As the eldest member and leader of the famed “Mears Gang,” Roger Mears took a unique path to the Indianapolis 500.
He actually followed his younger brother, Rick, to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
In fact, Rick – who is 5 years younger than Roger — had already competed in four Indy 500s and scored one victory before Roger made the starting lineup for the 1982 500 Mile Race.
“Rick came over to Indy cars and did very, very well, and that opened the door for me,” Roger said. “I was actually headed toward stock cars and off-road at the time. I feel very fortunate that I did get the opportunity to run there for a few years. I’m a little disappointed I didn’t get to run as long or as much as I would like, but I did what I could and did what I had to work with.”
The “Mears Gang” was among the best off-road racers that ever drove through the desert, and after the 1983 CART season, Roger had the opportunity to return to off-road where he continued an impressive career.
“Some opportunities opened up for me to go off-road full time, and I felt I had a better shot at making a full-time career out of it, which I did,” Roger said. “I rode the off-road wave that took off in the early 1980s and rode it into the 1990s and had the time of my life.”
Roger Mears’ career included stock car racing in the Bakersfield, Calif., area in addition to off-road racing. Rick was a noted off-road race but branched out to Formula Fords and Super Vee racing in the 1970s. That opened the way for Rick to head into Indy-style racing.
“We raced every weekend to have fun and we just loved doing it, and all of a sudden it turned into a career, which was a dream come true for all of us,” Roger said.
Rick was a fast learner, winning the Indianapolis 500 for team owner Roger Penske in just his second start, in 1979. Roger was on Lake Ming near Bakersfield with family and friends listening to the race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network that day.
“Gosh, we couldn’t believe it,” Roger said. “My brother was not only in the race, but he won the dang thing. It was the neatest thing ever.”
Rick’s victory created an opportunity for Roger to get involved in Indy-style racing. He drove for Rick Galles at Phoenix and Ontario, Calif., and he later drove a race for Pat Patrick at Ontario. J.C. Agajanian put a deal together for Roger at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1981, but he failed to make the 33-car starting lineup in a Chevy V8.
“We kept blowing them up before we were fast enough to get in,” Roger said.
It wasn’t until 1982 when Roger joined the Machinist Union team with Andy Kenopensky that he was able to make the starting lineup for the “500.” That year, Roger had a choice between the Machinist Union team and the Kraco team.
“There were a lot of good things about it, and I had a blast being able to run as much as I did,” Roger said.
But Mears never saw the green flag on Race Day. With Rick starting on the pole and leading the field very slowly to down the frontstretch to start the race, Kevin Cogan’s car snapped loose from its middle-of-the-front-row starting position and ran into the side of A.J. Foyt. That triggered a chain-reaction crash in the back of the field with Dale Whittington slamming into the back of Roger’s car.
Roger Mears was out of the race before it ever started, credited with a 32nd-place finish. Whittington – one of three brothers in the race that day – finished last.
“I tried to erase that race from my memory,” Mears said. “We worked so hard to get there and try to be successful, and when they dropped the green flag, a guy comes from behind. I saw the crash in front of me when Cogan and Foyt got together. I was on the inside and pulled over against the pit lane going real slow, and then I got cratered from behind. I got crashed before getting to the starting line. Ironically, everybody was really concerned about how radical Dale Whittington was with the erratic moves. I was elected to talk to him and try to calm him down, and I did. We talked a lot about the start of the race.
“Ironically, he took me out at the start of the race.”
After Roger went back to Gasoline Alley and “kicked everything around,” he went back to watch one of the great Indianapolis 500 duels in history as Gordon Johncock defeated Rick Mears by just .16 of a second in what was then the closest finish in the history of the race.
“There were so many times that I was proud of my little brother – he always made us proud,” Roger said of Rick. “He was a real thinking man’s racer. He always had his head screwed on right.”
Roger returned in 1983, qualified eighth and had a great car before he was involved in a crash in Turn 1 after 43 laps, finishing 28th. He completed that season, but Nissan made him an offer to build and start his own off-road team.
“I was afraid I was going to be one of those drivers that showed up every week wishing he had a ride,” Roger said. “So we made the big leap to Nissan in off-road, and I’m really, really glad that we did.”
Mears won just about everything there was to win in off-road, winning 20 off-road world championships at Riverside, four Baja 1000s, two HDRA/SCORE Desert Championships and five Pikes Peak Hill Climbs. He also competed in the Mickey Thompson Stadium Championship with 13 career Grand National Sport Truck Victories.
But Roger’s son Casey is the lone member of the Mears Gang that competes today, driving the No. 13 GEICO car in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Casey added to the family’s impressive list of Memorial Day racing achievements when he won the Coca-Cola 600 in 2007 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Roger drove Casey’s motor home for five years in NASCAR before retiring. He does a little “motorcycle riding” and works on a 1933 Ford Hot Rod. Roger and his wife, Carol, spend the winters at a house in Baja California, Mexico.
Ironically, the Mears Gang are back together again, only this time there home isn’t Bakersfield; it’s Lake Norman, N.C. Roger lives on the lake, and Rick lives 5 miles down the road. Penske Racing relocated to Mooresville, N.C., where all of its INDYCAR and NASCAR teams are based in the same facility.
“Rick also has a hot rod just like mine,” Roger said. “It’s funny how things come back around because that is what we started off doing.”