Every Christmas Day, no matter how cold or how much snow was on the ground, Richie Evans would drive his race car over to The Rusty Nail, the Rome, N.Y., bar that also sponsored his famous orange and black No. 61, to celebrate the holiday. For Evans was never far from his roots.
This week, short-track fans up and down the East Coast were celebrating the announcement that Evans would be one of five people inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Evans made his name with eye-popping statistics from his career in a Modified.
But Evans cemented his legend a long time ago with the stories that surrounded his career.
“He was just about huge entertainment and great racing. People don't forget that,” said Mike Stefanik, himself a seven-time NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour champion. “They remember guys like Richie. They remember him bouncing off the wall at Martinsville with his foot still in the gas.
“Those are memorable moments that never people never forget. I certainly haven't forgotten them.”
Evans won a total of nine NASCAR Modified national championships, and he was named No. 1 on NASCAR's All-Time Top-10 Modified Drivers in 2003. He won an amazing eight consecutive Modified titles, including one in 1979 when he won 37 of 60 starts that season.
In a career that spanned more than 1,400 races, Evans won more than 475 feature events – everywhere from Thompson, Conn., to Daytona International Speedway.
In the intense culture of Modified racing, any career will always be measured against Evans.
“Everyone has their time in their era,” Stefanik said. “They compare basketball players from the '70s to the guys today, but a lot of things change. In his time, in his day, Richie was the best there was.
“I don't know how you compare. I don't know if there is any formula for figuring that out. But I do know that he was the man. I look at Richie Evans as the king of Modifieds. That's just the way it is.”
Darrell Waltrip, one of the five in the same Hall of Fame class as Evans this year, spoke glowingly of Evans once the inductees were named last Tuesday.
“I watched Richie win I don't know how many Modified races at Martinsville,” Waltrip said. “He just went around and around and around (in) that orange No. 61. He is a legend in the Modified series.
“I won the first Modified race at Daytona in '78, and Richie came right back the next year with a car just like mine ... and he won in '79. Richie was an exceptional talent. He's another guy I'm just so thrilled to be in this Hall with.”
Where the past generation of NASCAR stars spurned what is today's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Richie Evans did as much for short-track racing in the northeast as any single personality.
Where drivers like Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have capitalized on the spotlight first captured by the likes of Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough, Evans gave life to an entire culture of Modified racing.
Reigning NASCAR Whelen All-American Series national champion Keith Rocco, a Modified racer himself, said that there's no doubt that Evans has had a significant impact on his own career.
“To me, he's a hero and a legend,” said Rocco, of Wallingford, Conn. “I know it might sound silly, but I think of myself as trying to follow something (Evans) did – where you race as much as you can, travel as much as you can, do everything you can to race and to try to win.”
Just last year, noted national auto racing writer Bones Bourcier put Rocco on a parallel with Evans, something that meant as much to Rocco as winning any NASCAR title.
“It's a funny story,” Rocco said. “Last year, there was a rainout at Stafford (Motor Speedway). We ran the race at Stafford the next morning, and then we left Stafford and went to Waterford (Speedbowl). We won both races on the same day – and (Bourcier) compared me to Richie, saying there's only a few guys anywhere that would do something like that. He said Richie was one of them.
“To be compared to Richie Evans, it was pretty cool. It left a statement about what we try to do.”
It was Rocco's father, Ronnie Rocco, who first told his son the stories of Richie Evans. Having raced alongside Evans, Ronnie knew full well the legend that was Evans both on and off the track.
“When we used to race, we'd hurry up and go to the bar and wait for Richie Evans to come in just so we could get a glance of him," Ronnie Rocco recalled at last year's NASCAR Whelen All-American Series banquet. "We'd race the same track and be in the same race as him, but we still wanted to see him.
“My buddy called me up and said, 'Hey remember when we used to go in the bar and we wanted to get to know Richie? Well, that's your kid now.' I think that day it might have hit me what (Keith's) done."
And Keith Rocco doesn't take praise like that lightly.
“A guy like that, people today don't appreciate they way it used to be,” Keith Rocco said. “It's what they did. They'd race as much as they could. They'd try to find places they could race and earn points. I like the way the (national points) structure is now. It reflects an era from back then. That's the way things should be.”
Keith Rocco, of course, has heard all about the other side of Richie Evans.
“You hear the stories,” Rocco said. “Nobody today does what they'd do – they'd empty out hotel rooms, carry all of the stuff right out of the room and then put the race car in and work on it all night. Do that now, you'd be thrown in jail. I wish I was around for that.
“I wish I could have seen some of the stunts they pulled.”
Buz McKim, the NASCAR Hall of Fame historian, believes the stories are what made Evans particularly special.
“A friend of mine was a photographer at the time, and he regaled us with stories of Richie,” McKim said. “Some of it is what he did on the track, and some of it is 'urban legend,' if you will. But that's what made Richie Evans.”
Evans drove up and down the eastern seaboard. Evans won races everywhere. Evans was killed in an on-track incident at Martinsville Speedway in 1985. Evans has more Modified titles than any driver in history.
None of that can be disputed.
But Evans is larger than life for the way he lived as much as the way he raced.
“He absolutely represents the Saturday night grassroots guy, and every superstar in the sport started out as a grassroots guy,” McKim said.
“He never really wanted to be in the major spotlight. He just wanted to come to the track, do a little racing, pick up his check and do a little partying. His legend, even when he was alive, went way outside the northeast. That's just amazing.”
But those stories, and his ability to prepare race cars and figure out the smallest details – like who ahead of him on a restart had the freshest tires in a heat race – still paled in comparison to raw driving ability, said Mike Stefanik.
“He was an awesome seat of the pants racer. Richie would just drive harder than everybody else to win the race,” Stefanik said.
That, perhaps, is the greatest measure of his Hall of Fame racing resume.
“People loved Richie – they still do,” Stefanik said. “He's like a folk hero. People still wear his shirts. They still love to tell his stories, and so do I. He's a hero. He's certainly a hero to me.”
“It's the folklore,” said Buz McKim. “It's the winning ways. I can't remember him ever tearing up a car really bad. It didn't hurt that he came south, either. He had the East Coast covered. Late Model guys would see the Modifieds at New Smyrna, and they would go back and tell everyone else about what he did in those race cars.
“Everyone knew Richie Evans.”
So, it's fitting then, that a true, Saturday-night short-track racer is one of the first 15 men inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
“He has received a lot of rewards, but this is the ultimate,” said Lynn Evans, Richie's widow. “I know he is looking down and smiling ear to ear.”
And probably laughing, too, over the entertaining story his induction has made for.