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In some ways, it has to feel like Ray Evernham is starting over, with another company that bears his name, surrounded by some of the same people who helped the original Evernham Motorsports get off the ground a decade ago. The no-compete clause that limited Evernham's involvement in racing went away along with one-time partner George Gillett, and the former championship crew chief is revving up, ready to roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty again -- but only to a certain extent. The news of late last week that Evernham's current company -- called Ray Evernham Enterprises -- had partnered with old boss Rick Hendrick surely prompted race fans to fantasize about a reunion of the former crew chief and driver Jeff Gordon, who won three NASCAR titles together, or an Evernham-led effort to rescue the moribund program of Dale Earnhardt Jr. In reality, nothing was further from the truth. Evernham won't even work on the motorsports end, instead focusing on Hendrick's automotive aftermarket business, helping to develop and build high-performance vehicles and parts. "I will do projects if other NASCAR teams brought projects ... But I don't have an interest in being a crew chief, going to races every week, or ever certainly being a full-time owner again." --RAY EVERNHAM It's not exactly the Hendrick-Evernham reunion for which so many had hoped. But at this point in his life, it's exactly what Evernham wants to do. "I love motorsports, I love racing. I've made it pretty clear that I don't want to be assigned to a race team," he said this week. "I don't want to go back and run just one series. I look at myself a lot as a retired athlete. I love racing. Obviously, NASCAR was how I made my living for years, but I love all forms of racing, whether that's dirt, whether that's pavement, whether that's open-wheel, whether that's closed [wheel]. Right now I see so many opportunities to do so many different types of racing, that I don't want to get locked into just one type. I will do projects if other NASCAR teams brought projects here and said, look, we want to do this with our car, make it lighter, lower, faster, whatever. Certainly we're open to those things. But I don't have an interest in being a crew chief, going to races every week, or ever certainly being a full-time owner again." After what he's been through, it's easy to understand why. The original Evernham Motorsports, which won 13 races and according to Evernham turned a profit, was merged with Gillett's company as part of the consolidation craze that swept through NASCAR during the middle portion of the past decade. Evernham sold his majority ownership as a result, with the hope that the relationship would allow him to focus more on racing operations and less on team management. But within a year he had been reduced to a bit player, effectively squeezed out of the organization he founded even though he still retained a small ownership stake. Encumbered by a no-compete clause, Evernham revived his career in television, did some side work as a consultant, designed a new Legends car for race track magnate Bruton Smith . And yet, because he couldn't work with teams that competed against Gillett's outfit, he was severely limited in what he could do. That all changed late last year, when financial troubles forced Gillett to forfeit on contracts, and Gillett himself was eventually bought out of the organization that had since been rechristened as Richard Petty Motorsports. For Evernham, it was a mixed blessing. According to a SportsBuisness Journal story, he was still owed $20 million by his former partner when Gillett's NASCAR endeavor went belly-up. Now he has to stand in line with all of RPM's former creditors, hoping to get paid what he can. But he's also out from underneath Gillett's thumb, and once again able to do business on his own terms. "I was more upset about just the fact that someone else was controlling my destiny, and I didn't like that," Evernham said. "But the legal system in our country is very strange. There are people who know how to work the legal system who don't have to honor debts and things like that, but that's a whole another issue for the government to sort out. But I think the biggest thing that developed was the fact that I couldn't control my destiny if I wanted to, and I feel like I do have a lot to offer to somebody. I've always had a passion for racing machines and motorsports, and if I wanted to go to work on an IndyCar now, I could. If I did want to do some contract work for a Nationwide team or a Cup team or a Truck team, to try and make their product better, I could do that. I didn't like the fact that I couldn't do what I wanted to do. ... I didn't like the fact that I was being controlled." But that possibility always lurked after he gave up majority ownership of the team he founded. "That was the deal. I knew everything that could happen when I signed those papers that day," Evernham said. "I knew that I was giving up control. And when you give up control, you take a chance of that happening. The only thing I am regretful for is that in the end, I hate the fact that my company name is gone. I hate the fact that we're probably not going to get paid what we're owed." Evernham said that under the terms of his agreement with Gillett, he could still have taken on his current project at Hendrick -- where he'll be over on the automotive side, perhaps trying to muscle up Camaros or Corvettes, definitely trying to cement a connection in consumers' minds between performance on the race track and performance in street vehicles. But he wanted to be able to navigate through the racing community without people immediately connecting him to another organization, particularly one in dire financial straits that owed a lot of money. "That makes it a little bit easier, to deal with everybody and have people not perceive that I'm encumbered in any way," he said. "And honestly, just being away from being clear of all of the strings that held me to the Gillett thing just feels good." The relationship with Hendrick was a natural. Evernham won three titles and 47 races at Hendrick Motorsports before leaving in 1999 to form his own team and spearhead Dodge's return to NASCAR's premier series, but he'd always been on friendly terms with the team owner. The two had talked about how they'd like to work together again someday, and the performance end of Hendrick's business allows Evernham to do that without joining himself to the team at the hip. He might develop specialized parts, update street models, buy and sell pieces of Hendrick's car collection. At the same time Evernham's company will work with other clients, too, allowing him to wade in only as deep as he wants. He even gave up his television gig to avoid conflicts of interest. "I love designing, starting projects, getting things going," Evernham said. "Rick has a list of projects that really excites me, because it's not something I'm going to jump on and go, OK, you're going to build this company and run it for the next 10 years. He's hired my company to do specific projects for him. It gives both of us a lot of flexibility." And after years of being constrained, options are what Evernham wants. Surely, he isn't deaf to the drumbeat from those in the fan base who cling to the hope that he might one day strap on a headset and climb back atop a pit box to guide Gordon back to championship contention or Earnhardt back to respectability. Realistically, though, Evernham left his crew chief days behind long ago. A man who won more than a dozen races as an owner doesn't take a step backward on the career ladder, regardless of what the faithful may clamor. The idea is a complete non-starter. "Honestly, it's not an issue that Rick and I even have on our radar screen," Evernham said. "It's not something that he wants or needs over there. I mean, God almighty, one, they don't even need me over there, and two, it's not something I'm interested in doing." But what if another offer came along, one dangling an executive position with a Sprint Cup team? Not now, Evernham says. For the first time in a long time, he's in a position where he can work completely on his terms, unencumbered by either contractual limits or a commitment to a singular organization. At 53, he's back in control of his career again. He has no plans to give that up. "I'm having too much fun and getting too much satisfaction out of doing multiple things to take on [just] one project," he said. "If you want to compete at a top level right now in NASCAR or in another form of motorsports, that's got to be what you do. Seven days a week, 24 hours a day, that's the formula for winning. At this point in my life, I'm enjoying the diversification, I really am." The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
With six titles in 11 NASCAR national series seasons, Ives could bridge gap