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With new life out of spotlight, Evernham gets back to roots

When NASCAR’s Sprint All-Star Race roared to life Saturday, Ray Evernham naturally was at a racetrack.

The man voted the greatest crew chief in Sprint Cup history was making sure concession stands were stocked and restrooms were clean. Once known for his innovation that sometimes ran afoul of the rules, Evernham was playing chief enforcer and meting out punishment when racers’ tempers flared.

While the stars of the Sprint Cup Series were racing for $1 million at Lowe’s Motor Speedway 40 miles away, Evernham was at a dirt oval where the speeds were 100 mph slower, the purses were hundreds of thousands of dollars less and the crowd was a fraction of the estimated 145,000 in Concord, N.C.

Nestled in the woods of a rural area northwest of Charlotte, this was East Lincoln Speedway, home to Blackie the racetrack dog (its unofficial mascot) and Evernham, who bought the track several months ago after walking away from stock car racing’s big leagues to return to his first love: grass-roots racing.

“I’m not going to make any money here; I’ll probably lose money. But you can’t take it with you and wrap it up in a coffin,” Evernham says. “When you’re making millions a year, you’re (complaining) all the time. Maybe making all that money wasn’t what I wanted.”

Once a major player in NASCAR – initially as a crew chief who won three championships and 47 races with Jeff Gordon and then as winning car owner who spearheaded Dodge’s 2001 return – who spoke openly of ambitions to become a championship icon a la Joe Gibbs, Jack Roush or Rick Hendrick, Evernham, 51, has shifted priorities.

He still owns a top-flight garage in Mooresville, N.C., but there’s as much space in the 42,000-square-foot headquarters of Ray Evernham Enterprises for working on race cars as for the myriad projects and recreational pursuits that keep its owner busy.

A large room that Evernham jokingly calls his “man cave” pays homage to his childhood. Inside is “Ray J.’s ’55 Diner,” named after his son; its bar is the chrome quarter-panel of a 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air. It also features a karaoke café with vintage tunes and a replica of a full-service gas station with green and white pumps and a wooden Indian.

The space, which is rented out for corporate functions, doubles as a museum filled with cars commemorating his love of collecting (including a shiny black Midget from 1947) and his career (a blue Viper he was given by Hendrick for the 1995 title).

“I don’t think this is what they’re expecting when they hear Ray got a new shop,” Evernham says.

A hand up for the youngsters

An adjacent shop seems more in line with the past, housing four Midgets that are part of a new “Speedster” series focused on low-cost racing (the cars cost about $17,000 and $150 a week to race, vs. Late Model circuits with $40,000 engines and monthly budgets of $30,000). Evernham hopes the circuit will provide more aspiring drivers with the breaks he received as a Modified racer in New Jersey three decades ago.

“There’s people who gave me $100 or let me slide on a tire or fuel bill,” he says. “It’s time to give some back, and the first thing is get back to grass roots.”

Though his ESPN job will send him on the road for most of the second half of 2009, Evernham has attended one Cup race this year. He doesn’t have an office in the headquarters of the Statesville-based Cup team of which he sold a majority interest to George Gillett in August 2007. He is a minority owner in the team that was rebranded Richard Petty Motorsports in a merger this year but no longer offers input.

“I didn’t have the control I thought I was going to have, and I’m too old to fight for control,” Evernham says. “I really haven’t looked at that place as being mine in over a year, so I’m happy my name is off it. It doesn’t have my DNA anymore.”

Gordon doesn’t see how his former mentor could ever be disappointed in what he accomplished. “Did he miss a little bit on trying to be a Hendrick or Roush? Yeah, maybe, but I think he also found he’d accomplished enough to be able to say, ‘I’m happy, and now I can live an incredible life.’ ”

Moving along with no regrets

Fox analyst Darrell Waltrip, another former team owner, says, “Ray is like I was with ownership. When it was new, it was exciting. Then it wasn’t any fun anymore. A lot of racers are that way.”

Evernham says: “(I’ve) come to some peace thinking I always wanted to be like Smokey Yunick and Junior Johnson, and I guess I am. They set their standards, had their success and got tired of it.”

The competitiveness still remains but is in different places, he says. Evernham has partnered with NHRA veteran Doug Herbert (who calls Evernham “an ingenious thinker”) to build a car to break the piston-driven land-speed record (more than 500 mph) in August at Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. He is racing again and will compete in The Prelude to the Dream all-star race at Eldora Speedway in June.

Evernham also match-races at his track, which he calls “Americana at its best … like going to a Friday night high school football game in Texas.” Its April 4 season opener drew a record crowd of more than 1,500, and Evernham says more families come every week, perhaps drawn to improvements such as fresh coats of paint and electronic scoring.

I just like being there. If you’re going to be in Cup, you need to be in it all the way. I don’t (want to be), so it doesn’t bother me as much as I thought it would.”

Photos contributed by Davis Turner, USA Today