First-time Hall of Fame candidate Ray Evernham reflects on legacy of ‘crew chief tree’

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Just based on his record in NASCAR, Ray Evernham could become the fifth first-ballot inductee for the NASCAR Hall of Fame since the inaugural class.

When the Hall of Fame voting committee meets Wednesday afternoon in Charlotte to elect the seventh five-man class, they will be considering the career of the greatest crew chief of all time, according to a 2006 poll of the news media. Overseeing Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 Chevrolet from 1993-99, Evernham’s team compiled three championships, 47 victories and 30 pole positions in 213 starts.

But the case for Evernham’s candidacy is as much about his statistics as the springboard he created.

Much like the vaunted NFL coaching tree of football legend Bill Walsh, Evernham, 57, helped plant roots that branch throughout NASCAR more than 15 years after he retired as a crew chief.

The past two Sprint Cup championships were won by crew chiefs mentored by Evernham. Long before guiding Jimmie Johnson to six championships, Chad Knaus was a crew member of the No. 24 team. Rodney Childers, who led Kevin Harvick to his first title in NASCAR’s premier series last year, was given his start as a crew chief with Scott Riggs a decade ago at Evernham Motorsports.

Other past and current crew chiefs such as Steve Letarte, Tommy Baldwin Jr., Mike Ford, Kenny Francis, Tony Gibson, Keith Rodden and Slugger Labbe also worked for Evernham, who just wanted to return the favor after receiving tutelage from many of the sport’s biggest names.

“A lot of people took me under their wing,” Evernham told NBC Sports. “Randy Dorton (the late Hendrick engine builder) was very, very good to me, and obviously Mr. Hendrick himself. So you try and become part of that and share that knowledge and information. I was fortunate enough to work with a lot of guys like me who are just so passionate about the cars and the racing that they can’t get enough of it.

“I can’t sit here and go, ‘Oh yeah, I had a plan of creating this tree.’ I was just trying to pay back some of what people were good enough to teach me. I’ve been really, really fortunate to be around some really great racers. I really feel a responsibility to pay that stuff forward; that knowledge that’s been handed to us. They wanted to see me do good because I really loved racing. That’s where I’m at with my guys. You help people who really love the sport.”

Evernham’s education started as a 14-year-old wrenching on cars at short tracks around New Jersey and continued when he worked on the prototype of the Camaro used in the 1984 IROC Series. He lived for a month at the Asheville, N.C., home of NASCAR team owner and car builder Banjo Matthews, who introduced Evernham to Hall of Fame driver and car owner Junior Johnson and mechanic Herb Nab. Evernham also worked with crew chiefs Smokey Yunick, Harry Hyde and Waddell Wilson.

Hall of Famer Leonard Wood imparted much wisdom to Evernham, who said many of the lessons were common sense.

“You’ve got to understand how something works, then you’ve really got to understand you don’t skip the basics,” he said. “From Banjo and Leonard Wood, I’ve learned from them like I’d learn football from (Vince) Lombardi. You’ve got to do blocking and tackling first before you can run the trick plays. I learned that blocking and tackling from those guys. The basic foundation of how a NASCAR-type race car works and what affects what. The whole theory of how to run a race isn’t just about a fast car.”

In assembling his teams both as a crew chief and owner (his cars scored 13 victories in eight seasons after he spearheaded Dodge’s 2001 re-entry into NASCAR), Evernham sought employees who were cut from the same mold. Many of the initial employees for Gordon’s No. 24 team came from other forms of racing or auto dealership jobs because Evernham preferred intangibles over NASCAR experience.

“There are people who just want to do a job and do it well, and that’s OK, but there are people who do the job, do it well and look to take on more,” he said. “Chad slept in his car. You find someone who puts in that extra (effort), and they put in that drive consistently. They’re the people you want. A lot of people have the desire, but they won’t make the commitment. You make a commitment, and that means you’re sacrificing many other things in your life. You couple that with a person who has an ability to learn, you can do anything with them.”

The most famous graduate of Evernham’s system is Knaus, who also might be the closest facsimile having drawn the nickname “Little Ray” while at Hendrick.

“I think Chad took the things that I showed him and other people showed him and made it better,” Evernham said. “Chad and I have strong personalities. He crew chiefs like I would crew chief. If I had a much older son, would it be Chad? Probably. Would I be proud if I was Chad’s father? Unbelievably proud. I’m proud to know him because he’s dedicated and committed just about every step of his life and career from the time he was 16 to get where he is. He told me he wanted to do it, and he has stayed that course. I’m super proud of him.

“His management style is a lot like mine. He cares about his people, but he’s not afraid to work them hard. In the end, it’s about winning.  Who says you can’t win them all? Somebody’s going to win them all. Might as well be you. Some people would say that’s an unrealistic thought process, but literally why can’t you?”

At Hendrick, Knaus worked side by side for several seasons with Letarte, who was a teenager in high school when he began working with Evernham on the No. 24. He became Gordon’s crew chief in 2005 and won 10 races with the four-time series champion before moving to Dale Earnhardt Jr. He guided NASCAR’s most popular driver to five wins (four last year) before becoming an NBC Sports analyst this season.

“Steve was a hard-working guy but with a different mentality and thought process than Chad,” Evernham said. “He had a different management style and was real smooth. But even as a kid, Steve was just brilliant with a high level of intelligence. He could figure things out and was a really, really good problem-solver. Probably the best tire guy I ever had because he was so good with numbers.

“He had the ability to keep people happy in the shop. Steve would be a great politician. But in the back of his mind, he could be running the numbers to make the car go faster, too. Steve is one of those guys that you think, ‘Man, how is that guy doing all this?’ because he gets a lot done without breaking a sweat.”

Having returned last year as a member of Hendrick Motorsports’ executive management team, Evernham takes pride in the team still using some of the processes and procedures he developed, as well as former No. 24 crew members Brian Whitesell and Michael Landis in key management roles.

Many executives with other teams (such as Sammy Johns at Richard Petty Motorsports, Eric Warren at Richard Childress Racing and Mark McArdle at Roush Fenway Racing) also have worked under Evernham.

“Those guys probably taught me as much as I taught them, and it’s neat to see them get a shot at being their own person rather than being under me,” he said.

“The world and the sport changes so fast anymore all I can do is look at these guys and talk about my past experiences. What’s really cool now is to say I’ve sat in all those chairs. I’ve been a crew chief. I’ve been a chief mechanic. I’ve been an owner, a fabricator, and I’ve had a little experience as a track owner. The older you get, you look back and it means a lot more to think ‘OK, man, I think I helped with a little bit of that.’ ”

Evernham, whose wife, Erin, is expecting a girl July 21, has no plans to return atop the pit box but does have an idea of the challenges that crew chiefs will face in the future.

“The biggest thing different now is they’ve got so much more information,” he said. “They’re gathering so much more information faster than they can’t handle it. I think they’re going to have to have more people, processes and software to go through the data so they can make better decisions. Ultimately, the crew chiefs still have to be the guys on the box leading all that. You’re not the guy that’s putting springs in and out, but you are going to be the voice on the radio.

“The main core still is understanding the car. It’s still going to respond to the laws of physics. It’s horsepower, aero, handling. You’ve got a driver, a team, a pit crew and strategy to manage. You just need more people to help you process that information faster to make better decisions, and the tools today are so much more exact. All the little things that are measured today are making a difference. So the amount of data that comes at you in the time, I think the crew chiefs are going to have to figure out ways to process that data faster to get an advantage.”

 

Ben Rhodes’ crew chief suspended one race, fined for inspection violation at Daytona

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NASCAR has suspended ThorSport Racing crew chief Eddie Troconis for one race and fined him for a post-race inspection violation at Daytona.

Troconis was suspended and fined $5,000 after the rear of the No. 41 Ford of Ben Rhodes was found to be too low after Friday night’s race.

The L1 penalty also comes with the loss of 10 driver and owner points.

ThorSport had no comment regarding a possible appeal or substitute for Troconis.

Rhodes finished fourth in the race after starting 24th. The finish will not count toward playoff eligibility if a tiebreaker is needed.

Troconis is in his second season working with Rhodes.

NASCAR did not issue any other penalties.

Cole Custer to make Cup debut at Las Vegas

Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images
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Cole Custer will make his Cup debut with Rick Ware Racing in the March 4 race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the team confirmed Wednesday.

The 20-year-old Custer, who is in his second full season in the Xfinity Series, will drive the No. 51 car. That car has a charter and is guaranteed a starting spot. Custer took part in the Cup test at Las Vegas last month.

Haas Automation will be Custer’s sponsor.

“This is a dream come true to compete in the Cup Series,” Custer said in a team release. “I can’t thank Rick Ware Racing and Haas Automation enough for the opportunity to race at Las Vegas. It’s going to be a new experience for me, but I feel that we can have a productive day by completing all the laps and seeing the checkered flag.”

Custer has two career starts at Las Vegas. He placed third in the 2016 Camping World Truck Series race and was 11th in last year’s Xfinity race.

Custer will drive a Ford for Rick Ware Racing. Justin Marks drove for Rick Ware Racing in the Daytona 500 when the team fielded a Chevrolet. Harrison Rhodes will make his Cup debut this weekend in Atlanta for the team. That car also will be a Chevrolet.

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Austin Dillon reunited with boy who gave him lucky penny

Photo: Richard Childress Racing
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In the midst of a whirlwind following his Daytona 500 victory, Austin Dillon received a surprise.

On Wednesday morning, Dillon was reunited with the boy who gave him the lucky penny that was glued to the dashboard of his No. 3 Chevrolet on Sunday.

Dillon met the boy, named Jordan Wade, at an autograph session prior to the Advance Auto Parts Clash. He gave Jordan a signed hat to replace the Ford hat Jordan was wearing.

The next day, the two encountered each other at the fence around the Cup Series garage, where Jordan presented Dillon with the penny.

In his post-race press conference, Dillon said he hoped to somehow meet Jordan the next day at the track. Instead, Richard Childress Racing managed to track him down and surprised Dillon back at RCR’s headquarters in Welcome, North Carolina.

Jordan met Dillon and Darrell Wallace Jr., who finished second in the Daytona 500.

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Catching up with racing’s ‘Hat Man’: The incomparable legacy of Bill Brodrick

Photo courtesy ISC Images & Archives
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It would not be a stretch to say Bill Brodrick has been in victory lane more than any other person in history. And yet he never competed in, nor won, even one race.

At hundreds of races from 1969-97 – primarily NASCAR Cup and IndyCar events – Brodrick was an imposing figure in victory lane, standing alongside the likes of numerous future NASCAR Hall of Famers such as Dale Earnhardt, Bobby Allison, Richard Petty and David Pearson after they won races.

It was hard to miss him. He stood 6-foot-3 and had a wrestler’s body, along with flaming and flowing long red hair and a Grizzly Adams-like beard.

He was known as “Red,” “the Victory Lane Ringmaster,” “Big Bill” or simply “Bill.” But what was really his calling card, and the nickname that made him famous, was “the Hat Man.”

He was the ringmaster of victory lane. He ran the postrace celebration like a business, deciding who’d greet the winner first and the subsequent pecking order, so to speak. He’d direct the race queens who typically kissed the winner and when. He also directed photographers where to set up and when to shoot. He arranged how TV would cover the celebration and made sure the networks had the best camera angles and the first interviews.

NASCAR car owner Banjo Matthews (left) talks with UNOCAL publicist Bill Brodrick at a NASCAR event in 1980. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives)

But Brodrick’s biggest claim to fame was how, in almost military-like precision, he got the driver and crew members of the winning team to change hats nearly every 30 seconds or so to allow photographers to take shots for different sponsors.

If Dale Earnhardt won, Brodrick passed out GM Goodwrench hats, Union 76 hats and many more to accommodate almost every sponsor on the winning car. If Richard Petty won, Brodrick passed out STP hats, Union 76 hats, and so forth until every sponsor was represented in victory lane photos. It’s where the famous “hat dance” got its name, courtesy of Brodrick.

“I’m tall, am a big guy, and I had long hair and I had a beard,” he said. “That persona is what stuck in people’s minds. When I realized that, I wasn’t about to get rid of my beard and long hair. I still have it. I haven’t changed much, except for a few more lines in my forehead. People still come up to me and say, ‘Hi, Hat Man, how are you doing?’ That persona is what made me what I was to the fans and viewers.

“Being The Hat Man was my trademark. In fact, I had ‘The Hat Man’ trademarked for a number of years so nobody could come along and steal ‘The Hat Man’ name away from me.

“Television is what made people recognize me. I never expected it. It just happened. I was there and for what I was doing, I’d be on camera, and people would recognize me and see me with the drivers.”

Photo: Bill Brodrick

A former sportswriter and radio host in his native Cincinnati, Brodrick went to work on Jan. 1, 1969 for Union Oil in California (also known as UNOCAL) as PR director for its worldwide racing division. Four days later, he was in Daytona for timing tests, and with that began the legacy of “The Hat Man.”

Since Union Oil’s Union 76 was the official fuel for NASCAR, IndyCar and other series during much of his tenure, Brodrick was a man in constant motion, going from Daytona to Indianapolis to Le Mans and more. He often spent 200 days on the road in any given year.

These days, Brodrick, 79, lives in retirement in Algonquin, Illinois. Due to medical issues, he doesn’t travel much anymore, but he still keeps up with racing and fondly recalls the good old days with an excitement that seems as if they almost happened just yesterday.

Brodrick was friends with everyone back in the day. He used to hang out with David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty, Mario Andretti, Rick Mears, Al Unser (Sr. and Jr.), A.J. Foyt and countless others during some of their most successful years in racing.

Even though he’s been gone from racetracks for 20 years, he hasn’t been forgotten. He still gets several letters and trading cards to autograph from fans.

Brodrick still gets trading cards he was featured on from fans seeking his autograph, even this one, which had his last name misspelled.

And yes, he’s still recognized as “The Hat Man.”

“It doesn’t happen like it used to, where everywhere you’d go, especially at race time, in airports and all that kind of stuff, but it still happens,” he said. “I’m flattered for what I get.”

Not surprisingly, Brodrick has a ton of stories to tell. He’s thought about writing a book, but “I’d have to change all the names to protect the guilty,” he says with a laugh.

“I’ve done so much in my career that has enabled me to travel the world and participate in all kinds of events,” Brodrick said. “I ran in the Cannonball Run, was in the Great American Race, we sponsored some vehicles. I helped out for 20 years at the Super Bowl, too.”

Here’s a few of Brodrick’s other favorite stories:

“The drivers were all my favorites,” he said. “David Pearson and I got along well and were good friends. Dan Gurney was one of my favorites as both a driver and a car owner, a real gentleman and great to work with.

“I also got along real well with Bobby Allison. Bobby would like to drown me with champagne. Whenever Bobby would win a race, I knew I was in trouble. We’d go to Mass on Sunday morning before we’d go to the racetrack – we are both Catholic – and he’d say to me, ‘I’m going to get you today, Brodrick.’ And I’d tell him, ‘I hope so, Bobby.’”

Brodrick had a special relationship with both Petty and Earnhardt.

“They were super guys and total opposites in victory lane,” Brodrick said. “Richard was the

NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Allison “gets” Bill Brodrick with champagne after a win. (Photo: Charlie Morgan)

quintessential pro.

“Whenever Richard won, I’d have a cup of milk ready for him. He wanted a cup of milk because Richard had a bad stomach. He only has half a stomach; he had the other half removed at one time. I’d have a cup of milk for him, and he’d also want a couple aspirins until he got the Goody’s sponsorship, and then I’d have to have a couple of Goody’s for him and he’d drink his milk (before he met the press).

“Then he’d say, ‘Okay, Bill, let’s let them cats get their pictures.’ He’d go over and give them what they want. He was great to work with.

“Probably the best time I had with Richard was his 200th win at Daytona in July 1984 when President Reagan was there. That was such a memorable day.

“And then there was Ernie Irvan’s win at Loudon in 1996 after he was seriously injured in a crash. There was Alan Kulwicki’s first win at Phoenix in 1988. There was also Darrell Waltrip when he won Daytona in 1989 and did his funky little dance, what’d they call it, ‘the Icky Shuffle?’ There just were so many good memories and stories over the years.”

But Earnhardt, well, he was kind of a different story.

Brodrick was in victory lane for most of Dale Earnhardt’s wins. Photo: Getty Images

“He always wanted to do everything his way,” Brodrick recalled. “I’d ask him to do something and he’d say, ‘I don’t want to do it.’ But actually, he was pulling my chain. The first thing he’d always say to me is, ‘Brodrick, where’s the champagne?’ I told him he’d get the champagne when we were done because he’d love to spray the photographers and people in victory lane. If there was a race where I didn’t have any when he won, he was not a happy camper. That was Dale’s big deal in victory lane.

“If there wasn’t any champagne, he was just his ornery, contrary self. He could be gruff and rough, but he’d give me that wink and smile, and you knew he was just being hard with you.”

And then there was Pearson.

“I used to fly down to Spartanburg (South Carolina, where Pearson lived), I’d meet David and then we’d drive together to Darlington,” Brodrick said. “There’s a restaurant at the Darlington Raceway that’s called the ‘Speedway Grill.’ They had and I heard still have the greatest hamburger steak and French fries in the world.

“One day, we were going to a race, and we were running late, we had to be there by noon, and I told him there’s no way he was going to make it on time. This was back when the speed limit was 55 mph. There’s a town near the track about 20 miles from Darlington where a four-lane highway begins. There’s a state highway patrol office there, so we were passing that office when a highway patrolman pulled out in front of us and proceeded to go exactly 55 mph heading to Darlington.

“Pearson was going crazy behind the wheel because he knows he can’t pass the cop. We had a bet who was going to pay for lunch. Pearson was very frugal with his money. He could make a buffalo scream off a nickel. The cop was also going to Darlington. Of course, I won, we didn’t get there by noon and Pearson had to buy lunch and boy, was he ticked. That’s one of my favorite stories of my career.”

But even with enough stories to last another lifetime, one thing stands out above all in Brodrick’s mind.

“What I miss the most is the camaraderie and fellowship we had in the old days when I was working,” he said. “I thank God every day that I was able to spend time when the sport (NASCAR) was in its heyday. We were very fortunate to be doing what we were doing when we were doing it. That’s what I liked.”

Brodrick was six weeks shy of 30 years with Union Oil when the company was sold, putting him into a forced retirement earlier than he would have liked.

Just like that, the racing, the travel, the thousands of drivers, crew chiefs, team owners, sanctioning body officials and even fans he came to know was gone – as was his “Hat Man” alter ego.

Bill Brodrick today (Photo courtesy Bill Brodrick)

The abrupt end took Brodrick by surprise, but he tried to make the best of it. He decided to open a bar in Algonquin called “Tavern At The Bridge,” because it was located on the Fox River.

The bar became a repository of all kinds of racing memorabilia, mostly from Brodrick’s collection of items he gained during his career. It also attracted thousands of race fans who wanted to see the “Hat Man” behind the bar.

“I put 40 years of racing experience to good use, and I bought a tavern,” he laughs. “I kept it for 11 years and I’ve never worked so hard in all my life.

“My whole life was in racing and motorsports, and I got paid to do my hobby. Then I went to work and worked almost 24 hours a day. I found out what it was to own a business and be responsible for people.

“The economy turned bad in 2008, and I turned it over to my son and was finally able to get out of the business. It was a lot of fun and we met a lot of people, but boy, that was work after all the years of going to races.”

Brodrick still keeps up with racing, particularly NASCAR, IndyCar and sports car racing, even though his health issues – primarily arthritis in his back – prevent him from even going to nearby tracks such as Chicagoland Speedway or Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Still, a day doesn’t go by that Brodrick isn’t reminded of all the things he’s experienced.

“For almost 30 years, I had the greatest job in the world,” he said. “I met so many great people, was at so many great races, saw so much racing history in the making.”

And right there in the middle was the one and only ‘Hat Man.’”

Bill welcomes emails from fans and past motorsports acquaintances. His address is: WilliamBrodrick@aol.com. Also, click here for his website.Follow @JerryBonkowski