On a clear, unseasonably chilly night in April, fans file into the gates of this 5/8-mile dirt track to watch the opening races of the 2015 season.
In the infield of the track, alongside the Stars and Stripes and the Maple Leaf, an orange flag waves bearing a number 61 in homage to a hometown hero.
Turning the clock back over 40 years ago, Utica-Rome Speedway was shorter, the surface was paved and a local modified driver began what became one of the most dominant and legendary careers in NASCAR history.
“When you came to the race and saw that bright orange 61 car parked in the pits, you knew you were going to see a good race,” said John Crane, Central New York farmer and lifelong race fan.
Born in Rome N.Y., Richie Evans left his Westernville, N.Y. home when he was 16 years old to work as a mechanic in a garage back in Rome. He quickly became a successful street racer and a winner in drag racing, before entering his first oval track race in 1962.
According to NASCAR Hall of Fame historian, Buz McKim, Evans’ first stock car was numbered 109, which he took from President John F. Kennedy’s patrol torpedo boat, Pt-109.
Evans began racing modifieds, the premier short track series, in 1965, and he won the feature on the final night of the season.
It took Evans a few years to get the hang of racing on an oval. He won the track championship at Fulton Speedway in 1970 and 1971, and he won his first hometown track championship at Utica-Rome in 1972.
In 1973, Evans won the NASCAR National Modified championship for the first time, but he failed to defend it.
Evans regained the title of national champion in 1978, and this time he held it until the day he died.
From 1978 to 1985, Evans won eight consecutive national championships, giving him nine total. Along with his national titles, Evans also won 30 track championships in four states across the Northeast.
No official records are available on Evans’ career. It’s estimated that he made 1,300 career starts and won 475 of them.
“He always made it look easy,” McKim said. “When I was a kid, I used to watch him race at New Smyrna down in Florida, he’d come down every February, and the whole rest of field would be bumping and banging and scraping for every position, and Richie would get out front, and you’d almost think like he was driving down to the store for a loaf of bread.”
“He would just cruise,” McKim said.
Evans is unquestionably the most dominant and well-regarded modified driver in the history of the sport. Despite never moving on to the upper levels of NASCAR, Evans was voted as one of the top 50 NASCAR drivers ever in 1998, and the 61 is only number to ever be retired in any NASCAR series.
In 2012, Evans was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. He was the first inductee that never participated in the Cup Series, NASCAR’s premier series.
According to Doug Zupan, historian at Utica-Rome Speedway, Evans had a few offers to move up, but he was more than content with where he was.
“He’d race four, five or six times a week, and he’d probably win half of them,” Zupan said. “He was pretty comfortable doing what he was doing and basically being king of the city of Rome.”
Evans meant a lot to Rome and the speedway. According to Zupan, it’s likely that Evans is the reason why the track is still there today.
Not only is Evans regarded as one of the most talented drivers ever; he’s one of the most beloved drivers. He was voted as the most popular modified driver by fans nine times.
According to McKim, Evans was so popular because he was humble and blue-collar people could easily relate to him.
“He never gloated, he was like an everyman just like with [Dale] Earnhardt,” McKim said. “He was a little bit wild, too. He liked to drink, he liked to have a good time and he would party with his fans.”
According to McKim, he has never seen a turn out for an induction ceremony as big as when Evans was inducted.
Zupan was one of 10 people that Utica-Rome Speedway sent to represent the track at the induction ceremony in Charlotte.
“It’s probably one of the highlights of my life,” Zupan said. “It was pretty obvious that weekend that Richie was the person that filled the auditorium.”
In 1985, during a practice session at Martinsville Speedway in Virginia for the final race of the season, Evans was killed when his car slammed into the wall in turn three. The cause of death was a basil skull fracture, an injury that’s killed a number of racers, including Earnhardt and Adam Petty.
There’s still speculation as to why Evans drove into the wall seemingly without trying to turn. According to McKim, the driver behind Evans claimed he saw Evans’ head slumped over in the car right before the impact.
“It was total disbelief because he was indestructible, he was a superman,” McKim said. “Nothing ever happened to Richie, he never wrecked cars, and it was just one of those very strange things.”
Evans’ death, along with a number of other deaths in the modified series, led NASCAR to look into the safety of the cars. They discovered that the cars were built too rigid, and they weren’t absorbing any of the impact.
“Unfortunately in the industry, I think it takes a real wake up call sometimes to make some safety changes,” Zupan said.
Evans was 45 years old when he passed away. He had already clinched the 1985 national championship, which was awarded to him posthumously.
“That sort of thing really sets up almost like a folklore kind of thing, a legendary sort of thing,” McKim said.
According to Zupan, Utica-Rome plans to open a track hall of fame, which Evans will surely be the first inductee.
For now, that orange No. 61 flag waves proudly at the track where Evans began his legendary career.
“There will always be a presence of him there, that’s for sure,” Zupan said.
NASCAR Hall of Fame historian, Buz McKim, describes Upsate New York’s racing scene.