Panthers, drivers share mutual admiration

Of all the sports that have earned a spot in America's heart, NASCAR is the only one that is centered in one city. Even though the teams travel around the country on a weekly basis, they all return home to the Charlotte, N.C., area.

In the NFL, teams are based in 31 different cities, from San Diego to Boston and from Seattle to Miami. The fact that Charlotte has been one of those cities for the past 12 years has led to some fast friendships between drivers and players.

For years, Michael Waltrip and former Panthers tight end Wesley Walls have been buddies. Current Panther Mike Rucker and Jimmie Johnson have developed a friendship as well. The number of players in the Panthers locker room who have an interest in what goes on just up the road seems to grow every season. If the players aren't fans, someone in their family is.

One friendship, however, didn't start in Charlotte. In fact, it started years ago when one NASCAR driver was taking handoffs from a current Panthers quarterback.

David Carr was the star signal caller for Stockdale High School in Bakersfield, Calif. His fullback (and halfback) was Casey Mears, who made his former teammate very happy when he won the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway in May.

"David is just a great guy and an outstanding athlete,'' Mears said. "I was nowhere near his league back in high school, but I like to think I was pretty scrappy and I know I had fun trying to keep up.

"It's been fun to follow his career as I was building my own, too. We haven't really been in the same place since high school, but then David signed on with the Panthers and all of sudden we were living in the same town again. It's a pretty neat twist of fate, and it's been great to have him around. I think we both feel very fortunate to be doing what we're doing right now in our careers. Back then, we were just two kids from Bakersfield with big dreams and now we get to live them out."

Carr recalls his teammate having a bigger-than-usual interest in motorsports.

"Casey's dad, Roger, raced trucks in the desert, and his uncle Rick won the Indianapolis 500 four times," Carr said. "I remember Casey was always racing four wheelers in his backyard."

How cool is it to be living in the same city, three times zones and 10 years removed from those days?

"It's pretty cool," Carr said. "To be reunited like this when we both took different paths in our careers proves what a small world it is."

Johnson, meanwhile, owns season tickets to Panthers games. Of course, he's pretty occupied on Sundays until late in the football season.

"I try to make it to as many games as I can," Johnson said. "Whenever we have a break in our schedule and there is a game, I am typically there. I know a lot of the other drivers go to the games when they can, too. We may be from other parts of the country but I think most of us consider the Panthers our home team because most of us live in Charlotte now. I try to take some of my crew guys to at least one game. It's kind of fun watching a sporting event for a change, just having a hot dog and a beer and relaxing."

He and Rucker became friends when Rucker helped Johnson and his wife launch a charity foundation in Charlotte. The two men keep in touch throughout the season, and Rucker, who lives two miles from Lowe's Motor Speedway, has been to a handful of races.

"Before I got into NASCAR, they told me I had to pick one driver to follow it," Rucker said. "Jimmie and I had a mutual friend and he invited me to some of the races. He won the first race I went to, and when the car you pick wins the first race, that's a rap. I've become a fan of his, and over the past four years we have become friends. Every once in a while I'll give him a call to congratulate him on a big win.

Not all of the drivers are Panthers fans. Matt Kenseth is an obnoxious Green Bay Packers fan, according to fellow driver (and Chicago Bears fan) Kurt Busch. It leads to some interesting discussions at the track during off hours between the drivers once football season kicks off.

Meanwhile, the Panthers are making inroads into a world where the helmets have visors instead of facemasks. Wide receiver Steve Smith has been the honorary starter at Lowe's Motor Speedway recently, and says he pulls for several of the drivers, although they aren't the only ones he likes to watch.

"I really enjoy watching the pit crews," Smith said. "The teamwork aspect of it is something to see."

Of course, the first link between NASCAR and the NFL occurred before the Panthers even arrived. Joe Gibbs gave up sleepless nights in his coaching office with the Washington Redskins to start Joe Gibbs Racing, which has two NASCAR Cup championship trophies to go with his three Super Bowl trophies. Gibbs has since returned to the Redskins, but his NASCAR teams are running strong.

It's not surprising that drivers and players are able to form bonds the way they do. They both live in a world of adrenaline and competition. When the NFL came to Charlotte in 1995, it provided the last element necessary for friendships to develop. Next time you are at Lowe's Motor Speedway, look around and you're likely to see current or former Panthers. And next time you're at a Panthers game, you probably won't have to look far to find members of the racing teams.