Tom Time: Remembering The “Rapid Roman” Richie Evans

Tom Baker Asphalt Modifieds, Carolinas Racing, Featured, NASCAR, New England, Northeast, Southeast, Tom Baker Blog, Touring Series, Uncategorized 10 Comments

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Column By Race Chaser Online Senior Editor Tom Baker – Howie and Mary Hodge/NASCAR and Jakessite.com Photos –

Thirty years ago today, October 24th, 1985, I was sitting in front of the TV at my house watching the 6pm news.  Sportscaster Jack Morse talked about football, baseball and who knows what else as I half-focused.  Then he got my attention.

He ended his sportscast by delivering the shocking news that “The Rapid Roman” Richie Evans had lost his life earlier in the day in a crash at Martinsville Speedway in Virginia while practicing his NASCAR Modified for the Winn-Dixie 500.

Wait, what?

Did I hear that right? Did he just say…

Yes. He did.  Richie Evans was gone.

I wasn’t sure what to do at that point.  My mind just went numb.

I thought I should call my brother-in-law, who was a fan and friend of Richie’s, and see if he’d heard.  I didn’t want to, because I didn’t want to believe it, but I thought it was the right thing, for some reason.

That was a hard call to make, let me tell you.  I can still remember the pause when I told him, before he responded with a shocked “you’re kiddin’ me?”.  I told him I wished I was, but that I’d just heard it on the news.

There was no internet or social media back then, so I had to wait to read details in the local paper the next day.  It was hard to digest.  The bright orange 61 Modified would race no more.

Thirty years ago today, an irreplaceable legend ran his final lap on one of the most heralded short tracks in the nation.

As I sit in my office and think back across the years to all the things I remember about Richie, I smile.  The first few thoughts revolve around the Oswego Speedway, where I grew up going to the races from the time I was five years old in 1973.

There was the time when my sister, my brother-in-law and I were among a crowd in his pit standing around him after the race while he was signing autographs.  Someone noticed a hat on the ground and picked it up to ask Richie if he knew who it belonged to.

His eyes got large. “IT’S GREEN!” he exclaimed, literally throwing it frisbee-style out of his pit before going right back to signing.  We all cracked up laughing.

That was Richie.

There was a different time when my sister was casually walking down pit road and Richie drove up behind her – then revved his engine very loudly, scaring her half to death.  He laughed. She cussed.

That was Richie.

There was the 1985  Port City 150 double-bill at Oswego when Richie hopped into Skip Matczak’s No. 3 Supermodified having never turned a lap in one at Oswego before, and

JakesSite.com Photo

JakesSite.com Photo

went to the third groove coming out of turn four on the last lap to go three-wide and pass Eddie Bellinger and Mike Muldoon to win his heat race.

That was Richie.

Then he gave up his feature ride in the car that night because Bellinger had a motor issue and needed the car for points.

That was Richie.

Little did we know that this would be the only time we ever saw Richie in a super at Oswego.

I remember him winning at Oswego more than once in his orange No. 61 modified, but some of the best memories I have of him were when he was the chaser, trying to find his way by Geoff Bodine or Maynard Troyer or George Kent to take the lead.

Richie followed “Marvelous” Merv Treichler for a bunch of laps running second in Oswego’s Budweiser Modified 200 on Labor Day Weekend of 1977.  Legend has it that his spotter asked him what he was doing.  “Why don’t you pass him?” was the question.

Richie kept on keepin’ on, and eventually wound up winning the race.  The answer was revealed after the checkered flag flew. Budweiser gave a six-pack of beer to the second place driver on every lap, and Richie knew that.  He wanted to stock up for the post-race party.

That was Richie.

You could almost see the intensity with which he drove. He had a car control that few others had.  He was just that damn good.

RichieEvansHarryGantRustyWallaceDaytonaJCSGroupdotcomphoto

Richie (61) HarryGant (77) and Rusty Wallace at Daytona – JCS-Group.com photo

There were so many top racers competing in the division in those years that almost every major race was an all-star event, and Richie Evans beat them all on a frequent basis, whether it was in New York, New England, Pennsylvania, Canada, or even south of the Mason Dixon line.  He was highly respected in NASCAR country at tracks including Bowman Gray Stadium, North Wilkesboro, Martinsville, and even Daytona when that track used to run the “Superspeedway” modified division.

He took on the best that the south had to offer, and often beat them.

I remember reading about the time in 1975 when he drove for Supermodified legend Nolan Swift in the famous 10-pins at Thompson Speedway for that portion of the season-ending “World Series” race.  During the race day, a terrible modified accident resulted in a car coming into the infield area where Swift’s crewman John Roberts was standing, and Roberts was struck and killed.

One can only imagine the shock and horror that overspread the team in the moments following that tragedy, and Richie expressed his complete support if Swifty and his crew wanted to withdraw from the feature race.

That was Richie.

“Let’s win one for John!” was the decision.  Richie buckled in, went out and led every lap.

That was Richie.

Richie’s rival Jerry Cook, also from Rome, New York, told me earlier this year that he and Richie used to routinely engage in gamesmanship with each other in order to keep each other in the dark about where they were racing on a given night.  I asked him about this when I saw him at Charlotte Motor Speedway during Coca Cola 600 weekend, and he laughed.

“That’s all true,” he smiled.  “We used to send backup cars one way up the road while our main car went the other, and things like that, to try and disguise where we were going.  Back then every race counted for points and we didn’t want to race each other more than we had to.  The funny thing is, in those days we didn’t have pocket phones, so sometimes we’d get going in one direction up the NYS Thruway and stop at a rest stop to make a pay phone call to make sure what tracks are rained out, and we’d end up having to turn around and go back the other way!  The competition was stout and you always wanted to do what it took to have the edge.  Richie and I were competitors but we had a lot of fun in those days.”

I could see by the way Jerry’s eyes lit up when I brought up the “hometown rivalry” with Richie that it was a special time in his life.  For all of us who were fans of the Modifieds back then, it was a special time in our lives as well.

Now Richie’s legend lives on in the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, North Carolina.  Richie is the only modified racer in the Hall at this time, although it is fitting that Cook, who has been working for NASCAR ever since he retired from modified racing, has been nominated for the class of 2016.

Richie more than earned his enshrinement into the Hall.  His statistics are amazing.

He won nine national modified championships, including eight in a row from 1978 to 1985.  In his final year, he won 12 NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour Series races, wrapping up the series championship one week before the ill-fated Martinsville race.

2011_nhf_class_inductee_richie_evans_PINTO_700HowieandMaryHodgeNASCARPhoto

Richie in his infamous Pinto – Howie and Mary Hodge / NASCAR Photo

He won over 400 features across the US and Canada, also winning the NASCAR Northeast Regional Title three straight years beginning in 1982.  There isn’t a major modified race that Richie Evans ran in that he didn’t win at least once.  He won the prestigious Race of Champions three times.

Richie Evans was all business at the track until the race was over and then it was time for fun.  He liked his beer, and the parties were legendary.  He helped a long list of other racers improve their driving and their cars.

He was one of the best ever, and earned that reputation by winning races and championships in a time when Modified racing was at its apogee, all out of a shop in small-town Rome, New York.

Richie Evans was one of those larger-than-life heroes who live life on the edge and draw us to them with their courage and persona.  He left us with memories that will last a lifetime, and his legacy will live on forever.

 

Comments 10

  1. I lived two blocks from Richies shop. I can remember one stormy winter night hearing the roar of a engine only to be amazed to see the Bright orange 61 in the back drop of the white snow slipping and sliding on West Dominick Street heading toward Richie’s favorite bar The Rusty Nail. Richie gets out of the car and waves to a bunch of us kids. Thanks so much for this article.

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  2. Thanks for the great story! I am the same age, and grew up a Troyer fan. In 1982, right after MT retired, I was snowmobiling in Tug Hill. We went into a restaurant, and sitting at the bar next to each other were Maynard and Richie. My father and I went up and met them, and as a naive 15 year old, I was in awe that these 2 competitors were actually drinking buddies! One of the highlights of my youth …

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      It seems like back in those days, most of the competitors were great friends off-track. They were fun days. Thanks for reading. Hope you’ll check us out on a regular basis!

  3. thank you for writing a great article on the champ. I grew up in Rome, my brother use to visit Richie’s garage all the time. I was living in Saudi Arabia when he passed away, it took weeks for the news of his passing to reach us !!! Sad day for sure.

    Thank you,

    Carl
    Still in Saudi !!

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