By David Caraviello (NASCAR.com, May 5, 2012).
CONCORD, N.C. — Ray Evernham doesn’t yell at the television when he’s watching races at home. At least, not anymore.
“I’ve learned to not say anything until I know what’s going on,” said the three-time NASCAR championship crew chief, who is now a TV analyst. “The old me, you’d see something and be like, ‘Oh, what an idiot!’ But then you get a different view, and whoa — the idiot you thought there was, wasn’t. … So every time I watch a race now, I do it for two reasons — one because I’m a fan, and I love to watch, and to try to get better in my TV role.”
He removed his crew chief’s headset for the last time in late 1999, and he stepped down from his car ownership role following a turbulent 2008 campaign, but Evernham is still as much of a presence in this sport as he was when he was winning races with Jeff Gordon or Kasey Kahne. These days he wears more hats than ever, in between roles as an analyst for ESPN, operator of a short track, occasional driver of a sprint car, curator of his own vintage car collection, and owner of Ray Evernham Enterprises, a consulting and marketing company whose most notable client is also his old boss — Rick Hendrick.
Evernham last stood in a Cup Series Victory Lane in 2008, but his name still carries enough cache that he was the special guest at an event Friday at Charlotte Motor Speedway that matched mayors of area municipalities with drivers in the May 19 Sprint All-Star Race for a chance to win money for their respective school systems. Does he miss the every-week grind? It certainly doesn’t seem that way, especially when you consider how creative Evernham was as a crew chief, and how tight the rules package on the cars is today.
“I look at the box today, and it’s too tight for me,” he said. “I wasn’t brought up in that world. I thought the box I was in back then was too tight for me. I look at the challenges that a crew chief has today, and I look at it as a lot of work. I race because I love to race. I love to race cars, I love to come up with things, and I never looked at it as work. I’d look at it more as work in today’s world, and so I don’t think it would appeal to me as much.”
Not that he’s ever going back there — as much as fans pine for it sometimes whenever Gordon or Dale Earnhardt Jr. struggle, Evernham’s crew chief days are clearly behind him, something he’s made clear more than once. Of course, that didn’t keep some from dreaming when Evernham’s company started once again working with Hendrick, even if it was primarily only on the automotive side of the race team owner’s vast company. Evernham is producing some video projects to document Hendrick’s cars and history, working on some brand-building, and helping to develop some high-performance car parts.
But he’s purposefully refrained form getting his hands dirty on the motorsports side. “I really, honestly, stay away from the racing side for two reasons — when I go over there, I think everybody’s wondering, ‘Oh my gosh, what is he doing here?’ And second of all, I really want to be able to do my job for ESPN and be unbiased,” he said. “That’s hard to do for anybody who’s in that booth, because these people are your friends. … So I purposefully try to stay out of the Hendrick race shops so it doesn’t make that any more difficult.”
Of course, if there was a specific problem Hendrick Motorsports needed help with, and it requested his assistance, Evernham said he would step in. His ties to Hendrick are still very strong — Friday at the speedway, he couldn’t resist mentioning that he was seated in front of a die-cast of a No. 24 car, and that Charlotte was where he and Gordon had won their first race together. But even with his history and his accomplishments, he wonders how much he could really do.
“They don’t need my help. That’s just the way it is,” he said. “I enjoy the respect I get from most of the people over there from when I worked there, I enjoy seeing people and talking about the good old days. But they’re so good, I can’t sit here and say I could help them. That was a different time. What am I going to tell those guys that they don’t already know?”
He gets his competitive fix in other areas. Evernham started out as a driver before becoming a crew chief, and about a dozen times a year he straps himself into his spec sprint car and mixes it up on a dirt track. It’s a challenge, because he’s older than most of his fellow competitors, and he doesn’t have a dirt-racing background, and he came up in modifieds rather than sprint cars. But clearly, he loves it. He’s won a few times, too, including once on the famous sprint car track at Knoxville, Iowa — at 54 years old. “It’s crossing things off my bucket list,” he said.
When Evernham isn’t racing cars, he’s collecting them. He has about 70 vehicles in his shop in Mooresville, N.C., ranging from high-dollar vintage automobiles to rust buckets he’s pulled out of the woods. He has a weak spot for northeast modifieds, cars with personality, or anything that piques his interest on the Internet. “I’m bad with the eBay stuff,” he said, laughing. “Some of the stuff that I have has cost me more in fuel to go get them, because I buy some junk.”
It’s all a nice third act for someone who made the absolute most out of what in retrospect was a relatively small competitive window at NASCAR’s highest level — Evernham was a crew chief for only eight seasons, and a car owner for just eight more, yet in that span he won 62 races and a trio of championships, impressive numbers by any standard. And yet, the nominating committee for the NASCAR Hall of Fame seems to have forgotten it all, which is the only way to explain why, four years into the shrine’s existence, Evernham still cannot crack the list of 25 people considered for induction each year. When the most recent nomination list was released last month, he had been unforgivably omitted once again.
When the subject comes up, he’s composed and rational, just like he is these days when he’s watching races on TV.
“I hope and pray that one day I’ll be able to get in there,” Evernham said. “But in reality, I look at it and think that there’s so many people, there are so many people who are so deserving ahead of me. I know other people worry about it and they lobby and all that. It turns me off when somebody says, ‘I should be in.’ You know what? If in the end, people in this sport have thought enough of me, I’ll get in. If I’ve made a big enough difference, I’ll get in. But I can’t look at it and go, well, I should be in ahead of those people. Really, who says that?”
He’d have every right, given his accomplishments at the race track, his pioneering ways as a crew chief, and how he continues to remain an active proponent of the sport — all things the nominating committee supposedly looks for in a prospective candidate. Until Chad Knaus retires, there are only two names in the running for greatest crew chief of all time. One of them, eight-time champ Dale Inman, was inducted this year. The other can’t even get nominated, which is a galling oversight. If the omission angers or disappoints him, Evernham doesn’t show it.
“When I look at the list of the people who went in this year on the nomination list, I think — there’s no way I’m any more deserving than any of those people,” he said. “At some point, there’s only five people who can get in. I hope some day that I’m thought enough of to get in there, but I look at this sport and I’m sometimes in awe of the people who aren’t nominated who aren’t me. Other people. The good news is, hopefully over time, all the people who are deserving to get in will get in.”
And one of them should be Ray Evernham — crew chief, car owner, driver, consultant, analyst, collector, and short-track operator. At least, until he finds something else to add to the list.
Story at NASCAR.com.