers Roger and Rick into the unique wilderness of the famed Mexican peninsula.
“It was back in 1973 when we came down to Baja with my dad and my brother,” said older brother Roger, a four-time Baja 1000 champion. “We had a pickup truck with our race car on a trailer, two spare tires and couple cans of gas. It was the Baja 500 and we asked some guys to take some gas out to a few of the checkpoints. And we were hooked on coming down to race here. We just loved Mexico. We have been coming down here for so many years now.
“And Carol [his wife] and I live in Bahia de Los Angeles in Baja full-time. It was very thrilling to come back to the Baja 1000 as the Grand Marshal. Thanks to everyone at SCORE for inviting me to be a part of it this year.”
While Rick gained fame in IndyCars as a four-time Indy 500 winner, Roger made a name for himself in variety of racing disciplines including off-road (desert and short course, champion in both), IndyCars, sprint cars, midgets and stock cars. How about 20 SCORE Off-Road World titles at Riverside, five Pikes Peak Hillclimb crowns and several desert series championships for Roger? Roger’s last appearance in the SCORE Baja 1000 was in a Chevrolet pickup in 1995 after driving a variety of desert machines for over 20 years.
This year’s 52nd BFG SCORE Baja 1000 saw Roger Mears serve as Grand Marshal when the 264 drivers left the Ensenada starting line on Saturday (November 23). But Roger had a vested interest in one particular racer in the starting field – his son Casey, who made his Baja 1000 debut in the tough Trophy Truck division with the No. 42 Axalta Geiser Brothers machine.
Casey Mears, at age 41, might be new to Trophy Truck racing but not motorsports in general, as the Arizona-based driver began driving little off-road buggies (Super Lites) at age 12. He quickly moved to open-wheel racing in Indy Lights and scored a fourth in his first CART race in 2000 at Fontana with Team Rahal. Casey joined the NASCAR scene in 2003 (489 Cup starts total) with a Charlotte win in 2007, second at the 2006 Daytona 500 and co-driving to the 2006 Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona win in sports cars.
“This year’s race was a really big challenge for Casey because he was racing in a very tough class, Trophy Trucks,” said Roger. “The competition is extreme tough. Casey is a good wheelman, but he doesn’t have the experience of the top SCORE Trophy Truck guys. He must learn the terrain. He has been in a few desert races recently and he is learning very well. But this is the Baja 1000, the world’s biggest off-road race.”
After a move from Charlotte to Scottsdale, off-road racing opportunities began to surface for Mears and he wanted to follow in his famous father’s footsteps again.
“I started in off-road, short courses, (Mickey Thompson Off-Road Grand Prix stadium series) and pre-running with my dad (Roger),” said Casey. “I would run with Dad and Roger Jr. a bit. Then made a big left turn in my career. I didn’t know I would go the direction of open-wheel and stock car racing. I was in Indy Lights, ran the CART race at Fontana and then went south to NASCAR. It was a great career path.”
However, Casey admits that off-road racing was always in his blood, even while turning left on the banked ovals.
“I have always had a passion for the off-road action,” Mears explained. “It was a perfect storm. I moved back to Scottsdale, Arizona a year and a half ago. They were looking for the next NASCAR guy to drive the Axalta truck and I filled in for Dad driving the Chenowth buggy this year. We did well, and I drove in the NORRA 1000 too. I really enjoyed it. But it’s a whole new level in the SCORE Trophy Truck and a 29 truck field.”
In this year’s SCORE Baja 1000, Mears co-drove with veteran Doug Fortin Jr. in the No. 42 Axalta Trophy Truck, and Fortin, who owns a leading off-road drivetrain company for short course and desert vehicles, was no stranger to the Baja. Doug is a multi-time Baja 1000 class champion and had raced nearly every section of the Baja peninsula during his famed career. Fortin was the perfect partner for the Baja rookie Mears.
“We had a great team and I was co-driving with a veteran in Doug Fortin,” Casey said. “Our plan was for me to start the race for about 330 miles and then Doug to drive at night. I wanted to give Doug a good, solid truck for the finish. I would love to compete in off-road racing for years to come. There are guys racing for a long time still in the Baja. It could be another racing career path for me now. I was very excited for the Baja 1000. There is so much history here, and with my family, too.”
It was a challenge right from the start for Mears, as he was last off the starting line the in 29-truck field. But Casey knew he needed to be patient and make his way up the field as the rough, wet (five inches of rain caused a one-day delay in the Baja 1000 start) 800.5-mile course was going to be tricky.
“At the start, our pace was good from the radio contact we had,” he said. “We passed guys and others were having trouble in the muddy conditions. I felt good about the way things were going. I drove conservative early to get through the wet stuff. I definitely picked up the pace as things went on. But the mud was a big issue for everyone, including us. We just couldn’t attack as we wanted due to the water everywhere. But we had a problem with the cam sensor that put us down about nearly two hours. We believe it was from the mud or the water in all of the areas. It took awhile to analyze what it was and where it was.
“Without that issue, we would have been right in the hunt for the win. But I think a lot of guys could have said that as well. It was an awesome experience for me and the whole team. Coming in 12th in 29 Trophy Truck isn’t a bad debut for me, and we were 21st overall at the finish. We know we had a good truck to finish much higher.”
Being the rookie in the SCORE Trophy Truck class gave Mears a new perspective on how hard and fast the category can be at the Baja 1000.
“It was wild out there,” he said. “I think having all that rain made it great for having no dust, but the puddles were insane. We had some sections, like 300 feet of two-three feet deep puddles. We got some water in some electronics causing a fair amount of down time getting that fixed, but outside of that issue, it went pretty well. Baja lived up to its infamous name, very challenging, very difficult. It was a lot of fun, what a great experience.”
For the veteran Fortin, he has seen many things in his years in the Baja and the electronic problem just added to his list of misfortures.
“We hit a mud puddle early on and lost a crank trigger (sector) on the engine, and it cost us a couple hours. After those repairs, the truck had no problems at all. Casey did a great job too.”
Placing 12th with a 13-year-old truck is quite a feat in itself for the Mears/Fortin/Axalta squad.
“The truck has had several updates and Preston (Schmid, crew chief) and Conor (Jackson, riding mechanic and team coordinator) had done an excellent job in putting together a strong truck and a great overall operation for the Baja 1000. The logistics for a top team racing in Trophy Truck in the Baja 1000 is massive. The preparation, pit strategy and past experience is so valuable in a long race like the 1000.”
For Mears, it was his first Baja 1000 after some 500 racing starts in NASCAR stock cars and IndyCars, but the competition, environment and driver skill in the Trophy Truck class is definitely something Casey would like to continue.
“It was a great experience for me and I believe the whole Axalta team had a good feeling about the event,” Mears said. “I think this team can be competitive with the top SCORE Trophy Truck efforts if we could compete in a few other races leading into the Baja events. It was my first Baja 1000 and I see guys like Ricky Johnson, the McMillins (Luke, Andy and Dan) and others saying how tough and grueling this year’s course was compared to other years. And now I believe it. It was rough on the trucks throughout the race. So finishing where we did was a good run and a big achievement for our team.”