Ray Evernham enjoys researching the annals of stock-car racing, but the man voted the greatest crew chief to work in NASCAR enjoys talking about the past just as much.
Particularly when it’s a conversation with someone he knows well but doesn’t often have the privilege of discussing one of his favorite passions in racing – its history.
Whether it’s via the tapings of the “Glory Road” documentary series or as a member of the new NASCAR Hall of Fame Honors Committee that selects the Pioneer ballot, Evernham is getting those opportunities quite often the last few years.
Starting Wednesday, all 16 of the 30-minute episodes in “Glory Road” are available at TrackPass on NBC Sports Gold. They feature conversations with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Richard Petty, Tony Stewart, Rick Hendrick, Bill Elliott and Jeff Gordon on some of the most legendary moments in NASCAR lore.
“My conversations with Dale Jr. were conversations that we had never really had before,” Evernham recently told NBCSports.com. “My conversations with Mike Helton we hadn’t had before. Jeff Gordon and I talked about things that we hadn’t really talked about.
“I think that sitting with some of the key people and talking about things you hadn’t really talked about before maybe stirred something in their mind that they felt a little more comfortable talking to me than just a standard interview. When you’re talking to somebody that’s interested and have done their research, something always comes out.”
Jeff Gordon’s most successful ride, NASCAR’s road-racing history and the return of Dodge are among the cars, people and places showcased on “Glory Road.” Many interview subjects are featured in multiple interviews such as Helton, a longtime NASCAR executive.
“Mike is a car guy,” Evernham said. “But you don’t get much time with a guy like Mike Helton other than (NASCAR) business. Everybody’s got an agenda when they’re talking to him. When Jeff and I get together, everybody’s got an agenda.
“Those conversations for Glory Road, there was no agenda other than sitting there talking about cool stories and cool cars, and it was really enjoyable. I saw a different side and reached a place with people I’ve known for years that I’ve never been able to go, and I hope to bring that out to fans who are watching the show. They’re seeing a part of this person’s life or personality that they don’t always see because when we’re all racing together, business overrides the other stuff that we want to have fun talking about.”
Evernham said Earnhardt’s knowledge of NASCAR “really surprised me,” which made his recent Hall of Fame nomination seem more apropos.
“I was really happy when Dale was nominated for the Hall of Fame because we had that conversation” for “Glory Road,” Evernham said. “He’s made a huge impact on the sport in a lot of other ways. His popularity No. 1, but the fact how he approached safety and he’s been the first to (raise awareness) about concussions. He’s become very public about his love of the sport and how he followed the history. He actually has a lot of expertise in that area.
“It’s felt like everybody expected him to be a great race car driver, which he was, but I don’t think they were expecting him to be the person that he is.”
Evernham was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2018. He took on a new role this year by joining the Hall’s inaugural 43-member Honors Committee that selects the new Pioneer ballot (open to those whose careers began more than 60 years ago).
Legendary mechanics Banjo Matthews and Jake Elder were among the five nominees to the new Pioneer ballot (one will be chosen for 2021), and Evernham lobbied for both.
“Banjo Matthews took over from Holman-Moody and took Ford and NASCAR to the next step,” Evernham said. “A lot of people don’t know that. Behind the scenes, Banjo pushed for a lot of the safety things through the late ‘70s and ‘80s. I used to pick up the phone and call Banjo all the way up until ’93, ’94, ’95 when I had the No. 24 team. I’m glad he’s not being forgotten because he had such a huge part of the sport.
“A lot of people worked for Jake Elder as well. Jake was a genius. No formal education. Literally could not read or write in some ways. And he was able to understand things mechanically with the car and become a great crew chief and do a lot at a time when the crew chief had to do everything. When they didn’t get any money.”
Much has been made about the Evernham crew chief “tree” that has produced winning crew chiefs such as Chad Knaus, Rodney Childers, Tony Gibson and Steve Letarte. But Evernham hopes the Pioneer ballot will help recognize those before him who spawned generations of crew chiefs.
“The spirit of what those guys did before we had all those fancy tools and all the big money and notoriety; they did that for the love of the sport,” Evernham said. “Ray Evernham’s crew chief tree is deep, but I’m only a branch on Banjo’s tree or the Jay Signore tree. We’re fortunate to trace back NASCAR to the beginning in 1948. You don’t have to go to the 1800s like in baseball and football and other sports. That historical part of our sport is not unreachable, and some of the people we’re talking about now know the forest was very small when they were growing their trees.
“It looks big now with the branches, but when you trace some of the later guys in the Hall of Fame, their roots go all the way back to guys like Banjo Matthews and Jake Elder. I’m glad they’re being recognized. I’m proud to be on that part of the committee. When we recognize those things we really are recognizing them for the footprint they have in motorsports.”