Thursday, October 24, 2013

Checkered Past: Oct. 24, 1985 – The Day the Racing World Lost a Champ, Richie Evans

In the song “American Pie,” Don McLean sang about “the day the music died.” In the sport of auto racing, that day has been happening all too often in recent years, with sport-impacting deaths of drivers like Jason Leffler, Dan Wheldon and Dale Earnhardt among the most recent fans have suffered through.
Richie Evans and the famous No. 61
credit: Howie Hodge/NASCAR Media

Some of the sprint car wrecks which have been publicized in the 2013 season, headlined by the season-ending injury to three-time Cup champ Tony Stewart and the passing of Leffler, bring to mind a similar time in NASCAR’s oldest series, the Modifieds, now racing as the Whelen Modified and Southern Modified Tours. The spotlight on the series and its dangers began on this day, Oct. 24, in 1985 – the day NASCAR lost one of its greatest champs, Richie Evans.

Evans had just wrapped up his ninth NASCAR Modified title – his eighth straight – a week earlier at the track in Thompson, Connecticut.  During practice for the Modified race portion of the Winn-Dixie 500 – 200 laps for the Mods, 200 laps for the Grand National (now Nationwide) Series and a 100-lap Late Model race – at Martinsville Speedway, Evans hit the Turn 3 wall…and he was gone. A driver with 400-plus wins, numerous local, regional and national championships, and legions of adoring fans – gone in an instant.

Richie Evans
credit: Howie Hodge/NASCAR Media
Sadly, Evans’ death was just the first of many to occur in the Modified ranks over the next five years. Less than 18 months later, Charlie Jarzombek was killed while racing at Martinsville, and a few months after that Corky Cookman perished in a race at Thompson International Speedway. The toll hit home for me when two drivers – brothers-in-law – from my local track, Lancaster Speedway, were killed racing Modifieds: Tommy Druar at Lancaster in June 1989 and, less than a year later, Tony Jankowiak at Stafford Speedway in April 1990; in between, Don Pratt was killed in an accident during the Race of Champions at Pocono Raceway in September 1989.


Changes have been made to the cars and the tracks (Lancaster put up one of the first versions of what has now become the SAFER Barrier), and unfortunately the world of Modified racing lost two more drivers (Tom Baldwin Sr. – father of owner/crew chief Tommy Baldwin – in August 2004 and John Blewett III in August 2007, both at Thompson) since – but, as with the Cup Series, sprint car racing, IndyCar racing and many other motorsports, any change that makes the sport safer is a welcome change. It’s always sad, however, that a sport has to lose one of its champions to make such changes occur in the first place.

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