Evernham Fears Innovation Loss
By: Dave Rodman on June 23, 2011 | 4:21 P.M. EST
During his career, Ray Evernham built the reputation of being a NASCAR innovator. (Photo: Getty Images)
NASCAR’s decision this week to levy fines against three Sprint Cup Series crew chiefs for unapproved oil pans has prompted significant discussion, both inside and outside the garage.
NASCAR officials were very specific in saying that the $50,000 fines for Joe Gibbs Racing crew chiefs Mike Ford, Greg Zipadelli and Dave Rogers did not involve illegal parts, just parts that had not been submitted to NASCAR for prior approval.
It was a distinction that few people understood. On Motor Racing Network’s NASCAR Performance Live broadcast, former Sprint Cup Series team owner and championship crew chief Ray Evernham admitted to scratching his head about it.
“This is hard (to say) but how was the part unapproved but not illegal?” Evernham asked. “From my understanding, those parts could still be approved at some point. Then I didn’t understand the fines. Maybe I’ve been sitting on the couch too long, but I would sure love for NASCAR to say ‘Here are the rules, and if you can come up with something that’s within those rules and it’s not illegal, have at it.’”
Evernham isn’t sure that he likes where he fears the sport he has been involved with may be going.
“I think the tough part about it is now every part on the car has to be approved,” Evernham explained. “There is no approved parts list, yet you have to present everything for approval. In some ways, I find that challenging and I find it a little bit sad because it takes one edge of the sport away. .
“A crew chief could be creative within the rules, but now you can’t even be creative within the rules unless your part is approved. You don’t get to take that mechanical advantage or that innovation that drives these guys. I feel like, to a point, we’re getting too much like spec racing and we’re taking tools away from the guys.
“It’s great that the sport is about drivers, as it should be. But one thing that has always been exciting about this sport has been the innovators, the guys like Smokey Yunick and Leonard Wood. Guys who were innovative within the rules.”
Evernham thought his role as Jeff Gordon’s crew chief at Hendrick Motorsports was very clear.
“In the spirit of competition, aren’t we really supposed to try to come up with an advantage within the rules?” Evernham says. They (NASCAR) say that you shouldn’t show up (to the track) with something that will give you a performance advantage. But isn’t that what racing’s about? As a crew chief, I always thought that it was my job to come up with a performance advantage.”
Evernham says the sanctioning body handled things differently in those days.
“It used to be that we could build something and take it to the race track and they (NASCAR inspectors) would look at it and say ‘That’s pretty clever. But, you know, don’t bring it back next week,’ because it was within the rules. If something was clearly outside the rules, then you got your hand slapped, it got taken away, and you got fined.
“I think we’ve still got to give a little bit of something back to the mechanics and say ‘Look, if you do something within the rules, we’re going to pat you on the back but like they did with ‘T-Rex’ (the car that Evernham and Rex Stumpf developed for Jeff Gordon) we’re going to write a rule about it tomorrow. You’re going to have it tonight, but we’re going to write the rule tomorrow.”
Even though he’s concerned about the innovation loss in the mechanical realm, he has a clear idea of what he would like to see from NASCAR going forward.
“Ultimately, auto racing is a team sport. The drivers are great, but it is not boxing. It is not The Olympics. It’s a team sport, and there’s a mechanical factor and the people who don’t necessarily drive the cars can still be a big part of things by designing a mechanical advantage. I would like to see those people have a little bit more space (to operate) in this sport because they’ve been a big part of this sport for so long.
“We used to wait for new cars to come out or new designs or new exciting things. I really don’t feel good about the idea of NASCAR being spec racing.”