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Inside NASCAR: Evans' legacy burns brightest in hometown

January 18, 2012, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Richie Evans' home track of Utica-Rome Speedway in Vernon, N.Y., still flies a flag in his honor during races. (Turner Sports New Media)

NASCAR Hall of Famer Richie Evans' legacy burns brightest in his hometown

ROME, N.Y. -- Chunks of stucco are missing near the roofline, and the weather-beaten garage bay door has clearly seen better days, but the white building on Calvert Street has always been less about outward appearance than the product crafted within. Late on a weekday afternoon, tools clang and welding torches flash as men mold iron bars and metal sheeting into vehicles built for speed. In the center of the shop floor is a reconditioned modified race car, its sleek and menacing front end receiving a fresh coat of polish. The colors are familiar shades of orange and black, and a small, commemorative number under the window opening is the same as the address above the front door.

61.

It's owned by someone else now, and still functions as an active race shop, but to the people in this city an hour east of Syracuse, it will always be Richie Evans' garage. The cars that won nine NASCAR modified championships, claimed nearly 500 feature victories, and launched the career of the first Hall of Fame driver from outside the sport's premier series were spawned from a building where a few of Evans' personal effects -- some pairs of shoes, newspaper clippings, reputedly a bowling ball -- are still stashed in the attic. Above one doorway are dozens of small holes, where the corks from Victory Lane champagne bottles were tacked up after a win. One wall used to hold the payphone that was rigged to give Evans his money back after each call. Back in what's now the parts room, there was once a fridge always stacked with Pabst Blue Ribbon.

"He was comfortable ... He would have never left [for Cup]. He would have never left Rome. He didn't need to.""

--JODI EVANS MEOLA

His old office may now be a storage area for race tires, and gone are the days when Evans once used the spent oil from his race cars to heat the shop in the wintertime, but his presence still inhabits this place, as if he had just stopped by yesterday. That's the way it is everywhere in Rome, where Evans' favorite bar still stands, where his car number is ubiquitous, where locals will tell you about the times Evans would take his modified out on Erie Boulevard for a test run, and the cops would only shake their heads. He died 26 years ago in a crash while practicing for an event at Martinsville Speedway, but the Richie Evans legacy is alive and well in a hometown where he was so beloved, and so comfortable, not even the lure of NASCAR's Cup Series could coax him away.

"I don't think he would have ever left Rome, to be honest. You may get different answers from other family members, but I don't think he would have ever left Rome," said Jodi Evans Meola, the oldest of Evans' six children. "He was comfortable. His garage was in Rome, and everybody in Rome knew who he was, and I think everyone in Rome admired him as a good guy. He would have never left. He would have never left Rome. He didn't need to."

He certainly had his opportunities, never more so than the day in 1979 when Gene DeWitt, owner of the road construction company that backed Evans' race cars, arrived at the Calvert Street shop in a limousine. Evans was at the peak of his career, and DeWitt was interested in bringing his operation to NASCAR's premier series. But Evans wasn't interested in going along, remembered Art Newman, a friend who was working on the windows of the garage bay door when DeWitt pulled up. The reasons why all seemed to revolve around the levels of success, security and contentment Evans had reached in his hometown.

"When he was at the garage, and when he was in Rome, he always said to me: 'After I go up that hill ... and go down, I'm Richie Evans the race car driver. When I come home, and I come back over that hill, I'm Richie Evans,' " recalled Newman, who is such an admirer of Evans that he has incorporated 61 into both his telephone number and car license plate. "Not the race car driver, just Richie Evans. When he went over that bridge, he knew it was a different life."

At short tracks around New York and the Northeast, Evans was a rock star, his car often surrounded by hundreds of fans when promoters opened the pits after a race. In Rome he could just hang out with his crew at their usual haunt, the Rusty Nail, where the flagpole in front flew an orange No. 61 flag above checkered flags representing each of his race wins. He could go into the back room of another local bar, the Eagle, with a gin and tonic and a bucket of quarters and play pinball until the coins ran out. He could go out to dinner and be largely unbothered, live on his own terms in his two-story home near Delta Lake, where he kept a pontoon boat painted the same bright orange color as his race car. Moving to NASCAR's national level would mean leaving much of that behind, a trade that by all accounts Evans seemed unwilling to make.

"He told me one time, 'I can come in here and have a drink and visit with you. If I'm in Richmond, Va., or Martinsville and you go in for a drink, you're swamped,' " said Dick Waterman, former owner of Utica-Rome Speedway, the track where Evans got his start. "I think familiarity helps. I'm sure some of the towns the movie stars live in, people are used to seeing them in the grocery stores and other places, and they aren't bothered. Whereas when they're out in the public, they're just plain swamped."

Richie Evans' former race shop at -- appropriately -- 61 Calvert St. in Rome, N.Y., is still an active facility where modified cars and racing snowmobiles are built. (Turner Sports New Media)

In his hometown, Evans never had that problem, despite how much he was universally admired and beloved. He traveled the country, of course, often racing as many nights of the week as he could, rolling that No. 61 into victory lanes from Daytona Beach, Fla., to Oxford Plains, Maine, and so many places in between. But for Richie Evans, there was always one constant. There was always the familiarity of the Rusty Nail, of the kids, of the garage on Calvert Street. For Richie Evans as for the ancient Caesars, all roads led back to Rome.

Favorite son

Located on the banks of the Mohawk River, a short drive from where the land begins to rise up toward the Adirondacks, Rome is the kind of city where a drive-in theatre still plays first-run features, and the postman often covers his route on foot. The writer of the Pledge of Allegiance, Francis Bellamy, is from here, as are Roots author Alex Haley and basketball coach Pat Riley. The Rome Sports Hall of Fame and Museum features a varied collection that includes the powerboats of champion Dave Packer and outfits worn by local Olympians.

The centerpiece, though, is over in one corner -- a shiny, orange No. 61 modified car that was built on Calvert Street, and looks ready to roll out onto the race track. "This is our biggest draw," says Ruth Demers, the museum's executive director. Part of a larger exhibit that also includes photographs, trophies and a video presentation, the vehicle was purchased years ago from a collector in Buffalo, and is also the only artifact the nonprofit museum has ever paid for. "We wanted it," Demers said, "because it was such an important part of Rome history."

"He had different people from all walks of life who supported him, who worked for him for free, who followed him all up and down the East Coast."

--DICK WATERMAN

It's just one more example of how much Evans still means to his hometown, even more than two decades after he was cut down at age 44. The nine-time champion of NASCAR's oldest division remains very much an unknown quantity in those parts of the country where modified cars are an unfamiliar sight, and his election in June to the third class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame raised more than a few skeptical eyebrows from those who wondered if he belonged alongside multiple-time Cup champs Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip. But in Rome, none of those doubts exist. In Rome, Evans remains simply the greatest there ever was.

That reputation was built on the race track, of course, on top of all those feature victories and all those track championships, but it was burnished to a high sheen by the unparalleled magnetism of the man himself. Like anyone, he had his flaws. His racing career was so all-encompassing he often missed birthdays or graduations, something his children came to accept as part of the life their father had chosen. But by and large, Romans remember Evans as a charming, charitable figure who loved to win races and party with his friends afterward, and attracted people to him like moths to a light. He had a whole crew, the Rusty Nail gang, that traveled with him almost everywhere he went, and helped out with the race car however they could. Almost all of them were unpaid. But they did it anyway, because Evans meant that much to them.

"I think there was only one person that he ever really paid," Meola said. "Everybody else, they just all wanted to come down and be part of it. They'd give up their weekend, they'd give up their evenings. 'Rich, what do you need? Let me do this for you.' "

Waterman remembered that Evans always had more crew members than anyone else. "He was a great motivator, for one thing," the former track owner said. "He had different people from all walks of life who supported him, who worked for him for free, who followed him all up and down the East Coast, who drove his haulers and everything and helped him in many, many ways. He seemed to have that kind of a personality."

Newman was one of those people. He had a window business, and first met Evans doing work at a service station the racer owned. Soon enough, he was cleaning the race car. That level of devotion existed from the garage to the grandstands. "People loved him," Newman said. "He could go to the track and win and win and win, and they'd never boo him. Then they'd all used to come around the car. They'd have 200 people around the car. The guy up on the mic would say, 'Richie, would you please go home so we can turn the lights out?' That's a true story. He had his own army of fans. It was a sea of orange around the car."

They loved Evans from the beginning, before DeWitt's sponsorship, before the driver emerged as the phenomenon he would become. An iron pot hung over the bar at the Rusty Nail, and patrons would toss their change into it after buying a drink. Eventually they'd take it down, pour out the coins, and use the money to buy tires or racing fuel for Evans' car. Once they didn't have money for paint, so a member of Evans' crew broke into the local highway department and swiped the only color available -- bright orange, which would become his trademark. Later in his career, Evans was using the payphone in his shop so often to talk to race promoters, a friend at the phone company installed a switch that would return to the driver whatever money he had put in.

Several locals recall seeing Evans' modified car roar up and down Erie Boulevard, Rome's main drag, on a test run. The police would simply ask him to please take it back to the garage. "Everyone liked him," said Waterman, from the nearby town of Camden. "He got away with a lot that a lot of other guys might not have. He ran the service station for many years before he started [racing] full time, so he knew about every police officer in town. He was kind of a devil-may-care guy, but they all liked him, and I'm sure gave him some breaks some others wouldn't get."

He liked to push the limits on anything, like the time he brought snowmobiles to Daytona Beach and tried to ride them on the sand. "Even taxes," remembered Meola, his oldest daughter. "He'd be late paying taxes, and they'd come down to the garage and say, 'Rich, you've got to pay the taxes. Today is the last day.' And he'd say, 'All right, I'll be down.' He'd just push it. He'd wait until they had to call and ask for it."

To his kids, the level of adulation their father received in Rome sometimes bordered on embarrassing. Meola remembers forgetting her lunch before an elementary school field trip to Cooperstown, and having her father deliver it -- in the big orange hauler that transported his race car. "All the kids were like, 'Oh my God, look at that!' I was like, did he really have to show up in the hauler?" she said. "Everyone thinks it's so cool, and I'm humiliated."

But there was a reason why, when Utica-Rome Speedway allowed local kids to ride along with drivers, Evans always had the longest line. Everybody wanted to ride with Rome's favorite son, and they clung onto any available space on his vehicle. "Richie's car used to look like a porcupine, because every kid wanted to ride with him," Waterman remembered. "They got in the other cars just because they had to to get a ride. But Richie's car, they were sticking out every end of it."

Those feelings of goodwill did not go unreturned by a man who understood his position in his community, and was willing to help those as he had been helped early in his career. Evans gave old firesuits and old tires to younger drivers, and at race tracks he would go up and down the line of modified cars, helping to ensure his competitors' vehicles were legal -- and at the same time, joking that none were good enough to beat him. One time another driver showed up at Calvert Street and explained that he didn't have enough money to buy an engine. Evans pointed to a row of them on a shelf. "Just pick one and take it home," he said. He wasn't above diagnosing problems with friends' passenger cars. When a local pizza shop burned down, Evans gave the owner some money to rebuild. If you can pay me back one day, great, Evans told him. If you can't, you can't.

No wonder Evans stirred such devotion in a city that wrapped its arms around him and never let go. No wonder someone like Doug Zupan, a native of nearby Oneida, became an Evans devotee after seeing the racer compete just once, and despite the fact that Evans was killed when Zupan was just 5 years old. Evans' accomplishments on the race track are what made him a NASCAR Hall of Famer. But his personality and his actions outside the car helped him become so universally beloved in and around his hometown.

Richie Evans got his start in racing at Utica-Rome Speedway, where he won four championships before the asphalt surface was replaced with dirt. (Turner Sports New Media)

"He's always been my hero," said Zupan, now the historian at Utica-Rome Speedway. "For me as a person, and someone who's involved in racing, I've tried to live my life in the same way that he did, with his dedication to racing and being good to people, and helping people who helped him over the years. I've always tried to be just like that."

Sunday night lights

The passion for Richie Evans reached its peak on Sunday nights, when the lights turned on at Utica-Rome Speedway and the locals came out to see their favorite driver try to win another race at his home track. Evans and other top modified drivers would travel up and down the East Coast on weekdays, looking for whatever events paid cash and championship points, but Sundays always meant coming home. Utica-Rome is the place where Evans got his start, the place where Evans became a star, and the place where his legacy is symbolized in the orange No. 61 banner that flies alongside the American and Canadian flags anytime there is activity on the track.

It may have been converted from asphalt to dirt in 1979, it may not have held a NASCAR-sanctioned race since 1998, but Utica-Rome is still very much Richie's old race track, just as much as 61 Calvert St. is his old garage. Located about 15 miles south of Rome in the town of Vernon, the "Action Track of the East" still holds events on Sunday nights, just as it did in Evans' day. Evans won 33 races and four track titles in a somewhat abbreviated career here, and his photo hangs on a wall in the track office. The 61st lap of every race at Utica-Rome is sponsored -- naturally -- in memory of Richie Evans.

"Richie is just so much a part of our history. The younger generation, you say Richie Evans, they all know who he is.""

--BARB CLARK

"Richie is just so much a part of our history," said Barb Clark, the track's director of operations. "The younger generation, you say Richie Evans, they all know who he is. With him being inducted into the Hall of Fame, his name is out there more and more. We're just very honored to be a part of Richie's history."

On Sunday nights from the mid-1960s to the late 1970s, it seemed half of Rome would be at the speedway to watch Evans race, and the fans never tired of seeing him win. "You know a lot of times you go to a track and the same guy keeps winning, and they boo him? Like they did with Jeff Gordon? As many as times as Richie Evans won, they still loved him," Newman said. "Even if you were a Jimmy Spencer fan or a Geoff Bodine fan, they still loved Richie. They never booed him. When he went out there on that track, when they pushed that big orange out there, they knew that guy was the one to beat."

His reputation as a fan favorite was matched by his reputation behind the wheel. Other top drivers, Waterman remembered, would need 10 laps to get by a car Evans could overtake in one. "He had an uncanny way of anticipating things," the former track owner said. And Evans raced clean. "He was the Mark Martin of modified racing," Waterman added. "He never had to push anybody out of the way. He'd give you a couple of laps, and maybe if you didn't move, he'd help you a little bit. But he didn't wreck you. He just had that reputation."

Evans' success at Utica-Rome, though, was curtailed somewhat by forces beyond his control, as well the NASCAR policies of the day. He won many more races at places like Shangri-La Speedway in Owego, N.Y., Spencer Speedway in Williamson, N.Y., and even New Smyrna Speedway in Florida. Evans was an asphalt racer, and after Waterman sold Utica-Rome in 1979, the new owner converted the half-mile layout to dirt, which it remains today. Suddenly Evans no longer had a home track, and those orange-clad legions had to drive much longer distances to see their hero compete.

"All of his local fans who had gone to Utica-Rome forever, they now had to travel," said Zupan, the track historian. "You couldn't see him race in central New York anymore unless you went all the way to Rochester to Spencer. ... You had to literally go to New England, or to Rochester, or to Buffalo out by Lancaster to see the guy race. That really, really, did a number on his career. Yeah, it helped spread him out to a lot of other regions, but a lot of his fan base who had been able to follow him weren't able to follow him anymore. It shared Richie Evans with a lot of other people, and they got to see how awesome he was. At Utica-Rome, though, there was a love-hate relationship."

Yet even before the conversion to dirt, there were other issues that kept Evans off his home track. For two years, the place shut down. And for two years Evans was suspended by NASCAR, a punishment that stemmed from his participation in "outlaw" events on non-sanctioned speedways. Drivers often went wherever the money was, and that sometimes meant leaving track promoters in the lurch. If rain threatened at Utica-Rome, for example, it wouldn't be unusual for some drivers to find other tracks where the weather promised to be drier, and enter those events using assumed names. And if it meant reneging on a promise to compete in a NASCAR-sanctioned race because of bigger money being dangled by an outlaw event, so be it.

"It was always kind of a running battle," Waterman said. "Drivers would do things to you, like enter a big event, a 100-lapper, and they'd send in entry forms for them and not show up. You'd use their name in advertising, and then look like an idiot."

At Utica-Rome, the suspension was controversial to say the least. Other drivers may have reveled in the chance to win races without Evans around, but promoters were caught in between NASCAR chairman Bill France's edict, and fans who wanted to see their favorite driver back on the track. "It was one of those things that happened that a promoter had no control over," Waterman said. "Bill France looked at it one way, and Richie Evans looked at it another, and [Evans] just wasn't going to conform. He would do things to try and annoy you in some ways."

Pushing it to the limit was an Evans trademark, inside and out of the car. For the old full-bodied modified race at Daytona, Waterman once came up with a promotion that gave drivers a little extra money if they ran the name of his speedway on the side of their car. Evans did it, and qualified for the cash -- but with letters so small they weren't even visible at 150 mph. During his suspension, he once entered his car in Utica-Rome's biggest event, the New Yorker 400, with driver Eddie Flemke in the seat. Since Evans wasn't allowed in the race track, the car was pitted from the parking lot, and Flemke won the race. Evans was still the King of the Modifieds, after all. Not even a suspension could change that.

Richie Evans is laid to rest in the hamlet of Westernville, NY, where he grew up, just outside of Rome. (Turner Sports New Media)

"He had so much power over NASCAR, he had so much power over the promoters," Zupan said. "He was the golden guy, but especially at Utica-Rome."

Safe at home

Richie Evans' final resting place is a well-tended cemetery behind a Presbyterian church in Westernville, the village outside Rome where he grew up. It's not far from his boyhood home, a modest gray house atop a nearby hill. The handsome headstone features an etched image of his race car, mentions his nine championships, and is flanked on either side by American and checkered flags. At one time, it wasn't unusual for fans -- sometimes busloads of them -- to stop by and pay respects, and perhaps leave behind a Pabst Blue Ribbon can in remembrance.

Evans achieved so much over the course of his illustrious career, and yet his premature passing at age 44 leaves so many questions unanswered. His children wonder how he might still be involved in racing today. His fans wonder how many more feature events and track championships he might have won. So many others wonder if he ever would have succumbed to the lure of NASCAR's premier division, and what he might have been capable of had he made the leap.

Evans to Hall


Richie Evans is announced as a member of the 2012 Class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

"You know what I always say in my heart? If he had went up there, he would have outshined them all, in my opinion," Newman said. "I always say, thank the Lord he didn't go up. The way he ran, and speed didn't bother him, and he built his own cars -- he knew what he was driving. I think he would have won a couple more championships up there, I really do. In my opinion, I think he would have won rookie of the year and the championship. That's how good he was."

That's not an uncommon sentiment in Rome, where Evans was considered one of NASCAR's greatest drivers long before he was elected to the sport's Hall of Fame. There's a bias, of course, and an understandable one given the connection so many in this city feel to him. But modified hotbeds such as this one also have a greater appreciation for what that division is, and chafe at the notion that Evans raced in a minor league. His children still field questions over whether their father was some kind of weekend warrior who supported his racing with a day job. That Evans never made a start in what are now known as the Nationwide or Sprint Cup tours skews the perception of a driver who earned $104,306 in his final season, as much as Phil Parsons made for finishing 21st in Cup points.

Like other top modified racers of his era, chief rival Jerry Cook among them, he was comfortable and financially secure where he was. Evans had chances to move into NASCAR's premier division, and he passed. That he won two full-bodied modified races at Daytona International Speedway against stacked fields that included several of the Cup stars of his day only adds credence to the notion that he could have made it at that level had he wanted. But clearly, he didn't. Racing multiple times a week, playing the part of the cagey veteran who helped out newcomers, basking in the support system Rome provided him -- he loved it all too much to leave it.

"He could have made a hell of an impression up there," said daughter Janelle Evans Walda. "He could rise to the top in whatever he wanted to do. I think he knew that. We saw he was happy doing what he was doing, staying here and having fun. Having fun is what it was all about. I mean now, I don't know if there is any race car driver now who can tell you they're having fun. They're there to win and make money."

"He had some desire there, but he was perfectly content racing modifieds," added Zupan, the Utica-Rome Speedway historian. "He was on the top of his game, he had a young family. He was the king of what he was doing -- what more could he have really wanted? He certainly had his opportunities. He probably could have had more had he wanted to. But he proved he could go down there and do that. He won a couple of times in Daytona. He could do anything he wanted to do."

The Hall of Fame selection brings the validation. While many NASCAR fans were surprised to hear Evans' name called as part of just the third enshrinement class, in Rome the honor seemed long overdue. It's not difficult to find people here who felt Evans should have been chosen in year one -- among them his children, who gathered in front of the television in October 2009 with a champagne bottle that would go unopened, and then watched all the interviews take place with their dad's orange No. 61 car in the background. They suffered the same disappointment the next year when the second class was unveiled.

A cutout of Richie Evans stands next to one of his race cars in the Rome Sports Hall of Fame. He will be enshrined into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in January. (Turner Sports New Media)

Richie Evans Biography

• The recognized king of modified racing, Richie Evans won nine NASCAR modified titles in a 13-year span, including eight in a row from 1978-85.
• Nicknamed the "Rapid Roman," Evans' career accomplishments included multiple track championships across the Northeast and hundreds of victories -- including a 37-win season during a stretch of 60 modified races in 1979.
• In the first year of the current NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour format in 1985, Evans won 12 races, including wins in four of five races at Thompson, Conn.
• Evans was fatally injured on Oct. 24, 1985, during a practice crash at Martinsville Speedway.
• Evans ranked No. 1 in the 2003 voting of the NASCAR All-Time Modified Top 10 Drivers, and he was named one of NASCAR's 50 Greatest Drivers in 1998.
• On June 14, 2011, Evans was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, joining Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Inman and Glen Wood in the Class of 2012. Evans received 50 percent of the vote.

"The third year, I had a feeling," Meola said. In June, the cork was popped at last. As soon as NASCAR chairman Brian France uttered the phrase "nine-time champion" -- there's only one -- the secret was out. Cell phones began ringing, celebratory text messages were exchanged. Talk began of organizing bus trips to Charlotte for the January induction ceremony. The day after her father's Hall of Fame selection, Meola went to work and discovered she had received congratulatory emails from people she didn't even know. But they knew Richie Evans. In Rome, they all do.

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