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LAist Interview: Getting Up to Speed with Casey Mears

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Suffering from post-Olympic sports withdrawal? Head hurting from Manny Hangover? A dose of NASCAR might be just what the doctor ordered.

This weekend, NASCAR comes to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. The Pepsi 500 on Sunday is one of two races remaining before NASCAR's version of the playoffs, the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship (nicknamed "The Chase").

We caught up with Casey Mears, driver of the #5 Cheez-It/CARQUEST Chevrolet. Casey talks about growing up in Bakersfield, the fine line between cheating and doing your job, and getting a side of owner points with his new Jack Daniel's Chevrolet.

What's special for you about the Fontana race?

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The first thing is that it's in California. A lot of my friends and family show up for that race. It's a good place to catch up with them. To win there and be successful at that track with everyone watching would be nice.

What do you do with friends and family when you’re back in California?

Most of them just come to the racetrack. I stay there in the motor home lot at the racetrack. My brother and my grandparents and all of them usually pull their motor homes in. We just hang out at night, relax and catch up.

A lot of times they’ll bring my favorite foods that I miss from California. I usually try to shoot up to Bakersfield to see other family when I have time. I catch up with my grandmother.

What are some of the favorite foods from California that you miss?

They’ll bring some pasta up from Luigi’s, a restaurant I really like in Bakersfield. Another thing I really enjoy is the chile verde that my family makes. Usually they’ll bring a big pot of it. It’s just stuff you can’t get in North Carolina.

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Are you a fan of the Bakersfield sound?

I have always been a fan of music, period. I like country. I like rock and a little bit of rap here and there. I really like Nickelback and O.A.R. [Of a Revolution]. For country, I like Toby Keith.

You were really good in “Talladega Nights.” Aside from you, which NASCAR driver would make the best Hollywood actor?

Jeff [Gordon] did Saturday Night Live. I was really impressed with how well he did. Based on that, he’s the guy that’s probably been around that scene the most and would take to it the best.

Which Hollywood actor would make the best driver?

Patrick Dempsey. He likes to race on the side. He understands the sport enough to be a realistic race car driver.

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What celebrities have you seen at recent racing events?

The lead singer of Smash Mouth [Steve Harwell]. He comes out to quite a few races. He always came out to a lot of Indy Car. I think he’s gotten involved in some drag racing.

Nick Lachey and Jimmie Johnson have become pretty close. Nick’s come to several races here and there.

Speaking of your Hendrick Motorsports teammates, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, what’s it like at team meetings after you wreck each other?

We all understand that a teammate is the last person you want to take out. The last thing you want is to go back to the hauler after a race or to a team meeting the next week and be involved in one of those scenarios. Typically, when that happens, it gets brushed off because we all know each other and get along. We know if something happens it’s a complete mistake. It doesn’t go past the next week.

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What goes through your mind when you’re getting into a wreck?

It happens so fast. I’m always trying to save it all the way until I hit the fence. As soon as that thing starts to spin, you’re working the steering, working the gas throttle, trying not to hit anything, trying all you can to avoid hitting the wall. You’re always working. Then if you do hit the wall, it’s over. If you’re hurt, you realize that after it’s over. If you’re not hurt, you’re just ticked off ‘cause you wrecked.

We hear over the scanners and on TV what you’re saying to each other. What’s the funniest thing you’ve ever heard on your scanner?

The funniest thing I ever heard was at Bristol. I had a crew chief [Jimmy Elledge] who was actually from California but he’d been in North Carolina for about fifteen or twenty years and had picked up an enormous redneck accent. Kyle Petty had gotten in a crash and I was just riding around under caution. Kyle had hit something so hard it actually ripped the battery box out of the side of his car. It’s hard to explain where the battery box is located, but for that to come out indicates it’s a pretty hard hit. My crew chief came over the radio and goes, “Gosh dang, that car right there done slung the battery slap out of it!” I got back on the radio and said, “Done. Slung. The battery.” Then I just started busting up laughing.

How long did it take for the North Carolina accent to start rubbing off on you?

Not long. Bakersfield’s not a whole lot different. There are a lot of people in Bakersfield whose families came from Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and places like that. It’s all farm country and oil. Country music was big. I think I already had a little bit of an accent but I didn’t know I had it. When I would go down to San Diego or LA, people would say, “Man, where you from? You from Texas?” And now that I’m in North Carolina it definitely gets stronger unless I focus on not letting it go in that direction.

What’s up with all the cheating? How do you feel when there’s a blatant rules violation like we heard about last week?

I’ve never been involved personally with a real blatant issue with my crew chief. In the NASCAR rules there are a lot of gray areas. There’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t necessarily define exactly how you have to do it. I’ve had crew chiefs that pushed that envelope enough to get a small fine or a penalty.

It’s our jobs as race teams to try to get all we can out of these race cars. If you never get a warning from NASCAR, then you’re not doing your job by pushing that envelope. If somebody does something very blatant that’s way outside the rules, it would be disappointing as a driver to lose owner points on something you worked hard on all year on, but I’ve never been a part of that. Fortunately I’ve been on the good side of that.

What changes would you like to see in the next version of the “Car of Tomorrow”?

The biggest thing we need to work on is getting the cars to race better together in drafts. The current aerodynamics of the car don’t cater to being able to do really close racing. We need to work on the body itself, how much downforce it has. Getting the cars more comfortable around each other would be key.

When you have a sponsor like Kellogg’s, Cheez-Its and Pop Tarts, do you get a lot of their products?

Sure, if we request it. They’re a great company so they set us up. The team definitely gets a lot of products. There are tons of cereals and snacks on the trucks for the guys. It depends on the sponsor. I had a fuel sponsor in the past but I didn’t necessarily get free gas.

Nowadays everyone is very fuel conscious. You had a great fuel strategy when you won the Coca-Cola 600 last year [Mears won by not refueling in the last laps, running out of gas moments after crossing the finish line].

That was a huge win. The thing I was really excited about that night was just how competitive we were. We ran inside the Top 5 all night long and at the end made a great call on fuel strategy to win the race. It worked out really well. Obviously fuel prices are pretty high these days wherever you go but I don’t know how much I can repeat that race plan.

How empty do you let your fuel tank get in real life?

I’m a little paranoid about running out of gas in real life. I don’t want to run out on the freeway. I try to keep ‘er topped off.

What makes a good victory burnout?

If I were to do a burnout, it would be from adrenaline. I’d just be excited and want to do something. When you’re inside the car, there’s no way to really express yourself but to do a burnout or do something with the car. There are some guys who’ve kind of patented their things they do in Victory Lane. I guess that’s okay. I’ve always respected the guys like Terry Labonte and Ricky Rudd who just won a race, drove to Victory Lane and were proud of the job they did. They didn’t flaunt it a whole lot, just enjoyed it.

Do you ever get pulled over?

Not very often. I’m usually cruising around when I’m out on the street. I get my racing done on the weekends.

So it sounds like you have been pulled over. What’s it like?

It depends where you’re at. I got a couple of speeding tickets early on. Fortunately, the last couple of times I got pulled over it was around my neighborhood where they know and understand racing. We got in from a race at 3 o’clock in the morning. We weren’t trying to speed, just trying to get home. The officer was pretty cool. I got off with a warning.

Did he know who you were?

Yeah.

Where do you get recognized the most?

The racetrack. That’s why people come there. To see the drivers and the track. Sometimes in a restaurant. But I can fly under the radar pretty good.

What’s up with your sponsor for next year? Are you definitely going to take the 07 car [sponsored by Jack Daniel’s, currently driven by Clint Bowyer] and all of its owner points when you go over to Richard Childress Racing next year?

Yeah. That’s the deal. I’ll be in the Jack Daniel’s 07. It comes with whatever points they finish with this year. That’s what we’ll start off with next season.

How do you feel about that? On the one hand, you automatically qualify for a bunch of races next year, but on the other hand they’re kind of Clint Bowyer’s points. [The top 35 cars at the end of 2008 automatically qualify for the first 5 races next season.]

I feel fine with it. I think from Clint’s standpoint he wishes he had those points going into next year. But that’s just the way it panned out with the sponsor and the team. It’s the scenario I’ve been given. It’s a good scenario. I’m looking forward to next season.

Maybe LAist should sponsor a car. Which driver would be the best match?

Depends. How much money are you willing to spend?

We don’t have any money. It’s just a thought experiment.

Everybody’s pretty much up to speed on the Internet stuff these days. Hard to say who would be the best person for that job.

What would you tell a new fan of NASCAR to look for when they watch a race?

The first thing I would get is a scanner. One of those Sprint FanView deals. That’s the best way to understand what’s going on -- to listen to the spotters, and listen to the drivers. That’s what a lot of people don’t understand when they go to a race. They just think it’s someone going in a circle. But when they realize the strategy, they understand what we do. I think the scanners are a good way to get a new fan up to speed.

Anything else you’d like to tell the readers of LAist?

Just that I’m looking forward to being back in California and hope to see a lot of fans out at the racetrack this weekend.

Photo of Alan Gustafson and Casey Mears by Stephen Borodkin. Photo of the #5 Cheez-It/CARQUEST Chevrolet by Bo Nash via flickr. Photo of Sprint FanView scanner by Lisa Borodkin.