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NASCAR Hall of Fame
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Evans long ruled the Modified realm

- sfowler@charlotteobserver.com
Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2012

The first three classes of NASCAR’s Hall of Fame mostly have been reserved for the giants of the sport’s top series – men with names like Earnhardt, Petty, Pearson and France.

In this year’s third induction class, though, is a man named Richie Evans. And if you only follow stock-car racing’s Sprint Cup series, right now you’re wondering: “Richie Who?”

But Evans’ posthumous induction this week in Charlotte is a victory for all the men who race on half-mile or smaller tracks and work on them at small garages for the joy of it. He is the only one of the 15 men so far elected into the sport’s hall with no ties to NASCAR’s top series.

“This induction just screams volumes about the importance of local level, short-track racing,” said Dick Berggren, who covered Evans for years, does NASCAR pit reporting for Fox Sports and serves as executive editor for Speedway Illustrated magazine.

Nicknamed the “Rapid Roman” because of his roots in Rome, N.Y., Evans never raced a single time in what is now the Cup series. He never got rich by racing, either. But he became the king of the NASCAR Modified division, where he won nine national championships during a 13-year period and established a reputation for both working and playing hard.

“Personality-wise, he was a lot like (the late NASCAR driver) Tim Richmond,” Berggren said. “Tim had people who wanted to be with him, be around him. Richie was like that, too. Tim could drive anything and win, and Richie could as well.”

Jimmy Spencer drove against Evans for several years in the Modified division before making his move to the Cup series. “He was one of the best drivers I’ve ever driven against, including (Dale) Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace and guys like that,” Spencer said. “Just an incredible competitor.”

Although Evans became a larger-than-life character in the world of low-slung, open-wheel NASCAR Modified stock cars, he never wavered from those small-town roots. He grew up on a dairy farm in upstate New York. Rome was his home base for decades until he died in a practice crash in Martinsville, Va., in 1985.

Evans’ cars always were orange, dating from early in his career when someone with a connection to his shop happened to “find” some extra paint the city of Rome used to paint its snowplows. That paint found its way onto Evans’ No. 61 car and eventually became his signature color.

A gifted mechanic, Evans worked on his own cars alongside his crew and frequently raced four times a week and up to 80-110 times a year. In those days, every NASCAR-sanctioned race was an opportunity to gain points. In some years – particularly during his streak of eight straight Modified championships in 1978-85 – a floppy-haired Evans won more than half the races he entered.

NASCAR credits Evans with an estimated 1,300 starts and 475 wins, but no one really knows for sure. A winner’s check for a typical Modified race back then was $2,500. Evans made enough to race full-time and live a comfortable lifestyle – moving South and trying out the Cup series never became a serious consideration.

Much like Earnhardt, Evans could be gracious or intense, depending upon his mood.

“He almost had a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign hung on his face before a big race,” said journalist Bones Bourcier, who wrote “Richie!” – a 2005 biography of Evans. “But when he was in the other mood, mostly after a race, there was no one more fun to talk to. He not only enjoyed a good party, often he was the party. And not the guy who was stumbling around. Richie was always in control. He liked to instigate.”

Evans was kind to other racers, giving them advice on how to set up their car or drive on a certain track even though they might beat him doing so.

“I would go and ask him for help sometimes,” Spencer said. “And he wouldn’t ever tell you ‘No.’ ”

In 1985, at age 44, Evans still was the king of Modified stock-car racing. He clinched his eighth consecutive national title in the next-to-last race of the year, then headed to Martinsville for what should have been a no-pressure season finale.

But during a practice run, Evans hit the wall head-on in a one-car accident. The prevailing theory has long been that his throttle stuck, but the evidence was inconclusive.

“The enduring mystery of the crash added to everybody’s grief,” Bourcier said. “As in Earnhardt’s case, when a guy reaches a certain level you don’t expect him to be killed in a relatively simple-looking crash.”

Twice married, Evans left behind six children. If he were alive today, he would be 70. And he undoubtedly would have been the life of the party once more at his Hall of induction in Charlotte this week.

Instead, those with a bent toward NASCAR history are left to educate the younger generation about how good Evans really was.

Said NASCAR driver Tony Stewart in a recent SPEED documentary on Evans: “He was what Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty are to the Cup Series. That’s what Richie Evans was to Modified.”

Scott Fowler: 704-338-5140; sfowler@charlotteobserver.com

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