ARLINGTON, Va. (Army News Service, Jan. 17, 2006) - Casey Mears says the honor is all his.
"It's just a big honor," Mears said shortly after he was introduced as the National Guard's new Guard Car driver at the Army National Guard Readiness Center Jan. 12. Mears will drive the No. 25 National Guard/GMAC Chevy Monte Carlo SS in the 2007 NASCAR Nextel Cup and the No. 24 National Guard Chevy in the Busch Racing Series. This is the first year that the Guard will have cars competing in both divisions.
"It's just so different than any other normal sponsor," Mears said. "You're not just representing a brand, you're representing a portion of the country, what the country stands for, and all the men and women who fight for us. We get to do what we do because we're protected by the National Guard, so it's just a big honor to be representing them and hopefully hold them up proud and do well."
Lt. Gen. Clyde A. Vaughn, director of the Army National Guard, said the Guard's NASCAR sponsorship is one key to successful recruiting.
"We have a lot of fun with this," Vaughn said. "We recruit 70,000 Soldiers a year. It's about recruiting, and it's about maintaining the strength of this great organization, and part and parcel of that is this fun we have with NASCAR, because it puts that National Guard name right up there in front in the nation's largest market on any one weekend outside the Super Bowl."
Driving for Hendrick Motorsports, Mears is the successor to Greg Biffle, driver of the No. 16 National Guard Ford for the past three seasons. Biffle's accomplishments included winning six races and finishing 2nd in the Nextel Cup series in 2005.
"We've gone through a great three seasons with the No. 16 car," said Lt. Gen. Clyde A. Vaughn, director of the Army National Guard.
Defending Nextel Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch also drive for Hendrick Motorsports. The Daytona 500 will kick off the 2007 Nextel Cup season Feb. 18.
In another life, Mears might have enlisted himself, but he said racing demands total focus and commitment that precludes other activities.
"I knew I was going to be racing from the time I was really young," the 28-year-old Mears said. His father is Roger Mears, Indianapolis 500 and off-road veteran; his uncle is Rick Mears, four-time Indy winner; his grandfather also raced. Casey Mears began racing BMX bicycles when he was 4, then he graduated to ATVs.
He also played high school football. "The physical aspect of the training, the things that you did in football always made me wonder. I always wanted to maybe go through basic combat training and just see how I would be affected by it or how well I would get through it."
Mears said he would like to visit with Guard members serving at home or abroad if given the opportunity. "It would be great to do that," he said. "I can only imagine. I still have a lot to understand and learn of what citizen-Soldiers go through. It would be great to try to lift their spirits."
Mears is optimistic about the year ahead. "I'm more excited this year than I ever have been," he said. "This is going to be my fifth year in the Nextel Cup. My first couple of seasons were a huge learning curve, coming from the open-wheel side of things. Having the experience that I have now at this level and moving to an organization like Hendrick Motorsports, it's the best opportunity and the best situation I could possibly be in to go out and win races and do well.."
In 2006, Mears won the 44th annual Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona for Chip Ganassi Racing while teamed with Scott Dixon and Dan Wheldon. He became the first ever full-time NASCAR driver to win the Rolex 24. He won his first NASCAR race last July 8 at Chicagoland Speedway. 2006 also saw his best Nextel Cup showing, 14th.
During his visit to the Army National Guard Readiness Center, Mears swore an oath of allegiance to the National Guard administered by Vaughn.
Lance McGrew, Mears's crew chief, also took the oath.
"For us at Hendrick, it's a great opportunity to have a relationship with one of the American institutions," said Doug Duchardt, vice president of development. "It's always an honor to represent people who are protecting our country and representing our country. There's a special aura to be able to do that.
"We feel a great deal of pride to go out and fly those colors and perform well and hopefully bring some excitement for the National Guard," Duchardt added. "It's a very special opportunity, and we really appreciate how the National Guard has welcomed us into the family."