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Roman Conquerors Ride Again On Television

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, March 3 2015

Two iconic Modifieds and their drivers shared the spotlight.

The cars that provided the heartbeat of the NASCAR Modified division’s most storied rivalry – and put Rome, N.Y., forever on the racing map – are about to take their places in American automotive culture.

A No. 61 Pinto-bodied Modified formerly owned and driven by NASCAR Hall of Famer Richie Evans and a replica No. 38 Chevrolet coupe like the one piloted by six-time national champion Jerry Cook were featured in Tuesday night’s edition of “AmeriCarna” on Velocity. Hosted by legendary former NASCAR crew chief Ray Evernham, the first airing of the half-hour program entitled the “Battle for Rome” was shown at 10 p.m. (EST).

Native Romans and Northeast Modified fans remain well-versed in the Cook-Evans or Evans-Cook rivalry, depending upon one’s rooting interest. “It was the news of the week every Monday in Rome, and all week for that matter,” said Cook, 71, who eventually drives his car opposite Evans’ around the half-mile Martinsville (Va.) Speedway. “It’s like we tell all these stories, but you can’t make this stuff up.”

Evernham hopes this program will shine a brighter light on the marquee roles Cook and Evans played in what many fans consider the “Golden Age” of the low-slung, open-wheel pavement hot rods.

“Our show is a car culture show but it really is about how a car, or the people surrounding a car, had a huge effect on some time period in America,” Evernham said during a phone interview from his shop in Mooresville, N.C. “Even though Richie and Jerry maybe aren’t as well-known outside the Northeast for winning a race like the Daytona 500, they were driven by one another and had totally different personalities. Not a lot of people liked Jerry, a very serious racer; everybody loved Richie, the carefree partier. Together, they drove each other to maintain that championship.

“When I looked at what different worlds Jerry and Richie were from and how their lives

Ray Evernham broke down the 'Battle for Rome'.

changed NASCAR on the East Coast, I thought it was a bigger story than just a regional thing. It’s a story on how Richie and Jerry really put a small town on the map – Rome, N.Y. They kept the national Modified championship in Rome for 15 straight years (1971-85). To me it was an epic battle. And after Richie’s death, Jerry went onto lead many of the safety modifications that ended up saving a lot of those drivers’ lives.”

Winner of nine NASCAR Modified championships in 13 years, including a remarkable eight in a row from 1978-85, Evans was a member of the third class inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in January 2012.

Evans was 44-years-old when he died from a basilar skull fracture suffered in a crash during practice in Turn 3 at Martinsville Speedway on Oct. 24, 1985. His legacy as “King of the Modifieds” and the “Rapid Roman” is unquestioned, as Evans won an estimated and staggering 480 features in approximately 1,300 starts at 38 speedways.

Evans averaged a 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. Among those venues was the third-mile Utica-Rome Speedway in Vernon, N.Y., a short ride from Rome, where Richie won four track titles and 33 features between 1965-78.

The No. 61 that adorned Richie’s trademark “Evans Orange” Modifieds is the only number

In this corner in the 'Battle for Rome' was Richie Evans. (Photo taken at the Rome Sports Hall of Fame by Tony Grago )

retired in any division by NASCAR, the Daytona Beach-based sanctioning body at which Richie often thumbed his nose.

Cook, a six-time NASCAR Modified champion and Richie’s natural Copper City rival, won his titles in 1971-72 and four consecutively from 1974-77. During a Modified career that stretched from 1963-82, “Cookie” posted 26 poles and 342 victories in 1,474 starts.

Evernham is best known as the crew chief who won three NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships with Jeff Gordon at Hendrick Motorsports. But long before his stints as crew chief and later as Cup team-owner, Evernham witnessed some of the Evans-Cook history from the cockpit of the Modified he raced up-and- down the East Coast.

“I grew up around and raced with both guys and lived through it all splitting apart,” said Evernham, a 57-year-old native of Hazlet, N.J. “I ran a car No. 61, later changed to 19, for three or four years at Wall Stadium (in New Jersey). I raced against Richie and Jerry – certainly not at their level – at Martinsville, New Egypt, Pocono and places like that.”

This project was launched last fall, when Evernham contacted former NASCAR Modified and Sprint Cup regular Jimmy Spencer. “The Evans car we bought from Jimmy Spencer, who bought it from Richie,” Evernham said. “It’s a car Richie changed from a Mustang II to a Pinto and raced at Pocono and places like Hickory (N.C.), Islip (N.Y.) and Martinsville. It’s a car they built in 1977 and ran from 1977-78. Pretty cool car.

“It’s one of their early cars that (former Evans crew chief) Billy Nacewicz verified and gave

And in this corner in the 'Battle for Rome' was Jerry Cook, left. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

us a lot of history on. Jimmy bought it and we know where it had been the whole time with a lot of its original parts, including a Pinto body with the ‘Evans Orange’ paint underneath. In 1978 Richie used the Mustang II body for the big tracks and the Pinto body for the short tracks.”

Nacewicz and Lynn Evans, Richie’s widow, also were on-site in Mooresville as Richie’s car was restored to its former glory over a period of three-plus months.

Cook, meanwhile, still laments that he sold his inventory of red-and-white No. 38 Modifieds after he retired in 1982. “The Jerry Cook car we had to duplicate under Jerry’s direction,” Evernham said of the 1937 Chevy coupe seen in the program. “We hunted up a lot of vintage parts and pieces and built it the same as Jerry built it in 1968.”

Fortunately for Evernham, Cook and wife Sue reside in Mooresville. Cook is employed as NASCAR’s competition administrator at the sanctioning body’s Research & Development Center in Concord, N.C. Rick Jarzombek, brother of former Modified star Charlie, assisted Evernham’s crew in the construction of Cook’s replica Chevy.

“This car is built out of all the parts and pieces that I built those cars from 47 years ago,” Cook said in a phone interview. “Ray is into this thing. When we got going on it and decided to do it, he had two-thirds of the parts in his shop – and all period-correct. That’s the deal when you build something like that. This thing is really nice. He’s taken it to a few shows and it’s been the star attraction.”

Appropriately, the cars are reunited at the paperclip-shaped Martinsville Speedway oval. “The payoff is seeing both cars on the track where there was triumph and tragedy,” Evernham said. “Because Martinsville was significant to both – Jerry won the biggest race of his career there and Richie lost his life there – we take both cars to Martinsville. Clay Campbell, the owner/president of Martinsville Speedway, drove Richie’s car and Jerry drove his car, even though the cars are from different eras.”

Cook confirmed that his victory in the 500-lap spring race at Martinsville in 1969 was the greatest of his career. “Those cars didn’t have power steering and 500 laps around there is a long time,” Cook said. “I wound up in the lead and was hoping there wouldn’t be any cautions. Bobby Santos finished second. I could have lapped him but I didn’t; I didn’t want to take the chance for him to take me out.”

Conjuring up those memories proved quite emotional for Cook, who noted his ’37 Chevy coupe was run on pavement tracks with slick tires and dirt tracks on grooved slicks in the days before specialization.

“The car is nice, it’s run-able,” Cook said of the replica. “And I’ve got to think that’s the first time I’ve taken a race car around a track since I retired in 1982. I sat in the middle of that car and lot of ‘em couldn’t drive it (today). The gas pedal is on the right side of the transmission and the brake and clutch are on the left side. Needless to say, you couldn’t run the brake and the clutch at the same time but I got pretty good at kicking it out of gear.”

Evans and Cook made the list of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers during the sanctioning body’s golden anniversary in 1998 – perhaps the ultimate recognition of a shared, 15-year title run Cook said never will be duplicated.

“Not a chance,” said Cook, who is confident he eventually will join Evans in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. “The last two years, I was literally the next person (to be voted in) – and it’s getting old,” Cook said. “I guess it’s like the championship. I lost the championship twice before I won it. All I can tell you is when you lose it you want it even more.”

Evernham added that Evans’ untimely death in his prime – he already had clinched the 1985 championship – has served to reinforce his place in NASCAR lore.

“No different than Dale Earnhardt or James Dean,” Evernham said. “When a star is taken from you early, their life is cut short, this seems to fuel their legacy. Richie was a hero to many young guys like myself. He inspired us to go after that dream and to do it. He was a cool guy – the guy with the t-shirt and jeans and slicked-back hair – he had that kind of cool. He had that John Wayne kind-of-cool.

“Richie had a personality that made you like him and he was an incredible talent. His cars weren’t super-trick but he was a good racer and treated everybody fairly. A lot of young Modified racers end up racing the ghost of Richie Evans.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, March 3 2015
2 Comments

2 Comments »

  • Buster Maurer says:

    John

    Really good to hear from you. Thanks for the heads up. Fortunately the paper ran the article tonight. The article you wrote is super, I’m hoping the tv program will be the same. Hope all is well.

    Buster

    • John Sturbin says:

      Buster: Ray Evernham did a super job with this story _ finding Richie’s former Pinto, getting running buddy and crew chief Billy Nacewicz involved and bringing Jerry Cook and Rick Jarzombek into the project on the re-creation of his Chevy coupe. Ray’s knowledge of these Modifieds _ especially the little tricks Richie and Jerry employed in their hot rods _ was a bonus.
      Now, management of the Rome Sports Hall of Fame and Museum needs to figure out how to make that Cook car a permanent part of the facility,alongside Richie’s car currently on display.