Stewart-Haas Racing tire specialist carries on track's modified tradition (CIA Stock Photo)
Every trip to Martinsville Speedway brings the same routine for Jeff Zarrella. The tire specialist for Stewart-Haas Racing pulls out the orange T-shirt bearing the No. 61, and packs it away in the backpack he carries with him to the race track each day. And then, he hopes for another chance to return Richie Evans to Victory Lane at a place that once meant so much to modified racing.
He may work for Danica Patrick's race team these days, but deep down Zarrella will always be a modified racer -- and there was no greater modified racer than Evans, the nine-time national champion who was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame last year. And so much of Evans' legacy centers on Martinsville, a track that once hosted the Daytona 500 of modified racing, where Evans earned 10 feature victories -- and on a dark day in 1985, met his demise.
Zarrella was there, working on the team of driver Reggie Ruggerio. "Silence. Just silence," he said of the reaction when word began to spread that Evans had suffered a bad crash in practice. Zarrella would endure the same thing two years later when another modified great, Charlie Jarzombek, died at the same track. And then again when still another driver, Corky Cookman, was killed in Jarzombek's benefit race at Thompson Speedway in Connecticut.
Finally, he had suffered enough. Weighed down by grief, Zarrella walked away from racing, and turned what was supposed to be a two-week vacation in Hawaii into a new life in paradise. Ultimately, Martinsville drove him out.
And Martinsville brought him back.
And Martinsville still drives him, to this day.
"The special part of Martinsville remains in my heart," said Zarrella, a 55-year-old native of Southington, Conn., who now lives in North Carolina. "It just continues to be there."
The modified cars no longer compete at Martinsville, which Sunday hosts a crucial race in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. But for years, it held a modified event that was as big as any other on the sport's oldest touring circuit. "Our Daytona. Our holy grail," Zarrella called Martinsville, and he knows because he was there, starting as a tire specialist in 1975, and later as a jack man. He worked with Ruggerio, with Rick Fuller, with Greg Sacks, with Ed Flemke Sr. This was a golden age of modified racing, a time when top drivers could make a good living in the series, an era which produced stars that glowed as brightly in own their universe as Cale Yarborough or Darrell Waltrip did in theirs.
Zarrella shown working the jack in the pits at Martinsville
And foremost among them was Evans, whose charm and magnetism went unrivaled, who before each race would walk down the line of cars helping everyone ensure their vehicles would pass technical inspection, and yet at the same time joke they were all racing for second place. The Rome, N.Y., native was well-known for the advice he gave to other drivers, not to mention the firesuits, tires, or even engines he would dispense to other competitors in financial need. Evans was the rare driver who could dominate opponents while being universally beloved by them at the same time.
While Zarrella and Evans weren't particularly close friends, within the modified ranks the nine-time champion was hardly a stranger. "Knew him to go in and have a beer," Zarrella said. "We used to get our race cars from him. It wasn’t like me and him were best buddies hanging out. But he was somebody I looked up to, and his ethics and stuff, I tried to mirror. When they invented the word 'racer,' that’s who I think of."
All of which made Oct. 24, 1985, such a blow to the gut. Evans was practicing for a feature at Martinsville when he crashed heavily in Turn 3. At 44 -- and still near the peak of his career, given that he would clinch his ninth championship posthumously -- he was gone, and a garage area that revered him was left to wander through the remainder of the event weekend in shock.
"It was the most eerie feeling to go through," Zarrella remembered. "… There are so many ironies in it. It being a practice session that Richie got killed in -- now you've got to qualify, you've got to run the qualifying races, and then your whole race. It was surreal, is all I can say. It was like somebody just removes your soul. It was like ripping the heart right out of you."
Evans was bad enough. Then two years later, it was Jarzombek. Then it was Cookman. It was a dark time for modified racing, which was suffering a safety crisis similar to the one NASCAR's top series would endure after Dale Earnhardt's death. Zarrella had reached a breaking point. "Call it post-traumatic syndrome or whatever," he said, "I was like, 'I don't want to do this anymore. I don’t want to see Reggie Ruggerio get killed in a race car.'" He had gotten though it all by letting the racer in him take over. By 1988, it was all used up.
So he walked away, made a clean break, refused to even watch it on television. He went to Maui to visit his brother, on what was supposed to be a two-week vacation. He wound up moving to Hawaii, getting married, making a new home and a new life. And yet, he could suppress his true nature for only so long. By 1993, he was working some modified some races again. He found himself venturing to New Smyrna Beach, Fla., to help out his old buddies. "It's like smoking cigarettes," he said. "I had that one cigarette."
Then came the phone call from Fuller, who was moving south to drive in what is now the Nationwide Series for the 1997 season, and needed a tire specialist. A choice loomed -- stay in Maui, or go racing? "What do you think?" Zarrella asked his wife. "I'll go wherever you want to go," she answered. There was no choice, really. Fuller lasted only two races, but Zarrella kept moving up the ladder, from David Green to Greg Biffle to Paul Menard to Ryan Newman to this season and his current job managing tire sets and air pressures on Patrick's program.
"You know what? I can go back to Maui tomorrow," he said. "When you sit on your rocking chair at some point, you don’t want to say, 'Well, I wonder what I could have done in racing?' So I packed up my bags and came here."
Zarrella shown today as a member of Danica Patrick's team
Through it all, though, there was Martinsville, a place that holds for him and all former modified racers such a swirl of conflicting emotions. Zarrella carried the orange T-shirt with him each trip there, hoping to one day wear it in Victory Lane and give Evans one last triumph. On April 1 of last year, he got his chance. It was a race many remember for its controversial finish, David Reutimann stalling and bringing out a caution, Clint Bowyer forcing it three-wide on the ensuing restart, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon crashing out. It was the event that would lay the groundwork for the feud between Gordon and Bowyer that would erupt much later in the season.
To Zarrella, none of that mattered. Newman was an unlikely winner, but a winner nonetheless, and Zarrella put on his orange T-shirt and pointed to the sky in Victory Lane. "If I don’t ever win another race, I'm good with it. I want to win every race, but if the stars don’t line up and I never do, that was the race I needed to win. It was a real special moment. A lot of people wouldn’t understand it, but it was really important," he said.
"It's like I tell people, when Richie died in 1985, the music stopped in modified racing. And that deal there, on that stage, was just kind of a way for me to put another quarter in the jukebox."
Like a lot of former modified racers, the little half-mile track just has a hold over him, which is why Zarrella got such a thrill out of Patrick's unexpected 12th-place run there in the spring. The victory he shared there last year with Newman, though, will be difficult to top. That triumph earned him the grandfather clock trophy that stands in his living room. Every 15 minutes, it chimes. And it reminds him of Martinsville, and of Richie Evans.