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Caraviello: Among former competitors, the Evans legacy still lives

January 18, 2012, David Caraviello,

The 'King of the Modifieds' left Hall of Fame impact on former competitors

The first time Jimmy Spencer met Richie Evans was at Martinsville Speedway in 1979. Spencer was a 22-year-old just beginning to branch out from his native Pennsylvania, while the often unbeatable Evans was at the height of his career as "King of the Modifieds." An asphalt track had recently opened near Spencer's hometown, and the younger driver wanted to know how to procure old racing tires that he could sell to make some extra cash. Nobody would know better than Evans, so Spencer worked up the nerve to introduce himself to the godfather of NASCAR's oldest touring division.

The reply was vintage Evans. Tires? "I've got a garage full of 'em," he said. "Come on up."

Orange chariot

Richie Evans won regularly and won with style and grace, with a look all his own.

When in Rome

Known as the "Rapid Roman," Evans' legacy burns brightest in his upstate N.Y. hometown.

And before long Spencer was in Rome, N.Y., traipsing through Evans' shop, being shown through every nook and cranny as if the greatest modified racer ever had no secrets to hide. And all too often, he didn't, particularly if you were a young driver looking for a little direction, an up-and-comer looking for a little help, or a local track driver looking for a little advice. Evans may have won nine national championships and countless races before his untimely death, but it was his openness and his humanity that made him such a hero to so many of those he raced against. They all wanted to beat him, so, so badly. But they all loved and idolized him, as well.

At Friday night's induction of the 2012 class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Evans will be the only honoree not in attendance. He died in 1985, in a crash while practicing for a feature event at Martinsville. And yet, Evans left behind not only six children, but also an extended family of racers that took advantage of the trail the Rapid Roman blazed from the Northeast to the South. Evans never raced in what was his day's equivalent of the Sprint Cup circuit; although he had opportunities, he was financially secure and content where he was. But he helped make it possible for others of his era to go that route, drivers and mechanics and crew chiefs who would find their own places at NASCAR's highest level, thanks to the confidence they had built by watching Evans succeed, and the work ethic they had developed while competing against him.

"All the stuff he accomplished, all the wins that he had, all the championships he had -- when he was there, you always knew you had to step up your game," said Tommy Baldwin, who worked on his father's modified car on Long Island before becoming a Daytona 500-winning crew chief and eventually a Cup car owner. "We had that mentality. A lot of us had that mentality when we moved down here based on the tone he set. Our work ethic, things that we brought form the north, came from watching him and how hard we had to work to catch him."

On the race track he was a terror, his orange No. 61 car roaring to 475 victories, his legacy growing despite occasional squabbles with NASCAR and the conversion of his hometown track from asphalt to dirt. No question, the man had his rivals, drivers like Jerry Cook and Geoffrey Bodine with whom Evans not only didn't share information, but sometimes went out of his way to misdirect -- there are plenty of stories around upstate New York of Evans using a backup hauler to make Cook think he was headed to a different track than what he was. But to so many others, Evans was an inspiration, someone from simple beginnings who raced on his own terms and still became the greatest his division had ever seen.

"He was our Dale Earnhardt. Before I knew Dale Earnhardt, I knew Richie Evans," said Ray Evernham, who drove modified and sportsman cars before becoming a three-time champion crew chief in the Cup Series. "He was the guy who let you know that it was possible. He was a mechanic, he had a gas station, he was a guy who built his own race cars, and he went out and beat the big racers. He was national modified champion. It gave us hope more than anything, because we knew the door wasn't locked. If you were willing to work, and had some talent and some mechanical ability, you could get that door open and go race with the big guys. Being around Richie, being able to rub shoulders with Richie, gave a lot of people the hope and confidence to continue their racing careers."

He inspired confidence, and he provided advice. Evans recognized and understood his position within the modified ranks, and lived up to it by doing things like giving away his old firesuits or old tires to younger drivers, or walking the line of cars prior to technical inspection, helping other competitors ensure their vehicles were legal. He wasn't above giving away an engine to a driver low on funds. Other competitors flocked to him, trying to glean whatever knowledge they could.

"He used to take care of a lot of people, and answer a lot of questions," said Baldwin, who as a tribute to Evans wrapped both his modified and Cup cars in an orange paint scheme for races last year at New Hampshire. "He used to build maybe two or three chassis a winter for other race teams in different parts of the country. ... He tried to help other people as much as he could. He was way ahead of the curve back then, and he was helping the guys who were working hard, struggling, who weren't necessarily going to beat him, but who wanted to run better. The guys he was racing against ... the Geoff Bodines, the Jerry Cooks, they didn't help each other. But the other guys, when he'd travel to their areas, their short tracks, he used to help them as much as he could."

Evernham was one of those guys. The former crew chief remembers how much Evans taught him about matching tires; rather than just play with the air pressure to get the stagger necessary in modified cars, Evans would remove one tire and replace it with another of the appropriate size. He took no easy ways out, and it showed in his performance. But when it came to advice and friendship, few boundaries existed.

"Look, I was a nobody. I would run 10th in the races Richie would win," Evernham said. "But in the bar, or after the races with a beer, Richie was the same. He didn't care if you were a 10-time champion. He treated everyone the same. He always spoke to us, he always answered my questions, and he had time for a kid from New Jersey that was running in 10th place and asking him a dumb question. One time he thought my girlfriend was attractive, and we talked about trading my girlfriend for a backup car. That's how we became friends, actually. It was only a joke. I wasn't really going to trade her. But if he was serious, I might have thought about it. His cars were good."

Evans' advice, though, wasn't unlimited. Spencer remembers asking for help frequently as he climbed the career ladder in modifieds. One day, Evans gave him a different answer: "I don't think you need any more help. You're doing good," he told the younger driver. To be viewed as competitive by the King of the Modifieds, Spencer remembered, was an affirmation, and his confidence only grew as a result.

"We'd always look to Richie for answers. To me, he was our hero in the modifieds," said Spencer, who went on to enjoy a long career in the Cup Series, where he won twice. "No matter what race track you went to, in the driver's meeting he was socializing. He was very easy to get along with. He never had that, 'I'm better than you guys' attitude. I think that's why he was so accepted in our sport as a legend, as a hero, because of that image he carried."

In the end, though, Evans' greatest contribution to his fellow competitors might have been helping so many of them reach a level he never did. Evans may have never started a Cup Series race, but he won two full-bodied modified events stocked with the biggest NASCAR stars of the day. He'd venture off to Martinsville, or Kingsport, Tenn., or New Smyrna Beach, Fla., stretching the modified footprint a little more each time. Spencer, Baldwin, Evernham, Steve Park, Mike McLaughlin, Greg Zipadelli -- so many others followed, eventually knocking down the door that Evans had cracked open. The notion that modified drivers and mechanics couldn't cut it down south, where the cars had fenders, became as fleeting as the wind.

"It goes back to confidence," Evernham said. "There were a lot of good racers up there, but you were always somewhat of intimidated by the people in the South, because of who they were. I remember, it took a friend of mine ... to tell me, 'Look, you're good enough to make it down here. You need to move.' I was like, there's no way I could make it down there. I am not good enough to make it as a mechanic with those guys down there. You're intimidated. I think Richie provided that confidence that guys were good enough to go down there and race."

Which is why, when Evans is formally inducted into NASCAR's Hall of Fame on Friday night, all the former modified racers of his day will stand a little prouder. The King of the Modifieds will be the first driver from outside the sport's premier division to merit a place in the shrine. As usual, leave it to Richie Evans to be the first to break through.

"We all lived a part of his legacy," Baldwin said. "We all had to compete against him. We all had a piece of watching his history. We've all been a part of it, and we've all learned from it."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.