Ray Evernham, a former modified racer who earned 47 victories and three NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships as Jeff Gordon’s crew chief, received the prestigious Smokey Yunick Award today, prior to the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Legendary car owner and mechanic Henry “Smokey” Yunick, who passed away May 9, 2001, instituted the award in 1997 to annually recognize an individual who rose from humble beginnings to make a major impact on the motorsports industry.
“Ray Evernham literally redefined the role of a NASCAR crew chief during his time with Jeff Gordon and Hendrick Motorsports,” said Marcus Smith, president and general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway. “Ray’s experience as a driver and his understanding of the sport’s rapidly advancing technology produced a unique dynamic, while his innovative work with the ‘Rainbow Warriors’ established a new standard for pit-road performance.
“Ray is a perfect match to the ideals upon which Smokey founded this award, and it is only appropriate that he will be recognized as we celebrate Jeff’s final race at Charlotte Motor Speedway where they enjoyed so much success.”
Smith was on hand Thursday to present Evernham with the award during a media availability.
Born Aug. 26, 1957, in Hazlet, New Jersey, Evernham inherited the automotive gene and the second-generation mechanic spent his formative years turning wrenches alongside his father at the family’s service station.
Evernham eventually began racing them at area short tracks such as Wall Stadium and New Egypt Speedway. He advanced through the ranks and became a regular in the open-wheel modifieds that headlined the local racing circuit. He enjoyed a limited amount of success on the track, but it was soon obvious that Evernham’s mechanical ability far surpassed his driving talent.
His big break came in 1983 when Evernham was hired by Roger Penske and Jay Signore to work as a chassis specialist for the International Race of Champions, a New Jersey-based operation that annually presented a series of races featuring a dozen of the world’s top drivers competing in identically prepared race cars.
In addition to learning the business of major-league auto racing during his time with the IROC series, Evernham impressed drivers such as Dale Earnhardt and A.J. Foyt with his ability to translate what they were experiencing on the track into adjustments to the cars.
Evernham’s first venture into NASCAR’s premier series came during the 1989 and 1990 seasons when he prepared the No. 38 Fords driven by Australian Dick Johnson. At the end of the 1991 season, Evernham accepted a job with team owner/driver Alan Kulwicki and he moved his toolbox to North Carolina. What seemed like the perfect opportunity quickly turned into a nightmare as a clash of personalities resulted in Evernham leaving the Kulwicki operation during the days leading up to the 1992 Daytona 500.
Frustrated and ready to return to his native New Jersey, Evernham’s career took a drastic turn when Ford officials Lee Morse and Preston Miller stopped him while walking out of the Daytona garage area. They had been impressed by Evernham’s work and suggested they might have another assignment for him.
A young open-wheel racer named Jeff Gordon had just become a Ford stock car driver and he had mentioned to Ford officials that he would like to work with Evernham. The two had crossed paths briefly in 1990 when Evernham setup the chassis on the Pontiac in which Gordon made his NASCAR XFINITY Series debut.
Evernham served as the chassis specialist on the No. 1 Bill Davis Racing entry Gordon drove to three victories and 11 poles during the 1992 season.
When Rick Hendrick hired Gordon to drive for his newest NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team, Gordon requested that Evernham come with him as the team’s crew chief – and the rest is history.
Over the next seven years, the Gordon/Evernham/Hendrick combination rose to the top of the sport during a time when the popularity of stock car racing was exploding.
Evernham left Hendrick Motorsports in 1999 and formed his own team, bringing Dodge back into sport. The team debuted at the 2000 Daytona 500 and enjoyed success with drivers such as Bill Elliott, Casey Atwood, Elliott Sadler and Kasey Kahne. Evernham retained at least a partial stake in the team until 2010.
Today, Evernham works as a consultant for Hendrick Motorsports and hosts Velocity’s “AmeriCarna,” a television program that celebrates this country’s car culture. He has also assembled an extensive car collection that includes both road cars and race cars.