Kevin Harvick grew up a big fan of four-time Indianapolis 500-Mile Race winner Rick Mears.
They are both from Bakersfield, California and found massive success in their racing careers. But they both started out racing as unknowns on now-closed racetracks.
Mears got his start in 1976 in the United States Auto Club IndyCar series driving for Bill Simpson in the No. 38 Do-It Wax System Eagle Offenhauser at Ontario Motor Speedway just outside of Los Angeles. He started 20th and finished eighth, completing 192 of 200 laps. He earned $6,886 that day, and who would have known that just three years later he would score his first of four Indianapolis 500 wins driving for Roger Penske.
Harvick got his NASCAR start in October 1995 at Mesa Marin Speedway in Bakersfield in the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series. He drove the No. 72 Hall Ambulance Chevrolet and started and finished 27th, completing 176 of 200 laps. Who would have known that in just six years he would take over for the late Dale Earnhardt at Richard Childress Racing and win in just his third Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series start at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Mears earned three Championship Auto Racing Teams titles, four Indy 500 wins and 29 total Indy car victories. Harvick has one NASCAR Cup Series title, two NASCAR Xfinity Series titles and is one of just four drivers to win the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway, the Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Southern 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway and the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway. He’s won 45 Cup Series races.
Ontario was closed after the 1980 season and the land is part of a shopping mall. Mesa Marin closed in the fall of 2005 and Harvick competed in one of the final races there. It is now part of the Bakersfield Park District.
While Mears never raced at this weekend’s stop on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule – Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, which was built in 1997 – Harvick has had plenty of success at his latest “home track.” He made his first of four Truck Series starts at Fontana in October 1997. His best Truck Series finish of eighth came in 2007.
In 1998, Harvick drove the No. 75 Spears Motorsports car in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West, when he finished second in May and won the pole and the race in July. Harvick also won the International Race of Champions race at the 2-mile oval in April 2002.
Harvick has made 19 starts in the Xfinity Series at Fontana. In 2015, he started sixth, led 100 laps and crossed the finish line 3.317 seconds ahead of runner-up Brendan Gaughan. Harvick has one win, one pole, 12 top-five finishes and 16 top-10s.
Sunday’s Auto Club 400 will mark Harvick’s 26th career NASCAR Cup start at Fontana and he has one win, six top-five finishes and 11 top-10s. The 43-year-old driver has led 237 laps, has an average starting position of 15.3, an average finish of 15.8, and has completed 98.6 percent – 5,674 of 5,756 – of the laps he’s contested there.
Harvick is hoping he can be Freaky Fast at the 2-mile oval and score his second career Cup Series win there.
KEVIN HARVICK, Driver of the No. 4 Jimmy John’s Ford Mustang for Stewart-Haas Racing:
Is Auto Club Speedway a place you look forward to going to, and why?
“Auto Club Speedway is by far one of my favorite tracks we go to. It’s top three on my list as far as tracks that I’m excited to go to, just for the fact that the asphalt is so worn out. It is very similar to Atlanta in a much different shape of a racetrack. It’s a very unique racetrack because it is so wide and you have so many options to run all over the racetrack. When you add in the tire falloff, then it becomes strategy and how many laps do you stay out when everybody else starts pitting because you’re going to give up three seconds a lap. If the caution comes out, you can get caught a lap down. So there are so many things that come into play, but it has become a great race and a great racetrack to race on. The crowd has been great over the last few years since we went from two races down to one. It has changed the whole vibe at Auto Club Speedway. It’s in my home state. It’s a big week and I know, from a driver standpoint, Auto Club Speedway and Atlanta Motor Speedway are right up there at the top of everybody’s list because there is so much falloff and the asphalt is so worn out.”
NASCAR used to be considered a Southern regional sport, but now so many drivers have come out of California. Can you describe what the culture was like there, racing-wise, when you and some of the other drivers came up and how it led to what we have now?
“I think, when you look at California, there are a lot of racetracks up and down the coast. Whether it’s asphalt, dirt tracks, go-kart tracks, there is a well-supported community of racing up and down the state of California, even into Washington and Oregon. As I was coming up, there was the Southwest Tour, Winston West Series, and the (NASCAR Gander Outdoors) Trucks that raced on the West Coast a lot. There was also a fairly good following for Late Models. Things have slowed down from what they used to be, but you have the Kern County Raceway in this particular area. There is definitely a lot of racing when you look at way back in the day it was mostly a Southeastern sport. I think Jeff Gordon was obviously somewhat responsible for being able to allow guys like myself in and pave the way for us to have a path to have an opportunity to come and race in NASCAR. It’s always been a well-supported racing area and I was fortunate to grow up in Bakersfield, California, which is a very well-supported racing town no matter what you race. There is a lot of racing. It just took a while for everybody to figure that out.”
Now that there is just one race a year at Fontana, talk about what the atmosphere has been and how the crowds have gotten better and how the drivers’ perceptions of the way things are starting to turn around there.
“This racetrack is a great example of lessons that a lot of people who run racetracks don’t pay attention to. Sometimes, if you take one really great thing, you can easily make them into two mediocre things. I don’t understand that with racetracks a lot of the time, but this one has come full circle. When you look at the crowds that we’ve had over the last couple of years, they’ve been really good. The racing has been really good as that track surface has aged. As a driver, you look forward to going there now because it’s one of those tracks where you can run all over the place, the cars slide around, and you’re going to have fun from the driver’s seat. That bleeds over into the perception that the fans get because everybody is talking about enjoying racing on this particular track. Some markets are just one-race markets. I would say ninety percent of them are one-race markets, but a lot of them still have two races and you just see those mediocre crowds and, when people know that you’re only coming once a year, you have to go to that one particular race. Having a race with a good date is obviously good for the weather and the people to come out and enjoy it. It’s not 115 degrees in August, which was always fun to be a part of in the racecar (laughs). But, I think, it’s all come full circle and everything is going well for this particular track.”