Touch the Sky: Jeff Gordon

Trophies and Scars: Ray Evernham
post by
Ray Evernham
Original DuPont Racing Team for No. 24 Car

The following is an excerpt from NASCAR crew chief Ray Evernham's autobiography, Trophies and Scars. You needn’t be a racing fan to appreciate Evernham’s inspiring journey of tireless persistence, radical determination, steadfast leadership, and fearless reinvention. For as he believes, a life lived to the fullest is packed with trophies—and scars. In this excerpt, Jeff Gordon dives into his legendary relationship with Ray Evernham.

I’ve been very fortunate throughout both my personal and professional life to have had two guys at my side. They are among the smartest, hardest-working, most disciplined, most honest, reliable, principled, and trustworthy people I’ve ever known.

One is my stepfather, John Bickford.

The other I consider my older brother and one of my best friends, Ray Evernham. Without a doubt, I wouldn’t be where I am today if either hadn’t shown up in my life.

John put me in the car when I was five. He also nurtured and coached me through every stage of my early racing career, from quarter midgets to sprints to stock cars. John, along with my mom, Carol, selflessly sacrificed in ways only the most loving and supportive parents do in order to get me to the threshold of my NASCAR racing career with Hendrick Motorsports.

Then, through a chance meeting, they passed the baton to Ray, whose unmatched ingenuity, inspiring leadership, and relentless work ethic helped further unleash my talent as a NASCAR Cup driver. Together we reached heights neither of us ever imagined possible. Believe me, if I hadn’t lived it, I’d have thought it was fiction.

I was thrilled when Ray told me he’d decided to share his story. Now you’ll have the chance to get to know him like few of us do.

When most people think of Ray Evernham, they think aggressively intense and beyond demanding.

While most of that’s accurate, or at least it was back when we raced the No. 24, it’s an unfair characterization and out of context. When we raced, we adopted the slogan “Refuse to Lose.” (You can only transform that from catchphrase to championship if you take it seriously and don’t allow anything—or anyone—to distract your focus.) Also, as the expression goes, Ray did not suffer fools gladly—either in the No. 24 shop or in the pits.

Oh, and you can add laziness and excuse makers to that list.

The first No. 24 car done at the Hendrick shop in 1992. Ray Evernham Enterprises Archives
The first No. 24 car done at the Hendrick shop in 1992. Photo courtesy of Ray Evernham Enterprises Archives

Yet his intensity, innate boundary-pushing mechanical skill, and inspiring team-building style forever changed our sport, as well as the record books, as evidenced by our shelves full of trophies, honors, and championships.

It’s funny. He reminded me recently how he’d never been a crew chief until he became mine. Well, the fact is, I’d never been a Cup driver until I became his Cup driver.

The other thing we share, which again, I only recently discovered, is both of us were motivated to do our jobs to the very best of our abilities due to a deep desire not to disappoint the other. We each respected how hard we knew the other worked and how determined we were to win every race.

There was no way either of us would allow ourselves to be the weak link. But nobody worked harder than Ray.

While he had high expectations for our team, Ray possessed even higher expectations for himself. He also took full responsibility for any mistake made by the team.

I realize now Ray was not just knowledgeable about race car mechanics, he was also a savvy leader. He studied leadership. Ray knew how to motivate and guide our team. I admired those qualities because I didn’t have such natural ability. I’m confident I can lead when required, but I struggled with setting goals and planning the team’s objectives. Ray had a clear plan and vision, and everyone on the team respected him for it.

I knew I could learn a lot from Ray. When we first connected, I trusted he’d always put me in the best race car. Ray was unbeatable when it came to delivering the finest race car and race team, especially with the resources Rick provided us. And he had the same level of trust in me. I knew when I told him what was going on with the car he would listen to every word and do whatever it took to fix it. And if he gave me advice on how to approach a race or a pit stop, I had absolute faith in him.

The only time I ever questioned Ray’s decision was when it came to adjusting the track bar. After a few years of working together and having some success, I became sensitive to any changes made to this component.

Ray would even joke about it. “Jeff, I only lowered it a quarter of an inch. It couldn’t have made that big of a difference.” Still, I knew when the track bar went up, I didn’t like how it felt. When Ray put it back down, I swear it was better. I used to tell him, “Hey buddy. My butt doesn’t lie.”

Ray Evernham, Jeff, and John Hendrick at Rockingham in 1998. Ray Evernham Enterprises Archives
Ray Evernham, Jeff Gordon, and John Hendrick at Rockingham in 1998. Photo courtesy of Ray Evernham Enterprises Archives

Our 1998 season was the epitome of our career together. It’s still one of the most successful seasons of any team in NASCAR history. We dominated in laps led, wins, and top fives, and we clinched the championship prior to the last race under the old points system. That season was a game changer for NASCAR. Literally. Our success changed the sport.

However, it was also the peak of our career. Heading into the 1999 season, we asked ourselves, “Where do we go from here?”

We’d accomplished one of the greatest seasons in NASCAR history, and we had to maintain our competitive edge. Ray believed the only way we could do that was by finding new areas of the car to engineer. He believed our competitors were going to catch up to us mechanically. We had to maintain that competitive gap.

Unfortunately, we started having failures and problems, and our relationship also suffered. As for me, I would have been fine holding back a little if it meant giving us a chance at winning more races and championships. Ray had a different philosophy in mind, and that led to our relationship deteriorating. We were victims of our own success.

But that wasn’t the only reason.

We had each allowed certain people and influences into our respective lives, and our magic dimmed. If we had been able to see it, I’m convinced there would have been many more trophies for Ray, me, and the No. 24 team. Because of our bond, we could have worked through our differences, maybe with one of Rick Hendrick’s famous “milk and cookie” sit-downs.

Instead, we went our separate ways.

In the end, it worked out well for both of us, and we have a great relationship today. Ray and I spend more time together, and have more fun now, than we ever did when we worked together. And we have more in common than I realized.

Though we’re older, our confidence and competitiveness haven’t diminished one bit. That was clear to all who watched us race in the Porsche Cup Series at Indianapolis over Labor Day weekend, September 2022. It didn’t take for the spark to be triggered—as if we were right back to the good old days. We proved we still had it. And who knows, maybe more races to come.

Patrick Donahue, Jeff Gordon, me, Steve Letarte, and Brian Whitesell. It was great to have so many members of the No. 24 team at my Hall of Fame induction in 2018. Ray Evernham Enterprises Archives
Patrick Donahue, Jeff Gordon, Ray Evernham, Steve Letarte, and Brian Whitesell at Evernham's Hall of Fame induction in 2018. Photo Courtesy of Ray Evernham Enterprises Archives

Ray and I share a relentless competitive nature. We used to have a basketball arcade game in the No. 24 shop. I played it every time I was there. I know it sounds obsessive, but I had to earn the high score. It really used to bug the hell out of me if anyone ever topped it. But it annoyed Ray even more, since I refused to meet with him until I put the high score back on the board.

Ray and I also share a love of sprint car racing, and we try to get to Knoxville Raceway whenever we can. Across from the track, since 1956, is a cool little self-described dive bar called Dingus. In addition to the tasty food and cold beers, they have some fun bar games. One night after the races, Ray and I went in for a burger and beer. Not surprisingly, we got into a beanbag toss battle with a couple of other guys. We played until they kicked us out late in the evening.

We weren’t leaving until we’d beat them—mercilessly.

With few exceptions, when Ray and I were racing, our relationship was pretty much all business. If we were together, it was because we were either testing, racing, or in the shop figuring out how to make the car go faster. Now I love being around him because we get to relax, enjoy his special cocktail concoction, the “Lima Rita,” tell stories, smile. These days when I’m around Ray, I just smile and laugh a lot.

Moreover, I think we both have gotten to a place in our lives where we can enjoy our success. As Ray has gotten older, he’s become humbler and more sensitive. He focuses on being a good husband to his wife Erin, and a good father to his son Ray J. and his daughter Cate.

Sometimes we have a certain view of someone based on what we see on TV or how we’ve interacted with them. Yet, when you dive into someone’s story and really get into the details, you get to know them in a whole new way. On a human level, there’s not a whole lot that separates us.

As the title of this book suggests, Ray’s story is about more than winning races and trophies. It’s about facing life’s many challenges and disappointments, and finding opportunity even in failure. The “scars,” as he puts it. Most of which he shares with unbridled honesty.

You may be surprised to learn Ray is just an everyday guy, one with a unique ability to work on another level. He’s humble and appreciative, and you’ll love hearing how he worked in the gray area to achieve success.

Ray’s story will inspire you to chase your own dreams relentlessly. It will also remind you that with hard work, determination, and perseverance, anything is possible. So go ahead and immerse yourself in Ray’s journey. Let it fuel your own passion in life.

For more stories like this one, check out the related content and related books linked below!