Richard Ernest “Richie” Evans certainly was the face of NASCAR – and modified racing – in the northeast, winning an estimated 475 times in approximately 1,300 starts. It equates to a win in every three starts (a 36.5% clip), something unheard of in modern racing at any level.
Evans will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Friday, one of five members of the Hall’s third class comprised of the New York native, legendary crew chief Dale Inman, team owner Glen Wood and NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champions Darrell Waltrip and Cale Yarborough. He is the first of 15 inductees without a connection to NASCAR’s premier series.
The 2012 enshrinement ceremony kicks off NASCAR Acceleration 2012 weekend, which includes the NASCAR Preview 2012 Presented by Sprint, where fans can interact with the sport’s legends and current stars in person, get autographs and catch a sneak peek at the upcoming season. Fans can go to NASCARacceleration2012.com for more information.
Nicknamed the “Rapid Roman” by virtue of racing out of Rome, N.Y., he found a home in the modifieds – a car fashioned from pre-World War II coupes and sedans powered by high horsepower engines.
Evans won nine NASCAR national modified championships over a 13-year span, including eight consecutive titles from 1978-85. His signature No. 61 orange race car was a magnet for fans and a terror to his fellow competitors.
He worked on his own cars – up to 100 hours a week – and raced virtually every night of the week.
“Working with the car and working on it in the garage every week is an advantage,” Evans once said. “While I’m working on the car, I’m thinking about every lap I rode in that thing. It’s not like the mechanic who stood and watched it during the feature and then has to make some decisions.”
Evans lost his life at age 44 while practicing at Martinsville Speedway for the 1985 season finale of the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour. He’d earlier locked up the series’ first championship along with a fourth consecutive Whelen All-American Northeast Region title.
He was named one of NASCAR’s “50 Greatest Drivers” in 1998.
On Jan. 10, the New York State Senate adopted a resolution honoring Evans’ NASCAR Hall of Fame induction “remembering his extraordinary accomplishments in the racing area that were a direct result of his skill, dedication and commitment.”
“We are just so thrilled and excited. He has received a lot of rewards but this is the ultimate,” said his widow, Lynn, commenting on her husband’s election to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. “I know he is looking down and smiling ear to ear.”
Evans, one of six brothers and sisters, left his family’s Westernville, N.Y. home at the age of 16 to work as a gas station mechanic. In 1964 Evans began racing hobby stocks at Utica-Rome Speedway.
Evans’ first NASCAR championship came in 1973 – after a number of seasons winning race after race regardless of sanctioning body. The title snapped a two-year reign by fellow Rome resident Jerry Cook, who won four more championships before Evans reclaimed a crown in 1978 that he relinquished only after his passing.
The Evans-Cook rivalry was legendary – although they weren’t the only prominent figures in NASCAR modified racing, which included future NASCAR Sprint Cup star Geoffrey Bodine, Maynard Troyer, Ron Bouchard, Bugs Stevens, George Kent and Tom Baldwin Sr.
But they lived in the same town and each had a separate set of fans. Evans and Cook got along fine; the fans, however, were a different story. And they won every NASCAR Modified Series championship between 1971 and 1985.
The two also had distinctly different personalities. “The only thing we had in common was racing and there were times we didn’t even talk to each other,” said Cook, who became a NASCAR official following a racing career that ended in 1982 with nearly 350 victories. Cook currently is NASCAR’s Competition Administrator. “But we put on a show with it.
“He didn’t win everything. I beat him and other drivers beat him so it wasn’t like he won every single thing. But he did real well at it, that’s for sure.”
Evans won regularly and won with style and grace. He also was a promoter’s dream, his presence putting hundreds of additional folks in the grandstands.
“He was a hard-core guy, racing to put food on the table,” said John Bisci, a high school student who watched Evans race at Lancaster Speedway in New York and became the track’s program editor in 1976. Bisci is Public Relations Manager at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. “You could talk to him any time. After the races he would give you an autograph and never said, ‘I’m too busy kid; come back later.’
“No matter how many times he won, nobody booed. He never disparaged the other drivers and told the fans, ‘I’m glad you were cheering for me.’ He was a ‘party guy’ but when it came time to race he was all business.”
NASCAR Sprint Cup owner Tommy Baldwin Jr., whose father competed against Evans, brought his No. 36 car to a recent event with an Evans retro paint scheme. “Richie was someone we all looked up to and when he came to town we knew we had to beat him to win,” said Baldwin. “He made us work harder and I think that prepared a lot of us for the Sprint Cup level.”
The color orange may not have made Evans’ cars go any faster – but it probably gave him a psychological edge in an era when few race cars were brightly painted. “He had a fast orange car in a sea of stock Detroit colors. There was no mistaking him for anyone else,” said Bisci. “You’d see him in the rear view mirror and you knew it was him that was coming.”