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Annual Evans Day Brings Back Fans, Memories

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, August 30 2012

NASCAR Hall of Famer Richie Evans still has a grip on New York race fans. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

ROME, N.Y. – In what has become an annual rite of summer, Central New York racing fans recently honored the legacy of Modified hero Richie Evans at the track where he made his stock car debut – astonishingly – 50 years ago.

Utica-Rome Speedway was in its infancy when Evans and partner Joe Jones towed a 1954 Ford Tudor coupe numbered PT 109 – Richie was a fan of President John F. Kennedy and his World War II Navy exploits – for a Sunday night of Hobby Stock racing off Route 5 in bucolic Vernon.

Evans evolved from his entry-level hot laps in that former drag racing car into a nine-time NASCAR Modified Tour champion, including eight in a row from 1978-85, and one of the sanctioning body’s 50 Greatest Drivers. In January, “The Rapid Roman” became the first short-track driver inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, N.C., as a member of its third class.

The Richie Evans NASCAR Hall of Fame Induction Celebration program in Vernon, south of Rome, was a tribute to the 33 Modified victories he scored at Utica-Rome between 1965-78, when it was a paved bull-ring. Utica-Rome now is a half-mile dirt oval billed as “The Action Track of the Northeast.”

Evans won full-season track championships at U-R from 1972-74 and in 1978, when his rivals regularly included fellow-Roman and six-time NASCAR Modified champion Jerry Cook; four-time NASCAR Sportsman champion Rene Charland; U-R champs Lou Lazzaro, Eddie Flemke and Bill Wimble; Bugsy Stevens, Sonny Seamon, Maynard Troyer, Ron Bouchard, George Kent and Tom Baldwin Sr.

While the intramural rivalry between Cook and Evans clearly divided fans in Rome, there was no arguing that

NASCAR Hall of Famer and short track legend Richie Evans.

the Bodine Clan invaded the Mohawk Valley from downstate Chemung as public enemies.

“Geoff wrecked Richie three weeks in a row at Utica-Rome – same quarter-panel, left-rear quarter-panel,” former Evans crewman Bill “Bondo” Clark recalled in a pre-Hall of Fame interview. “He (Bodine) kept gut-shooting him on the bottom and would spin him out. I fixed that (damage) three weeks in a row. Finally, the fourth week, Richie went over to Geoff and told him, ‘Look, it’s like this – you will not start the feature next week, because you don’t have enough cars. I have three, you have two and you ain’t starting the feature – if you’re going to keep racin’ like that.’

“Geoff didn’t wreck Richie the fourth week; I didn’t have to fix any quarter-panels the fourth and fifth weeks. But when those two hooked-up, you were going to see a race. They went after each other hard – sparks flying and whatnot.”

Appropriately, a lineup of 10 vintage stock cars was on display behind the grandstands, including one of Lazzaro’s No. 4 Sportsman coupes from Utica; a No. 33 coupe driven by Wimble, NASCAR’s National Sportsman champion in 1960-61; the No. 90 Ford five-window coupe driven to victory by Rome legend Cliff Kotary in the Labor Day classic at the Syracuse Fairgrounds in 1963, one of six consecutive wins scored by “The Copper City Cowboy” at that 1-mile venue; and a No. 37 Ford Falcon Modified driven by Jack Johnson, who was inducted into the DIRT Motorsports Hall of Fame last spring.

The all-white 1964 Ford Galaxie 500XL convertible that served as U-R’s Official Pace Car under former owner Dick Waterman also drew a crowd, although the static display star easily was one of the few surviving Evans-orange No. 61 Pinto Modifieds. Between the heat races and intermissions leading to the 100-lap Modified main, a steady line of fans stopped to touch and peer into and chat about and pose with the Evans car, on-loan from its permanent home at the Rome Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.

It was a wonderful trip down memory lane for this writer, a native Roman who attended the event with my nephew, Greg Brockway Jr., a regular at Utica-Rome who knows all about the current generation of Modified and Sportsman drivers competing in the Race of Champions Series. Back in ’62 – when stock cars of varying quality started appearing outside of area gas stations, mom-n-pop businesses and even in household driveways –Greg’s father and me (both 11-years-old) got hooked on racing for good.

We became Sunday night regulars in the bottom row of seats between the old Turns 3 and 4 – the better to see the cars when they wrecked there – while our mothers sat in the parking lot in our 1961 Falcon station wagon until the lengthy-and-loud program ended.

Later, I often served as a one-man towing/pit crew for buddy Mike Burth and his Street Stock Fords that operated out of Charlie Melone’s Mobil station on East Dominick Street. Even got my eyeglasses broken during a post-race pit scuffle one memorable night. After landing my first newspaper job at the Rome Daily Sentinel, I spent many a Friday evening safely covering the races for the paper’s last edition of the week on Saturday.

Certainly, not all the Evans stories of that period made it into print, or the Rome Police Department blotter. Richie’s former Shell and Sunoco gas stations were within walking distance of downtown, and the neighborhood bars, along West Dominick Street, as was his last shop at 608 Calvert Street. Whatever the locale, Evans and his crew routinely were spinning wrenches past normal business hours.

“We were working in the Sunoco station one night and Rich got a new motor from B&M Speed Shop, and we put

One of Evans' Modifieds sits in the Rome Hall of Fame and Museum in upstate New York.

the motor in the car,” said native Roman Randy “Buster” Maurer, crew chief for Richie’s first NASCAR championship in 1973. “I hadn’t worked for Rich too long and we started the car and revved the motor. It was 12 or 1 in the morning. Knowing where the station was, you can imagine that the people around there weren’t too happy, so they called the cops.

“Two of the Rome Police came and Richie saw them drive in. He kept the car running, and finally shut it off. One of them come in, a big guy, and says, ‘Rich, come on, you’ve got the neighbors going crazy here. How long you going to be?’ Rich reached into his pocket, pulled out a $5 bill and said, ‘Go up to Dandee Donuts, buy us coffee and donuts and by time you get back we’ll be all done.’ So the cops went and bought us coffee and donuts and everybody was happy. That probably wouldn’t go over too well now.”

Tracking down Evans and Cook as they alternately avoided-and-chased each other for the national championship became routine duty for me from 1973-78, an era devoid of cell phones and the internet. Cook, NASCAR Modified champion in 1971-72, created plenty of headlines by posting four of his titles consecutively from 1974-77 in his trademark red No. 38 Modifieds. Ironically, by time Evans secured his second NASCAR championship in ’78, I had moved to Texas to work at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Evans, of course, was awarded his ninth NASCAR championship posthumously at age 44. He died as the result of multiple injuries/basilar skull fracture suffered in a crash into the Turn 3 wall during practice at the half-mile Martinsville (Va.) Speedway on Oct. 24, 1985.

Which led me to wonder about the lineage of the car in which Evans met his fate. Clark said that while Evans occasionally named his cars – including one dubbed “Beulah” – he did not number them.

“Just exactly which one that was…it’s been a long time,” said Clark, who added the car was kept under a tarp in a back room in the Calvert Street garage for approximately one year. And while any number of curious fans and gawkers showed at the shop, the car never again was seen by the general public.

Nor was it buried on the grounds of the Freeman Hotel, Richie’s offseason retreat in Osceola. “No, no. That was one of the original stories years ago,” said Clark, a native of nearby Utica and on-and-off Evans crew member from 1973-85. “There was people up to the hotel digging, looking for it!”

Even more bizarre was the rumor that Evans actually was buried in the car, a yarn confirmed by Jill and Janelle Evans, two of Richie’s four daughters from his first marriage. “I’ve heard everyone else say that the car was buried – buried, buried, buried, buried,” said Jodi Evans Meola, Richie’s eldest daughter. “And then we were told it never was buried, that they chopped it up and scrapped the pieces of it. It’s nice to know that the story we heard is truthful all these years later.”

Both Clark and native Roman Billy Nacewicz confirmed the latter as fact. “NASCAR impounded the car (in Martinsville) and had Jerry Cook and Maynard Troyer look at the car at separate times, and nobody could find anything wrong on the car,” said Nacewicz, who served as Richie’s crew chief from 1975-85. “There was significant damage but nobody could find anything (as the definitive crash cause).

“I had the car for a year at the shop and went back-and-forth now and then trying to find something. Never could find a reason. I guess it’s going to be a mystery he took to his grave. And we had to do something with the car, so we cut it up.”

Clark said that decision proved especially emotional for Nacewicz, who built all of Richie’s cars during his heyday. “I mean, what else would you do with it?” Clark asked, rhetorically. “In our hearts, we could have never put that car back together. Any of the other cars that were his, not a problem putting them back together. But not that one. The right side was mashed pretty good. Right front was gone and the whole right side was flattened.

“I mean, we did what we thought was right. He was killed in that car, so we could not – and it was fixable – but we could not fix that car to ever represent him again, you know? Richie died in it; we got rid of it.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, August 30 2012
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