Then and Now with Ray Evernham

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Undoubtedly, Ray Evernham revolutionized the crew chief position with the famous “Rainbow Warriors” during the 1990’s.

All things considered, Evernham’s approach was similar to Pat Riley and Phil Jackson.  Incidentally, the New Jersey Native looked up to Riley’s motivational approach. Clearly, this inspired him with the famous checklist for the No. 24 team.

In fact, Jeff Gordon and Ray Evernham racked up 47 wins and three Cup championships.  They were like NASCAR’s version of the Los Angeles Lakers.  As it were, Evernham and Gordon knew how to bring out the best in each other with their competitive spirits.

Naturally, it’s tempting to consider the potential success that Gordon and Evernham would have enjoyed if they stayed together.  On the other hand, the duo made their mark as one of the best pairings of stock car racing.  As a matter of fact, both have inspired future waves of drivers and chiefs competing today.

Recently, Evernham joined the NASCAR Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 2018.  In the concluding part of this two part series celebrating the 1997 Cup championship, let’s refuse to lose by focusing on the “Then and Now with Ray Evernham!”

Rob Tiongson :  First of all, I’d like to congratulate you on being inducted to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.  How was that moment like for you?  What were the first things that ran in your mind when you got that fateful phone call?

For a former modified racer, Evernham's path to NASCAR immortality is inspirational.

For a former modified racer, Evernham’s path to NASCAR immortality is inspirational.

Ray Evernham :  It’s been amazing but it’s certainly been a firehose of emotions.  A lot of different things run through your mind.  It’s been a very humbling experience because it makes you put your career in perspective.  You think about all the people who’ve helped you get there and the things that you do.

It’s just an incredible feeling to be recognized as part of a sport that you’ve dedicated and committed your life to, adult life, child life, it’s been something I’ve wanted to do my whole life.  It’s just been amazing, and you find some new meaning in it every day.

RT :  When you grew up here in the Northeast, you raced in the modifieds.  Eventually, you transitioned into your role as a crew chief and car owner.  Did you ever imagine your life turning out the way it did?

RE :  No.  You can’t write a script like that.  That’s why we’re given life.  God doesn’t let us write our own script because you never could write it as good as it turns out.  For certain reasons, everybody is put in a position to do something.  I just feel really blessed that this is what I was put in position to do.

RT :  You’ve won several races and the Cup championship three times, two Daytona 500s, and the triple crown in 1997 with Jeff Gordon.  Where does your induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame rank to you in your career?

Teamwork makes the dream work.

Teamwork makes the dream work.

RE :  I think, again, putting the cap on it, it draws all of those things together.  It’s really your body of work being recognized by the people in the sport to say, “Your body of work was really good enough to get you recognized for your contributions.”  In the end, it just draws all those accomplishments together.

RT :  In an interview on NASCAR America on NBCSN, you mentioned how it’s a combination of all the people you’ve worked with. You mentioned that’s why you’ve been able to accomplish things.  That’s a cool deal for them, I’d say.

RE :  Well, I’ve been very fortunate throughout the years to work with some great people, some that are very well known and some that you may have never heard of.  They’ve all made a huge difference and had an impact on my life and career.  Along the way, they’ve given me some things that’s helped me to be able to do the job that I do.

RT :  I’m sure that was the case back in 1997.  Recently, it was the 20th anniversary of the Rainbow Warriors winning the ’97 championship.  It was the second that you and Jeff won as a team.  How validating was that title for you considering the close call in ’96 with Terry Labonte and Gary DeHart?

Certainly, Ray Evernham inspired Gordon and the No. 24 team to achieve maximum results on the track.

Certainly, Ray Evernham inspired Gordon and the No. 24 team to achieve maximum results on the track.

RE :  ’97 was a pivotal year for us.  We felt really bad that we won 10 races in ’96 but didn’t win the championship.  We knew that we were contenders, but we knew we had to get more consistent if we wanted to really put our dynasty checkmark up.

’97 was good.  We won 10 races again.  But we almost lost the championship at Atlanta and that always bugged me.  That’s why it was so important to come back in ’98 and win it by 300 points or something, just to prove that we could do it.  I felt like as strong as we were in ’97, we still almost gave it away.

RT :  That reminds me, Atlanta had to be the most stressful weekend for you guys.  You guys unloaded the car that won the Winston Million at Darlington.  Of course, there was that unusual incident on pit road.  How were you able to keep your cool despite all the pressure that you felt at the time?

RE :  As a crew chief, you’re like the head coach.  It’s your job to control that pressure.  If you show pressure and stress, the guys will too.  I always tried to keep that stuff within.  I tried to make sure that I didn’t let it affect the job that we had to do and to control the parts that you can control.

We wrecked that car which was our primary.  So, we had to go to a backup and we qualified way back in the field.  We just needed to minimize mistakes and come up with a plan.  I knew that we had a great driver and a great team.  We just needed to execute the plan and we were going to be OK.

And that’s what we did.  After the checkered flag dropped and we won the championship, all I wanted to do was go back and lay down in the garage. (laughter) It’s your job to stand up there and lead the guys.  You’ve got to have confidence and lead them with direction.

RT :  You guys definitely did and parlayed some unique strategy.  You made the most of it even when you struggled a bit with the car’s handling.  That really defined you as a team in 1997.

This question’s not mine but from Jeff Gordon when I interviewed at Michigan.  In regard to the “Refuse to Lose” documentary on FS1, was it a planned motivational tool throughout ’97 or for the Daytona 500?

All things considered, the '96 season inspired Gordon and Evernham to win the 1997 Daytona 500.

All things considered, the ’96 season inspired Gordon and Evernham to win the 1997 Daytona 500.

RE :  We did it just for the Daytona 500 with the cameras.  But it really was a motivational tool throughout the whole season because I wanted to take the focus off ’96.  And it couldn’t have worked better.

If we hadn’t won the race, it might have not worked as good, but we did win the race.  Everybody forgot about ’96.  Winning the first race in ’97, we were onto thinking, “OK, we need to win the rest of these things and the championship.”

Who knows?  It might not have worked as well if we didn’t win the race but like I tell everybody, “We did.”  That motivational tool helped us, I think, forget about all the mistakes and the things that happened in ’96 and go on to focus on ’97.

Even though we did have trouble in ’97 and almost lose the championship to Dale Jarrett, we were able to win it.  I think it was because we knew we had the confidence that if we worked together, we could get it done.  When it came right down to it on that final day in Atlanta in ’97, we were strong enough as a team.  We were confident enough as a team to score the points to win the championship that day.

RT :  You mentioned how ’97 was so important.  It really showed throughout that year.  You guys pulled off wins on any kind of racetrack.

The one that really stands up to me was the ’97 Southern 500.  With all the media scrutiny and the cameras following your team at Darlington, did you enjoy that and the focus on your team that weekend?

RE :  No, I don’t think so.  I never really let stuff like that bug me much.  The cameras and what people were writing or saying couldn’t put more any more pressure on us that we already put on ourselves.  I just felt like there was nobody who put more pressure on us than I did.

I never really let all that stuff bother me and I think I controlled it well.  And I made sure it wasn’t a distraction for the guys and I laid out my boundaries.  I know that the TV and radio people had a job to do too but so did we.  So, we kept those boundaries pretty tight.

RT :  It showed because you guys beat Jeff Burton in one of the most memorable races in Darlington history.  What were some of the finer qualities that Jeff brought out in you during your time together?

By and large, Evernham and Gordon were adept in big pressure situations.

By and large, Evernham and Gordon were adept in big pressure situations.

RE :  Jeff Gordon is the ultimate professional.  He’s one of those guys who’s got a super amount of talent.  He can be focused.  And when he is focused, in my opinion, in that day, there was nobody better behind the wheel of a racecar, certainly not in driving my racecar or the racecar that I was working on.  Jeff is a big game player.

When the pressure is on, he performs.  He’s one of those guys that goes, “Give me the ball, coach.”  With two seconds to go, that guy’s going to score somehow.  He knew that was his job; he always did his job.

Also, he never tried to do my job or didn’t complain about the pit crew this or that.  He gave me all the information that I needed to make that car go fast and let me make the decisions.  As I said, when it came time to do his job, he did it.

The more pressure, the closer we got to the front, the more that Jeff Gordon could step up and find a little bit extra.

RT :  That’s what made that era so memorable for those of us who grew up watching you guys.  That’s the reason why I cover the sport.  You guys made it so interesting with the team concept and how you rallied through diversity.

Was there a particular moment during your career with Jeff that still stands out like yesterday?

Ultimately, Jeff Gordon and Ray Evernham were a formidable force during the 1990's.

Ultimately, Jeff Gordon and Ray Evernham were a formidable force during the 1990’s.

RE :  It’s hard.  I think that the older I get, the harder it is.  It’s kind of funny because when Jeff and I get together, sometimes, we get our races confused.  He’s like, “No, that was there.”  And I’ll say, “No, that was here.” (laughter) It’s kind of funny now that we’re a couple of older guys.

But the race you were just talking about, the race at Darlington that day, we won that race with a great race driver and a great race team because we didn’t have the fastest car.  The car was damaged several times.  We made about 15 or 16 pit stops, adjusted, kept working, made some good calls, Jeff drove his butt off, the guys did good, and we ended up getting that car in position.

It was about a fifth or sixth place car and we won a million dollars with it that day.  When I look back, that was one of the best team victories that we ever had.  It took the whole team to win that day.  I felt like we fought disadvantages all day long and won that one with experience and talent.

Author’s Notes :  Special thanks to Ray Evernham and Ann Eaton for making this opportunity possible!  On behalf of The Podium Finish team, we’d like to congratulate Ray on his recent induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2018!

You can “Follow” Ray on Twitter, “Like” his Facebook page, and “Visit” the official website for AmeriCarna, a car culture TV program hosted by Ray on Velocity, to learn more about this racing legend.

Rob Tiongson

30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field, and hockey. A Boston native turned Austinite, racing was the first sport that caught my eye. From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, it'll be here on TPF, by me or by one of my talented columnists who absolutely have a passion for racing.

Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. I enjoy editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography.

Graduated from Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication. Proud to be from Massachusetts, just as happy to be a Texan.

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