HOUSTON, Texas (Oct. 2, 2000) - - Casey Mears, of Bakersfield, Calif., started from the pole and then continued to dominate the 11th round of the 12-race Dayton Indy Lights Championship with a convincing flag-to-flag victory at the Grand...
HOUSTON, Texas (Oct. 2, 2000) - - Casey Mears, of Bakersfield, Calif., started from the pole and then continued to dominate the 11th round of the 12-race Dayton Indy Lights Championship with a convincing flag-to-flag victory at the Grand Prix of Houston, Sunday, Oct. 1.
Mears' victory was his first career Indy Lights win in four seasons of active Indy Lights competition although he has been literally thousandths of seconds within reach of victory on numerous previous occasions. Houston was also his fifth podium finish in 2000.
Mears maneuvered through the 1.527-mile, 10-turn downtown street circuit in a caution marred race that lowered the average race speed to 68.017 mph. The 22-year-old nephew of four-time Indianapolis 500 champion, Rick Mears, crossed the finish line 1.241-seconds ahead of teammate and outside pole sitter, Townsend Bell, of Costa Mesa, Calif.
"I don't have the words to describe how this feels," said Mears. "It's been a while since I've won a race. My first couple of years in Indy Lights were tough. Things started to come together last year when I joined Dorricott Racing. We did well last year in finishing second place in the championship but we went into this season looking to win races and the championship."
Of greater importance to Mears and Bell is that their "one-two" finish has positioned them to win the Dayton Indy Lights Championship, Sunday, Oct. 29, at the California Speedway in Fontana, Calif.
Series leader Scott Dixon, of New Zealand, failed to score points for his second consecutive race. Bell and Mears, meanwhile, have each accumulated 38 points in their last two outings. Mears earned 22 championship points at Houston including one bonus point for winning the pole and one point for leading the most laps. Bell collected 16 points for second place. It was the second consecutive race that American drivers have finished first and second place.
Dixon remains series leader with 134 points, but Bell is only four points off the pace with 130 points. Mears sits just five points behind with 129 points. The immediate focus for Mears and Bell shifts to California Speedway as the season concluding race will become "ground zero" for a three-way championship battle that is the closest in the 15-year history of the Dayton Indy Lights Championship.
Australian Jason Bright's day was a proverbial nightmare from the race start but worsened when he became entangled in a four-car melee on lap 21. Bright's misfortune left him with a 16th place finish but the circumstance turned out to be the most significant moment of the race.
Bright qualified fifth but shed that position to Dixon on the start. He locked his brakes entering a corner on lap two that cost another three positions and dropped him to ninth place. Bright then passed Jeff Simmons for eighth place on lap 11.
The field began to open by lap four but misfortune haunted Bright on lap 13 when he brushed the wall in turn two with his left front tire. The tire flattened and required Bright to make a pit stop. Perfect execution on the tire switch by Bright's crew allowed him to return to the race literally within seconds.
Disaster or fate - depending on one's point of view - struck on lap 21 when Ireland's Jonny Kane suffered gearbox failure entering turn seven. Kane, who was in third place at the time, spun into the outside tire barrier before stopping parallel to the outside wall. Fellow Irishman Derek Higgins, who was directly behind Kane, lost traction in Kane's transmission fluid and plowed into Kane trapping both cars against the wall.
The chain reaction continued when Bright rounded the corner, lost traction in the fluid, and unavoidably careened into the left rear of Kane's car. Dixon tried to avoid the carnage but struck Higgins' tail end as he entered the turn. All four drivers were uninjured and exited their cars under their power. However, all were forced to retire from the race.
"It was a shame the way Scott Dixon left the race but it has happened to all of us who have raced a long time," said Mears. "Timing can be everything. "We didn't have a particular team strategy entering the race other to run as hard and smart as we could."
Two other caution periods were for separate contact incidents involving Mario Dominguez, of Mexico, on lap 28, and Jeff Simmons, of East Granby, Conn., on lap 33. Simmons crashed into the pit lane wall at "pit out" due to brake failure. Both drivers were uninjured. The checkered flag was issued on lap 45 of the scheduled 50-lap sprint as prescribed within Indy Lights rules that a race is complete by either running the total scheduled laps or a one-hour time limit.
Houston was a financial "oil well" for Mears and Dorricott Racing. Besides taking home a $25,000 race purse, Mears received two Dayton Daytona racing tires and a $1,000 bonus for being the top qualifier. He qualified his Dorricott Racing/Sooner Trailer Lola on the pole with a track record time of 1:04.722 = 84.936 mph.
Mears also turned the fastest lap of the race with a time of 1.05:525 = 83.895 mph on lap 11. This added a $1,000 bonus to Mears' payday as recipient of the MCI WORLDCOM Fast Pace Award.
"We have great engineers but I tip my hat this weekend to Gerald Tyler, who engineers Jason Bright's car," said Mears. "Their pre-race testing was the difference in all the team's success at Houston. Gerald created a new set-up that was perfect for this circuit."
Mears day was further accentuated when he was presented with the Racing for Kids Award and a $500 bonus. An additional $1,500 will be presented to a local children's hospital in the name of Casey Mears.
"Joining Dorricott Racing has been a career maker," reflected Mears after the race. "Bob Dorricott is so supportive and provides the best of everything to give us the most chances to succeed. I think it shows. Our drivers run up front. We test hard and learn from it. I learned more about racing Indy Lights last year than my first two years. There is something to be said for being around talented, competent people who have a will to win."
Bell received the Dayton Rookie Award of two Dayton Daytona racing tires for being the highest placing Indy Lights rookie driver in the DirecPC Lola. Of greater value to Bell was knowing he clinched Rookie of the Year honors with his runner-up showing. Bell is 39 points ahead of his closest challenge and teammate Bright, who is fifth place in the championship with 91 points.
"I was very lucky to cross the finish line in second place," said Bell. "We had problems most of the weekend. It was one of those races where you're happy to score points and leave knowing you're still in the championship hunt. Maybe we can go to Fontana and win this thing. Once again, Bob Dorricott has been so supportive. I really wanted a good result for Bob but also for my chief mechanic, Kerry Dunn, who had a very tough weekend and problems in the family that required him to leave before the race today."
ESPN2 will telecast of the Indy Lights race at Houston next Sunday, October 8, from 6:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. ET (3:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. PT).