Sturbin: Evans Was The Dean Of Modified Drivers
By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
ROME, N.Y. – There is a James Dean-like fascination with the life and times and death of NASCAR Modified champion Richie Evans here in his hometown, where “The Rapid Roman” is remembered as a complex country boy who was too fast to live, too young to die.
Winner of nine NASCAR Modified championships in 13 years, including a remarkable eight in a row from 1978-85, Evans will be inducted into the third class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame Friday evening alongside three-time Sprint Cup Series champions Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip, eight-time championship crew chief Dale Inman and pioneering team-owner Glen Wood.
Evans was 44-years-old when he died from a basilar skull fracture suffered in a crash during practice at Martinsville Speedway on Oct. 24, 1985. His legacy as “King of the Modifieds” is unquestioned, as Evans won an estimated and staggering 480 features in approximately 1,300 starts at 38 speedways. That’s one win in every three starts (36.5 percent), en route to at least 26 track championships throughout his yearly nomadic tours of the Northeast’s bull rings. Chief among them was Utica-Rome Speedway in nearby Vernon, where Richie won four track titles and 33 features between 1965-78.
The No. 61 that adorned Evans’ trademark orange Modified is the only number retired in any division by NASCAR, the Daytona Beach-based sanctioning body at which Richie often thumbed his nose, a lowdown rebel if there ever was.
“When you’re dealing with NASCAR, it’s pretty tough to beat out a (Richard) Petty or a (Dale) Earnhardt,” said former Evans crew chief Randy “Buster” Maurer of Rome, referring to the seven-time Cup champions who were among the HOF’s inaugural class in 2010. “But there’s no doubt Richie’s deserving of the honor he’s getting.”
“Personally, I felt dad should have been in on the first class because of his accomplishments,” said Jodi Evans Meola, 47, eldest of four daughters from Evans’ first marriage to Barbara Peters Evans. “But then you also know that they’ve got to have all the NASCAR politically correct people getting in first. As far as deserving, he belonged in the first class.”
Ironically, sister Janelle Evans Walda noted that one of Evans’ Modifieds wound up in stock car racing’s official shrine in Charlotte, N.C., before its driver. “Maybe that had something to do with it,” said Janelle, 45, referring to a chassis that was rescued from the woods and restored by longtime Evans crew chief Billy Nacewicz. “The car was there two years before dad got in. Must have been a ghost.”
Jodi, Janelle and Jill Evans spoke lovingly and with laughter about their father during an interview at the Meola home in Central New York earlier this week, a session missing only youngest sister Jacki, who lives in Elmira in the Southern Tier.
“People just cry when they talk about dad to this day. How many years later?” said Jill Evans, 42.
“Isn’t it kind of ironic that all these years have gone by that people knew that he raced cars but didn’t really know how good he was?” Janelle Evans added, rhetorically. “So many years go by and you never know that what you do here today is going to have that much of an impact years later. It seems like it (the stories) never stop.”
Evans’ second wife, the former Lynn Kreuser of Milwaukee, Wis., has relocated to Charlotte with son Richie Jr., while daughter Tara lives in New Jersey.
Nacewicz, a native Roman working in NASCAR’s Nationwide Series in Charlotte, will deliver a six-minute introductory speech Friday evening. Lynn Evans will handle the eight-minute acceptance speech before a crowd that will include an estimated 100 Evans family, friends, former crewmen and fans.
SPEED will air its coverage of the 2012 NASCAR Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony Sunday at 6 p.m. (ET).
“I know speaking for myself and Lynn, we weren’t expecting the first class (for Evans’ induction),” said Nacewicz, who shared eight titles as Richie’s crew chief from 1975-85. “We weren’t expecting it this soon, although we did think he’d get in some day. To have Richie nominated among the first 25, we thought that was quite an honor. To be inducted in the third class is beyond our expectations. He deserves to be in there.”
Nacewicz noted that fellow-Roman Jerry Cook, a six-time NASCAR Modified champion and Richie’s natural Copper
City rival, is a member of the HOF panel. “We never knew how he would vote,” Nacewicz joked. “We’re thinking now that the ice has been broken, it’s like when Richie got elected into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in (Talladega) Alabama – the first short-tracker to get inducted. He opened the door for Jerry Cook and Ray Hendrick.”
The first of 15 HOF inductees without a Cup resume, Evans joined Cook as one of NASCAR’s “50 Greatest Drivers” in 1998. Evans was inducted into the Rome Sports Hall of Fame in 1986. Cook, now working as NASCAR’s competition administrator, was voted into the local hall in 1991.
Earlier this week, the January issue of “Dick Berggren’s Speedway Illustrated” arrived in the mail with an Evans Modified gracing the cover along with the headline: “Yes, he belongs. Why Richie Evans deserves to be in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.” The article details Evans’ back-to-back Superspeedway Modified victories in 1979-80 at stock car racing’s mecca, the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway, and Evans’ reluctance to move into the Cup series.
Indeed, Lynn Evans said that Richie’s commitment to grass roots/short-track racing – he was voted the Modified division’s Most Popular Driver nine times – will be prominently featured in her prepared remarks. “I know Rich would be overwhelmed right now,” Lynn said. “One of the things I want to stress is I really think this is a great opportunity for all the short-track drivers and all those wannabe, young kids, that there is still hope for them to start on the short tracks and be successful in their careers.
“It’s going to be very exciting. I only wish – and it melts my heart – it’s his award and I wish he could be the one accepting it. But it is what it is.”
Richie Evans Jr., himself a former Late Model and Modified wannabe driver, will attend the ceremonies as a fabricator employed by Sprint Cup star Brad Keselowski’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series team.
“Words can’t describe my feelings. I’m a very proud son,” said Evans Jr., 35. “Working in the industry with a lot of guys who know his name – who know who your dad is – that’s really cool. It’s going to be one helluva time, I can tell you that.”
Sounds as if Richie Jr. has inherited his father’s mischievous and fun-loving personality, a reputation that made him a fan-favorite. But it’s a reputation those close to him say has been exaggerated.
“Everybody thought we was just partiers,” said Bill “Bondo” Clark of Rome, an Evans crewman on-and-off from
1973-85. “Well, we didn’t accomplish what we accomplished because we spent a lot of time out partying. We actually worked pretty hard. It’s probably Richie’s work ethic that got him where he was. He was just one of those guys that your work had to be done before you went and played. And of course, we played as hard as we worked. But we didn’t get in nowhere near as much playtime as probably we could have. Probably a good thing we didn’t. We’d all have wound up in jail, or something.
“Those (Cup) guys want to be thankful that he didn’t go down there, because they would have had to rewrite the record books again. I believe he was that good.”
“Ah, Bill…I love him,” Nacewicz said of his running buddy. “Pretty much everything we did was out in the open, sometimes to our detriment. But the biggest misconception was that Richie had unlimited dollars when he went racing with (construction magnate) Gene DeWitt. That was not the case at all. Gene paid for the engines and trucks and my salary, but Richie owned the cars and parts. That was up to Richie to secure those deals or pay for himself, things like tires. We always built our own cars, so the biggest misconception was that he had unlimited dollars to do what he did.”
Janelle Evans said the work ethic Clark alluded to was a product of her grandparents, Satie Hall Evans and Ernest Richard Evans and the family farm they operated in bucolic Westernville. Evans exited that environment at 16 to work as a mechanic in a gas station. Evans began racing Hobby Stocks at Utica-Rome Speedway in 1964, when a revolving door of acquaintances became part of his barnstorming lifestyle.
Evans made the most of the talents available from a core cast of crewmen and assorted part-time helpers – many of whom he met and cut deals with after-hours while running a Shell service station at the corners of Dominick and Madison Streets. He later operated a Sunoco station a few blocks west on Dominick.
But ground zero for Evans’ expanding low-slung, open-wheel empire ultimately was a simple block building on Calvert Street. The former New System Laundry was within walking distance of any number of neighborhood watering holes along Dominick, including The Rusty Nail and Ozzie’s and Funzie’s.
“When I worked for him the best thing was he was like a big brother with me,” said Maurer, an original Evans crewman from 1971-74. “He worked with you all the time and I’m sure if Billy (Nacewicz) didn’t say it, he taught both of us a lot about racing and race cars. He was big on tires and big on chassis. One of the big things about Richie was when the car left the garage, it had to be prepared right.”
Evans’ first championship in 1973 ended “Cookie’s” two-year NASCAR reign in his red No. 38 Modified. “They didn’t
even call us ‘crew chiefs’ back then,” Maurer noted. “They called us ‘mechanic of the champion.’ That’s how long ago that was.”
It was at the apex of a streak that saw Cook and Evans bring the NASCAR Modified championship back to Rome – at the time a largely blue-collar mill town and home to Griffiss Air Force Base – for 15 consecutive years (1971-85).
“We put Rome, N.Y., on the map,” Cook said in a banner/half-page article appearing in Thursday night’s edition of the “Daily Sentinel ” newspaper, where this reporter covered Evans from 1973-78 as a sports writer and later as sports editor. “The rivalry was honest and true,” Cook said.
“When I started with him he had two coupes – ‘36 and ‘37 Chevy coupes – and we built the first Pinto in 1972,” said Maurer, 62, supervisor of the machine shop at Bartell Machinery in Rome. “That’s when you spent a lot of time in junkyards. You didn’t make a lot of your own stuff. You spent a lot of time in the junkyard before the snow flew and then after it flew to find the parts you needed.”
Clark, whose duties as body man also included shooting can after can of Evans Orange paint, loved the fact that Evans never distanced himself from the nitty-gritty chores associated with prepping a stock car.
“I mean, he was just Richie,” said Clark, 54, a truck mechanic at Harden Furniture in nearby Camden. “He showed up at the garage every day same as all the rest of us, jeans and a flannel shirt. He didn’t look any different than anybody else. It never went to his head, I don’t believe. Get there in the morning, 8-9 o’clock. Go home for supper and then come back after supper until midnight most every night. Probably anybody that was ever involved with him, most of us are still doing it like that. Your work’s got to be done in order to, you know, win at life, basically.
“Another one of the neatest things about working for him was all the people that you met along the way. That’s probably what really made the trip worth it – all the different race teams that you met, the drivers, our vendors we used to buy stuff from, officials. You’d see them every week and it was like one big family. You raced hard and
afterwards you hung out and had a few beers and partied hard. And if one of those guys (rival drivers) had a problem when we was going from one place to the next, a lot of times they wound up at the garage and worked all night to get their car back together at our garage. There’s just a lot of camaraderie there. It was neat.”
Nacewicz, who added Nationwide Series championships with driver Randy LaJoie in 1996-97, said the best thing about working for Evans was simple – winning!
“A lot of winning,” Nacewicz, 62, said with a laugh. “And he gave me a good work ethic that I carried through my career, and enjoying life as you’re doing what you love to do. As Richie once said, ‘We’re all just passing through.’ ”
Those words became prophetic on that fateful morning on the half-mile Martinsville oval in the fall of 1985, when Evans’ car slammed into the Turn 3 wall at speed – a grinding impact that sucked the air out of the venerable facility and took Evans down the road to eternity.
Nacewicz and Clark agreed that their boss, his ninth title already having been clinched, was eager for the first snowfall and the escape they all enjoyed on the snowmobile trails leading to and from the Evans-owned Freeman Hotel in Osceola.
“He did not think he was invincible,” Nacewicz said. “He never talked about getting hurt in a race car either. The Martinsville wreck with Geoff Bodine (in the famed 1981 Dogwood 500) looked pretty nasty but when he blew up his engine at Pocono and caught fire, he got some second and third-degree burns on his back. That’s really as close as he came to being injured. But he never talked about it. He certainly saw other drivers get injured. But they’re a special breed.”
Nacewicz and Clark agreed their boss was in a good mood that morning after flying in for the session. But daughters Jodi, Janelle and Jill contend their father’s personal life was in turmoil. As much as they loved and admired him, his daughters said Richard Ernest Evans was not a saint.
“The biggest misconception was that he was happy at the time of his death,” Janelle Evans said. “He wasn’t happy. He had a girlfriend.”
“We knew about her,” Jodi Evans said. “My father and Lynn were getting divorced. So they might portray that it was
still a great marriage but they were getting divorced. He died with very unsettled business.”
Jill Evans: “He was ‘The Rapid Roman’ in more ways than one.”
“Everybody knew what was going on,“ Janelle Evans said. “My dad was a ladies man, and there was no way around that. Should he have settled down and married? Probably not. He made that mistake once and shouldn’t have done it again. He loved women. Women loved him. He was charming. But was my father despondent when he died? He wouldn’t be down because his marriage was falling apart. Absolutely not. It was falling apart because he had done things to make it fall apart.”
Jodi Evans said that sequence of events created two “fractured families” – one in Rome, the other in Charlotte.
“Leaving that all out of it because that doesn’t have a place in the ceremonies, I would have loved for us to come together to figure it out,” Jodi said. “Nothing would have made me happier than to be able to go down there this weekend and have my picture taken with my other two siblings. I don’t care about Lynn, I don’t care about Billy. They aren’t his blood.”
Still, Jodi Evans allowed that neither Lynn nor her mother deserved the dysfunction created by Richie. “I go back to him having a lot of demands on his life,” Jodi said, “and the pressure of not only one wife at the time – he was married to Lynn – but my mother, his-ex-wife; his girlfriend, the kids, the career, having to travel, having to earn a paycheck, having to pay employees…he had a lot of demands on him. He was a very torn man, I think – complex. And he had a lot of unsettled, unfinished business at the time he died.
“I just wish…the one thing I wish, is that he had settled some of that business before he died. I think if that had been settled, us six kids wouldn’t be two families. We’d be one set of siblings – that’s my message and thought from Day One and I guess that’s the one thing I regret him not doing.”
Even with all that baggage, Jodi Evans said her dad was “the best he could be. You’ve got to remember though that racing was first – that was the priority because he had to support us and that was his only job. And it wasn’t a 9-to-5 job. I like to say he did the best he could with the demands and challenges on his life and career, with two families.”
Lynn Evans, a flight attended for Mohawk Airlines when she met Richie during a night out at The Rusty Nail, said she has remained in contact with many of the people involved with him throughout the years.
“The strangers are the ones coming out of the woodwork (now),” said Lynn, who is employed as an optometrist’s assistant. “It’s always emotional. We have run into people that still cry…grown men who still cry when they talk about Richie. Of all the people that I’ve met, he’s the one I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.”
Jodi Evans said those chronicling Evans have “missed the boat” by portraying him solely as a racer.
“He was a man, he was a father, he was a husband, he was a brother, he was a son,” said Jodi, area director of client relations for XEROX Corp. “To me, I just wish people wanted to know more about him as all those other things, because he was good at those, too. He was a juggler. Let’s give the man kudos for all the freaking things that he did juggle.”
Janelle Evans said she and her sisters have “true memories” of their dad, growing up and racing. “Unfortunately, Rich and Tara are like our kids, where there’s just stories they’ve been exposed to because they were so young (when he died),” Janelle said.
“I like to say that Lynn basically destroyed the relationship with my sister and brother, but she can’t take away the memories I have of my father,” Jodi Evans said. “She never can take that away. Nobody can.”
Too fast to live, too young to die. Bye-bye.
“Living and working with the man, he was that type (personality) to me,” Nacewicz said. “We worked hard, we played hard and we lost Richie at a young age. We lost James Dean at a young age and Janis Joplin. And it’s unfortunate that we didn’t get to enjoy their careers longer, and that they never got to enjoy all the fruits of their labor.”
– John Sturbin can be reached at email@example.com Comments