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Grassroots racin' alive and well

4/8/2009 - NASCAR
David Newton

STANLEY, N.C. -- A man wearing a T-shirt and blue jeans approached the small wooden credentials building at the entrance of the garage, where men covered in grease and red clay were fine-tuning cars identified as the "Albino Rhino" and "XX."

"Hey, Cooter here?" the man asked.

This wasn't Texas Motor Speedway, where NASCAR's top two series competed last weekend. Not even close. There were no paved garages with stalls or fancy suites. There were no big-time sponsor names on the cars or hospitality tents filled with big-money spenders.

The only parallels between this place and racing in the Lone Star State was that some of the competitors and spectators wore cowboy boots and somebody named Cooter likely was at both.

Welcome to East Lincoln Speedway, or new East Lincoln Speedway, depending on who's talking.

It's a three-eighths-mile dirt track buried in the hills of Lincoln County about 25 minutes from downtown Charlotte. It doesn't look like much if you're used to big-time stock car racing, but to Ray Evernham it is a slice of heaven.

Yes, the same Evernham who helped Jeff Gordon win 47 races and three of his four Sprint Cup titles, earning him the distinction of the greatest crew chief ever. The same Evernham who built Evernham Motorsports into a successful Cup organization before selling majority interest to Montreal Canadiens owner George Gillett Jr.

The same Evernham who now works as an analyst for ESPN.

"It takes you back to your roots," Evernham said as he anxiously awaited Saturday's opening of his new venture. "In some ways [Cup racing's] not reality. It's not healthy to be flying around in Learjets every day and living in big motor coaches.

"These people are not going out buying [a] $150 pair of shoes. They're not going out buying a suit or a Rolex. Sometimes you've got to go back and understand why you're here, why you love this so much. I get that feeling while I'm there."

Evernham purchased the track from Ralph and Joanne Nantz in December. Apparently Ralph -- decked out in his finest bibbed overalls for the opening -- and his dog came with the facility.

The dog, appropriately named "Blackie" because he is black, is about as close to a thoroughbred as East Lincoln Speedway is to TMS.

"He's just a dog," Ralph said when asked to identify the hound's make and year.

And East Lincoln is just a dirt track. Nothing fancy. Just red clay in a banked oval where young Cup wannabes get their start and longtime racers keep their dreams alive. The total purse for the evening: $4,000.

Evernham, 51, wants to keep it simple just like the tracks were when he was a wannabe in New Jersey. He doesn't plan to schedule super late-models races with purses of $10,000 or more, although there will be the occasional challenge races with his celebrity friends.

He wants this to be a place the 15-year-old working at the local gas station or bike shop can buy a $3,000 car and race.

"The size of it protects me from myself," he said of the facility that still looks rustic despite a fresh coat of red and white paint. "What I tried to explain to the guys is this place is not going to be about coming to make money. It's about family, local entertainment and getting a place to start."

'Uh, Mr. Evernham?'

The first race was more than an hour away when a Lincoln County police officer approached Evernham.

"He said, 'Mr. Evernham. I have no place left to park cars. What do you want me to do?' " Evernham said.

Evernham actually anticipated this might be a problem. He stopped at the homes of a few neighbors earlier in the day to explain that people might park along the road near or on their property.

He never expected this, though. About 1,500 people and 89 competitors -- both track records -- showed on this glorious spring evening. The concrete grandstands were packed, many making their first trip to the facility off Mariposa Road.

The new party deck over the new scoring tower also was packed. Evernham spent so much time making sure everybody had a good time that he missed the inaugural wreck. He pushed several spectators to the wheelchair-accessible area, wanting to see firsthand whether that section was adequate.

One woman tried to tip him.

"I don't think she knew it was me," Evernham said. "I was, 'No, ma'am. It's fine.' "

For Buddy Smith, who claims he won the inaugural race at East Lincoln 20 years ago and wrecked more Earnhardts than anybody on the planet during his heyday as a driver, Evernham's participation was a good sign.

"Most racetracks like this, the owners hide," he said.

Evernham won't be here for every race. Because of obligations with other ventures, he'll attend about half of the events. But when here he plans to be visible, and might even drive a few challenge races against event winners to spice things up.

"This is good for the community," said Smith, who grew up 5 miles from the track. "This may be the biggest gathering ever in Lincoln County … high school football and everything.

"A lot of people used to bitch about the place. Ain't nobody bitching now."

Cleaning things up

Evernham spent the better part of last week wearing his first set of bibbed overalls, doing everything from bulldozing dirt to welding the new safety walls in a pouring rain to have everything perfect for the debut.

And by the way, they don't make designer overalls like the Seven jeans he wore for the debut.

"Right now I have William Rast working on a set for me," Evernham said jokingly of the man who designed a clothing line for Justin Timberlake.

You get spoiled standing in Victory Lane at Daytona and places like that. You can't forget what drove you there.

-- Ray Evernham

Physical appearance aside, Evernham's main goal is to clean up things and make this a family-type atmosphere. That also was made clear in the drivers' meeting, when competitors were informed of strict policies against drinking and rough driving that in the past gave the place a bad rap.

"I just believe they wanted some leadership and organization," Evernham said.

Alex Patton, the commissioner of Lincoln County, liked what he saw from inside and outside the cockpit of the two-seater Sprint Car that Evernham piloted during a break in the racing.

This was Patton's first trip to the track, but he'd heard enough through his son and community members to know the atmosphere Saturday was quite different than in past years.

"When I first became commissioner, people complained about this place," he said. "There was a lot of riffraff here. Ray is committed to the neighbors to doing it the right way. He's saving Saturday night racing in Lincoln County."

Evernham also, according to Patton, is bringing the county more national exposure "than we could have dreamed" because of his name and reputation.

"All the racing in the past has basically been on the other side of the lake," Patton said of Lake Norman, which separates Lincoln County from much of the NASCAR world around Mooresville and Cornelius. "We want some on this side."

Back to the future

Evernham stood near the rail of the party deck, his hand resting on the shoulder of his 78-year-old dad, Ray Evernham Sr.

"In 1975, '76, I was one of those kids," he said of the competitors. "I had $600 invested in my first race car [in Jersey]. Me and my dad were there. It's kind of come full circle."

The elder Evernham isn't a big fan of dirt track racing, but he is a big fan of his son.

"This is something he always wanted to do," he said with pride in his voice.

Race fan Lorenne Huffman is thankful he did.

"Everybody was excited when they found out Ray was going to be here," she said, while waiting for her son to compete. "He's made a lot of good changes."

The real change has been in Evernham. He's not nearly as intense as when he sat on the pit box as a crew chief or team owner, although put him behind the wheel of a Sprint Car and he believes he's Gordon. He's learning to appreciate and enjoy things that are important in his life, such as family and personal time.

He might be retired from Cup racing, but he's not retired from racing. It was refreshing to see.

"You get spoiled standing in Victory Lane at Daytona and places like that," Evernham said. "You can't forget what drove you there.

"Everybody wants to make a difference in the world. I can't make a difference in the world, but maybe I can make a difference in grass-roots racing in Lincoln County, N.C."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.