By Rick Minter
The NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, North Carolina, will induct its ninth class on Jan. 19, and the five inductees all made their mark on the sport, while they mostly did so in different ways.
One inductee, the late Red Byron, was a World War II hero who came home, adapted to his war injuries and became the first champion of the series now known as Monster Energy Cup, despite a leg injury that required a special brace to work the pedals in his race cars.
Joining him are the late Robert Yates, a crew chief, engine builder and team owner, and Ray Evernham, a onetime Modified driver who became a championship-winning crew chief and later a team owner and broadcaster.
Veteran broadcaster and racing promoter Ken Squier also is being inducted, along with driver Ron Hornaday Jr., who achieved his greatest success in the Camping World Truck Series and is the first predominately trucks driver to be voted into the Hall.
Squier, Hornaday and Evernham participated in a teleconference last week, and among the comments offered by Squier were his thoughts on the induction of Byron, who did most of his racing on the old Modified circuit, where he was the NASCAR national champion in 1948, the year before the formation of the series now known as Cup.
In Cup, Byron, who drove for another Hall of Famer, the late Raymond Parks, won just two races, both in ’48, and raced only 15 times before stepping away from the sport after the 1951 season.
“I’m really excited about it for Red Byron, who I truly believe is one of the most misunderstood heroes of that time period,” Squier said. “I’m thrilled that I’m one of the ones that will join him in the Hall of Fame.
“As far as I was concerned, from the outset, Red Byron should have been there. But that’s what it’s all about, because it’s voted by the peers. So many are younger than the generation that Red Byron came from and when he won the title in 1948. History has been rectified a bit. I’m thrilled about that.”
Squier also weighed in on Evernham, who started out racing Modifieds in New Jersey and went on to become a crew chief and win three Cup championships and 47 Cup races with Jeff Gordon as his driver.
He also won 13 more races as a team owner.
“[Evernham] found a way to continue to develop his ability to do things in racing,” Squier said. “He was one of those people that was going to be needed, and needed badly, who not only understood how to put some pieces and parts together, but he also was a good manager of people. That was a whole part of the act.”
Evernham is generally credited with refining the role of the NASCAR pit crew, advancing the techniques perfected by the Wood Brothers before him.
“I think I was maybe responsible for bringing it to a different level,” Evernham said. “You’ve got to go all the way back to the Wood Brothers when you look at the modern-day pit crew, the focus on how important it was to shave those seconds off.
“Those guys started it. Everybody else since then has pretty much just kind of developed it and reworked it.”
One of Evernham’s main contributions to the modern pit stop was the use of pit crew members whose sole focus was pit stops.
“We had the idea about bringing in professional athletes,” Evernham said. “The biggest thing I thought of back then is how can I expect a guy to work the way we’re working in the shop, at that time 14, 16 hours a day, then be able to pit the car on Sundays, be fresh, be focused?
“Let’s train some people that have skills and abilities and time to do that, that could be faster, and we could really gain something.
“I think that set the stage for what’s happening now.”
Evernham said that with the closeness of the on-track competition today, pit stops take on an even greater importance.
“It used to be if your car was fast enough, you could pass, you could lose a couple spots on pit road and get that back,” he said. “It’s not that way right now, it’s more equal. The more equal the cars become, the more important that pit crew becomes.”
Evernham was one of the last of the big-time crew chiefs to be a hands-on participant in the preparation and tuning of the car. Whereas today’s crew chiefs are more like business managers, the job in his day was more like that of a coach.
“Whether I should try to think that I deserve to be even mentioned in a [football coach Vince] Lombardi style or not, that’s kind of who I patterned after,” Evernham said. “Tough on people, drive them hard, but cared about them. You’ve got to be able to have that compassion along with determination. That part I enjoyed. I loved working down on the floor with the guys. I loved being at the race track.
“But as far as the actual managing without the personal touch, [it’s] just something I didn’t enjoy. I really believe that’s why I didn’t enjoy being a car owner as much as I did a crew chief, because we got so big so fast that I had to act more as a CEO and manager rather than one-on-one digging down with the guys, coaching.”