Among the five NASCAR legends to be inducted into the 2012 class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Friday, the only one not in attendance will be New Yorker Richie Evans, who was tragically killed while practicing at Martinsville Speedway for the 1985 season finale of the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour aged just 44.
Known as the 'Rapid Roman,' Evans was the indisputable king of the modified class, with a record nine titles in 13 years, including a streak of eight consecutive titles between 1978 and 1985, with a 36.5% win rate which is simply unheard of in the modern era.
Named one of NASCAR's “50 Greatest Drivers” in 1998 despite having never raced in the top flight, his legacy will be immortalized in the Hall of Fame along with legendary crew chief Dale Inman, team owner Glen Wood and Cup Series champions Darrell Waltrip and Cale Yarborough.
“He was our Dale Earnhardt. Before I knew Dale Earnhardt, I knew Richie Evans,” said Ray Evernham, who competed against Evans before becoming a successful team owner 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.”
“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.”
That Evans' iconic orange #61, affectionately known as the 'Orange Chariot' remains to this day the only number ever to have been retired from any level of NASCAR competition is testament to Evans' incredible feats.
“Richie Evans was an original, colorful personality, and there has been no one like him since,” said veteran NASCAR reporter Dick Berggren.
“The driving certainly was a big part of him, but the fun-loving Richie Evans was also a huge portion of who he was. I don't think I've ever seen a guy who was more popular in the grandstands than Richie. He brought people to the grandstands who were thrilled with watching him race, but he also brought people who just wanted to see this outrider, this guy who was so different from so many of the others. The stories, even without embellishment, are hard to imagine in today's world.
“For all the screwing around he did, when he pulled the helmet on, he changed. The switch flipped. He became a hard-nosed competitor who was completely focused on where his car was in relation to everyone else's, getting it to the front and keeping it there.”
SPEED analyst and twice modified champion Jimmy Spencer agrees.
“When he put his helmet on, it was all business and he didn't care about anything but racing. He reminded me a lot of Dale Earnhardt in that respect. When Richie put that helmet on, he had no friends. He was there to win the race and was one of the best I've ever raced against. You knew if you beat Richie, you beat the best.”
“There always was drama around Richie,” adds Berggren.
“The race I remember the most was the Martinsville race where he and Geoff Bodine tangled with a couple of laps to go and literally bounced off of each other for two laps at the finish. They came across the line crashing with Richie winning the race and Bodine finishing second – both cars steaming hunks of metal in the infield. It was a beautiful thing. They both felt they had to drive that hard to beat the other.
“I know people who sat in that grandstands that day who still say that was the closest to a stock car race they ever saw, and without Richie, they wouldn't have had that.”
Evans was rare in that he won a lot of races, yet his popularity remained impeccable.
“Look, I was a nobody. I would run 10th in the races Richie would win,” continues Evernham. “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.”
Evans' addition to the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Spencer believes, gives hope to those racing in the lower ranks of the sport.
“Putting Richie Evans in the NASCAR Hall of Fame solidifies the Hall of Fame,” he said.
“It shows all these guys racing from California to Maine to Florida they can make a name for themselves if they want to stay in NASCAR. They can become a Hall of Fame member. His presence brings attention to the great drivers that have come up through the years and notoriety to NASCAR from all across the country, and it rounds out NASCAR's history.”