Evernham's legacy mirrors that of Parcells' in NFL

Apr 7 2010 - 8:58pm

If a crew chief is the NASCAR equivalent to a head coach in the NFL, Ray Evernham might be the Bill Parcells of pit road.

Evernham won three Cup series championships as the crew chief for Jeff Gordon and the No. 24 team in the 1990s, raising the bar for the rest of the garage by bringing more technology and professionalism into the sport. After leaving Hendrick Motorsports to start his own team a decade ago, Evernham now works as an analyst for ESPN.

He's no longer directly involved in competition, but his continuing influence on the sport can be seen up and down pit road.

By Evernham's calculation, at least 11 current Sprint Cup series crew chiefs -- and several more in the Nationwide series -- worked for him at some point in their careers. It's a track record similar to that of Parcells, who helped groom numerous assistants to eventually become NFL head coaches.

Evernham says that as a crew chief and team owner, he owed employees the same kind of guidance he received from mentors early in his career.

"It feels good that you're able to pass some of it down," he said. "You have a sense of duty if you care about the sport."

While Evernham is distancing himself from the team he founded -- the organization once known as Evernham Motorsports has merged with Richard Petty's team, and Evernham is in the process of selling his ownership stake -- many of the crew members he hired continue to play key roles in the team's hierarchy.

But Evernham's legacy is most apparent at Hendrick.

Chad Knaus, who was a mechanic and crew member for the No. 24 team under Evernham, has guided Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team to four straight series championships. Steve Letarte, who began working for the No. 24 team as a teenager, occupies Evernham's former spot as Jeff Gordon's crew chief. And Lance McGrew, who once worked under Evernham on a team in the second-tier series now known as Nationwide, is leading Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s No. 88 team.

And others who worked for Evernham went on to become crew chiefs on other teams.

"I don't think it's a coincidence," Letarte said.

Letarte says he learned about leadership, work ethic and attention to detail from Evernham. And he believes being associated with success has made it easier for former Evernham crew members to climb the ladder.

"It's improved your resume enough that it opens doors," Letarte said.

Evernham said his team attracted people with the kind of personality to eventually become crew chiefs.

"I think they had it within them to go and learn," Evernham said. "Most times, they seek you out."

McGrew remembers his original job interview with Evernham, simply being "in awe" and hoping he got the job.

"Ray, at the time, was the total package," McGrew said. "He was THE shock guy. He was THE chassis guy. He was THE aero guy."

Knaus was less reverent in his job interview, showing off the bordering-on-cocky confidence that would eventually become his calling card as Johnson's crew chief. As part of the interview process, Evernham asked perspective employees if they had a five-year plan for their careers.

"Chad looked at me and said, 'I want to have your job,"' Evernham said. "And that's the guy you hire."

Letarte said Evernham encouraged employees to voice dissenting opinions, although they didn't necessarily win many arguments.

"In the end, you did it Ray's way," Letarte said.

And McGrew said Evernham's way represented something of a revolution in NASCAR.

"I think he just took it to another level, from a Saturday-night hobby to a mainstream sport," McGrew said.

Instead of looking at the team as a slightly more grown-up version of what amateur stock car racers did, Evernham saw the No. 24 team as one part sports team, one part tiny auto manufacturer.

"I really looked at things differently," Evernham said. "I looked at it as a professional sports franchise."

Evernham used technology and pit crew training to an extent not seen before in the sport, and kept records of everything.

"I always felt the guy who had the most information had the best chance of making a winning decision," Evernham said.

That's even more true today. While Evernham did much of his own engineering as a crew chief, today's teams have entire engineering departments, making the crew chief more of a manager and motivator than hands-on mechanic.

While Evernham has backed away from day-to-day competition, some still turn to him for advice.

"People still call out of the blue and send me stuff to look at," Evernham said. "It's pretty neat to still be respected like that."

That said, Evernham doesn't see himself ever running a team from the top of a pit box again.

"I had my time," he said. "My time is done."

 

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