CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It took one test at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1990 for Ray Evernham and Jeff Gordon to form a connection that would eventually become legendary.
No one could have foreseen exactly what the iconic duo would do in NASCAR that day, as Gordon took the track with Evernham watching.
But they knew there was something there.
“I came home from that test and I just said, ‘You’re not going to believe this guy,’ ” Gordon said. “ ‘This guy Ray Evernham, he had a clipboard and he’s writing down every word that I say’ … I didn’t know anything about springs or shocks – I mean, I was racing sprint cars and midgets. And he said, ‘well, it should do this.’ And I went in the corner and it did it. And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this guy’s a genius’ … We clicked immediately.”
The memories came flooding back into the walls of the Charlotte Convention Center on Friday evening, as five renowned figures were inducted into the 2018 NASCAR Hall of Fame. Introduced by his son Ray J., Gordon and Ben Kennedy, it was an emotional moment for Evernham, who joked that he had hoped he could get through his speech without crying, as that was “normally Jeff’s deal.”
“It’s really been incredibly hard to describe because I’ve tried to tell people it’s like a fire hose of emotion,” Evernham said. “Normally when something happens, it’s one or two emotions, but just about everything you could possibly feel, whether that’s happiness or sadness or pride or humbleness, it happens because when you start racing like I did and like Jeff did, you never really expect to get there – you dream about it and you work hard to get there and the whole time you’re doing it, you never really think you could make a mark in the sport that will get you at this level.
“I can tell you that it still really blows me away, to stand up on top of that stage and look at the banner and look at the people sitting there in front of me and I turn around and people are on their feet, clapping their hands. It’s very surreal, it’s like being in a movie.
“I thought, now I know how Rocky felt,” he said with a smile. “I can tell you it’s the greatest moment of my career.”
His career is certainly one filled with great moments; Evernham won three championships and 47 races with a young Gordon before forming his own Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series team, where he helped bring Dodge back into the sport. He also revolutionized the modern pit stop as a choreographed routine using skilled athletes. Dubbed the Rainbow Warriors, those pit crew members – made up of future crew chiefs Steve Letarte and Chad Knaus – forever changed the makeup of pit road in their colorful fire suits.
They were competitive, they were talented and they were groundbreaking. And they were steered by Evernham.
“At the time, we weren’t really trying to be great, we were really just trying to win races; win, win, win, win,” said Andy Papathanassiou, who was the Rainbow Warriors’ pit crew coach during Evernham’s tenure and currently serves as the director of human performance at Hendrick Motorsports. “And once we got rolling, our biggest competition was ourselves. And that was something that Ray always preached – it wasn’t about going after this team or that team. It was about doing the best that we could do … All the great leaders and all the great coaches always turn it inside to where teams are just competing against themselves and bringing out the best in each other and that’s what Ray did with us.”
Evernham’s influence, however, went beyond the race track. He and Gordon became close and remain friends to this day. The pair was even laughing and joking with one another on Friday as they fielded questions from the media following the ceremony.
“He’s buying,” Gordon said, grinning at the promise of post-ceremony drinks.
Evernham came into Gordon’s life at a time when no one knew his name; he simply was this young driver from California with a thin mustache and crazy talent for racing. Evernham helped make him a champion, and he also made him a leader.
“There’s just no words to describe it,” Gordon said. “And honestly, when we separated and he started his own team and I stayed at Hendrick, I never realized what an impact he made until then … But I realized years later what he taught me as a leader. He was a very strong, powerful leader that had their attention. I mean, they could be down and out and he had this way of bringing them up. And I didn’t have to be a leader; I had Ray. I just drove the car … So, I probably took that for granted a little bit, too. But when he left, it kind of shifted and more people started looking at me … so I had to step up. It made me a better person, a better race car driver, it made me appreciate him a lot more.
“Listen, we can have the great debate forever if Ray and I could have stayed together, what would we have gone on to do? And I think about that every once in a while because I know we would have won more races. I think we would have won more championships. But at the same time, I couldn’t be more proud of what he did as an owner, I’m proud of what I did as a driver, but I’m even more proud of who we are as friends today because of that ride that we went on.”
The ride they went on is one that will now be forever enshrined in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, as Evernham accepted his iconic blue jacket in front of many NASCAR’s greats.
“The Rainbow Warriors. Man, they’re the greatest ever,” Evernham said during his speech.
But so was he; he was an innovator, a strategist and a visionary.
And now, he’s a Hall of Famer.