Phil Casey always dreamed of getting behind the wheel and being a race car driver.
But that path lasted just a couple of years.
Instead, Casey’s knowledge as a mechanic proved to be more much successful and much longer lasting while serving as the go-to guy for Indy car drivers.
How do you make the race car fast? Turn to Casey.
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What can be done if the handling seems too loose? Ask Casey.
Need a new car with just a week’s notice? Casey, we need you.
The man who many sought for answers always seemed to know what to do — even after he retired.
For his knowledge and success on the track from the 1960s through the 1990s, Casey, 77, is to be inducted into the Auto Racing Hall of Fame today in Indianapolis.
“I was surprised,” Casey said of receiving his Hall of Fame acceptance letter from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Foundation in February. “Did I dream this or did I really get this letter?
“It means a lot. I never thought I had a chance. Mechanics usually don’t get in. It’s mostly drivers. But it was really satisfying as a mechanic to see a car you’ve built win a race or set the fastest qualifying time.”
Casey’s career was highlighted by his time as chief mechanic under car maker Fred Gerhardt and producing winning race cars for the Indianapolis 500.
Casey also was a nine-time winner of the National Championship competition of the United States Auto Club (USAC) as crew chief for Janet Guthrie, the first female driver to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 in 1977.
Casey worked with accomplished drivers such as Al Unser Sr. and A.J. Foyt
Casey worked with other accomplished drivers, too, such as Al Unser Sr., A.J. Foyt, Johnny Rutherford and Danny Ongais.
And after he retired as a mechanic, Casey stuck around the track as Senior Technical Director for the IRL and helped develop the industry-standard Steel and Foam Energy Reduction (SAFER) Barrier. And when his time as technical director was over after 121/2 years, Casey was kept around as a safety consultant.
“He was one of my best chief mechanics I ever had,” Unser said in a telephone interview with The Bee. “He knew what he was doing, he absolutely knew what he was doing. And we wanted to win. He did everything in his power to make sure that car was just right.”
Casey joins driver Bill Vukovich Sr. as the only natives of the Fresno area to be inducted into the Auto Racing Hall of Fame.
Casey can thank his mom for unintentionally sending him on a Hall of Fame course.
Growing up in southeast Fresno and a graduate of Roosevelt High, Casey had such a strong desire to race that he’d leave school in the afternoon to work at a nearby garage.
A neighbor loaned Casey a race car to give him his first crack as a driver. Casey eventually got his own car and spent two years competing at the defunct Kearney bowl in Fresno and the race track in Bakersfield.
31 years spent as an Indy car mechanic
“I got a couple of seconds, but never won,” Casey said. “I ran good in the heat races. Just couldn’t get the win.”
Casey’s mother, however, wasn’t too happy seeing Casey’s car take up space in the backyard. So one weekend when Casey was out of town, his mother got rid of his race car without his knowledge.
When Casey returned, he was distraught.
“She told me she got rid of all the ‘junk,’ ” Casey recalled vividly. “It was a flat-head, but it had three carburetors, and Edelbrock heads, quick-change rear end and everything. She just got rid of it.”
Even without a car to drive, Casey couldn’t keep away from the track. Instead, he simply watched the races as a spectator at Kearney Bowl.
Noticing Casey was no longer participating in the races, driver George Snyder asked Casey to serve as a mechanic. Then Gerhardt eventually asked Casey to build Indy cars for him.
“We built 30-plus Indy cars and all of them were sold,” Casey said. “You weren’t racing them. But it was still a lot of fun working on them. A lot of hard work.”
Casey worked on Indy cars for various team owners from 1964 until retiring as a mechanic in 1995, spending half his time in Indiana and the other half in California.
Casey had been on the Hall of Fame ballot for two years before getting in this year, along with Mari Hulman George, the chairman of the Board of Directors of Hulman & Company and a director of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Foundation.
Accompanying Casey to the Hall of Fame induction will be his daughters, Kimberly Burkhart, Tammara Marsh and Phyllis Clark, as well as his fiancee, Vera Meadows. Casey’s son, Phil Casey Jr., will be unable to attend because of business reasons.
“I always joked that if I got into the Hall of Fame, I hope I’m above ground when they do it,” Casey said. “But in all seriousness, this was a great surprise. What a dream.”
Phil Casey’s mechanics file
▪ Age: 77
▪ Hometown: Fresno
▪ Auto racing experience: 31 years as Indy car mechanic
▪ Claim to fame: Produced winning race cars for the Indianapolis 500 under Fred Gerhardt; a nine-time winner of the National Championship competition of the United States Auto Club (USAC) as crew chief for Janet Guthrie