Steven Cole Smith
Steven Cole Smith Contributor
11/30/19 9:00 a.m.

 

Story by Steven Cole Smith • Photography as Credited

 

Photography Credit: Dave Green

 

First, there’s that engine.

Yes, of course this 1966 Chevrolet Corvette is gorgeous inside and out. And yes, of course its owner and driver is Ray Evernham, who won three NASCAR Monster Energy Cup championships and 47 races with driver Jeff Gordon at Hendrick Motorsports.

But hearing Evernham tear down the back straight at Sebring International Raceway, the Corvette’s 427-cubic-inch big-block V8 at full song en route to a class victory in the Historic Sportscar Racing series event, you overlook for a moment how pretty the car is and how famous its driver has become. You just listen.

Nothing against the pack of Porsche 911s trailing Evernham’s Corvette, but when you’ve grown up falling asleep every night to the soundtrack of an American V8 playing in your head, nothing else compares.

Once you know the pre-NASCAR history of Ray Evernham, you won’t be surprised he’s driving a race car instead of working on it. That was always the plan: Sure, Evernham liked working on cars, but he wanted to be a driver. That’s probably why, in late 1991, he went to work for Alan Kulwicki, the last owner-driver to win a Cup championship, and likely the last one who ever will. But their two very strong personalities clashed, and Evernham quit after six weeks.

But by then, though, Evernham knew he wouldn’t be able to make a living as a driver, a painful and lasting lesson dealt by a mistake he made on track–and a very solid concrete wall. More about that in a moment.

After Evernham split with Kulwicki, Ford latched on to him and placed him with Bill Davis Racing. There he’d be working on an Xfinity team with Jeff Gordon, a young driver Ford had big plans for. When Gordon suddenly–and, arguably, unprofessionally–jumped to Chevrolet and Rick Hendrick’s team, Evernham followed.

The first Cup race for Gordon and Evernham was the final race of 1992, the Hooter’s 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. It also happened to be Richard Petty’s last race, and the race that locked up Alan Kulwicki’s season championship. Six months later, Kulwicki would die in a plane crash.

After learning the ropes in 1993, Gordon and Evernham began winning in 1994–and they didn’t stop. The No. 24 DuPont Rainbow Warriors Chevrolet won those 47 races, qualified on the pole 30 times, and won three championships. Perhaps themost startling statistic was that Gordon finished in the top five a remarkable 116 times in 218 races. In endurance events–and every NASCAR race is an endurance event–consistency is crucial, and the Hendrick car had it.

It didn’t hurt that Evernham was an innovator. NASCAR legend Junior Johnson once said Evernham was the smartest crew chief he’d seen. Of course, his ideas didn’t always pay off: NASCAR levied what was then the largest fine ever assessed, $60,000, for an unapproved front suspension part the team used on Gordon’s car for a race in 1995.

Dick Berggren, former editor of Stock Car Racing and Speedway Illustratedmagazines and longtime TV and radio broadcaster, recalls peeking into Evernham’s garage before qualifying at Daytona. It was a chilly day, and Evernham had stationed four pit crew-members beneath the jacked-up car, each with an electric hair dryer, warming up the grease in the wheel bearings and axles. “I hurried up there with my camera and tried to get a shot to put it on the air. Ray ran me out of there. He said, ‘I work my ass off to find an advantage and you want to tell everybody about it!’”

“Ray ran me out of there. He said, ‘I work my ass off to find an advantage and you want to tell everybody about it!’”

Evernham, Berggren says, was the “most cerebral crew chief we had. He did his homework, he studied, he worked hard, and he was good at everything he did.”

Photography Credit: Dave Green

Photograph Courtesy NASCAR

Photograph Courtesy NASCAR

Photograph Courtesy NASCAR

Photograph Courtesy NASCAR

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