Must Go Faster: Jeff Gordon, Ray Evernham, and the Perfect Race Car (If You Ain’t Cheatin’, You Ain’t Tryin’, Part 4)

As long as competitions have had a rulebook, there have been competitors trying to find a way around it. Sure, all motorsports are this way, but it’s only NASCAR that turned it into a catchphrase.

As we enter the Gen-7 era, however, NASCAR’s emphasis on parity and cost control has taken the design of the cars out of teams’ hands. The future of the sport will see a lot less patience for the kind of “innovation” that used to be dismissed with a wink and a “boys, have at it.” This series is my chance to pour one out for what we’ve lost. Join me as I investigate the most innovative, ingenious, and downright illegal designs in NASCAR history.

It was 1997, and the entire NASCAR world lay at Rick Hendrick’s feet. Snatching young Jeff Gordon from Bill Davis Racing’s Busch Series team had proven a stroke of genius. Gordon won Rookie of the Year in 1993, two Crown Jewel races in 1994, and his first championship in 1995. He began 1997 by winning the Daytona 500. Jeff Gordon was a newly-minted NASCAR superstar, but the era-defining level of dominance would not have been possible without a team behind him just as good as he was. 

This was where Rick Hendrick came in. He hadn’t just hired Gordon from Bill Davis Racing, he’d also snatched up crew chief Ray Evernham and put him to work on the DuPont #24. Hendrick’s deep pockets and total dedication to winning gave Evernham plenty of toys to play with.

Hendrick Motorsports created a first-of-its kind R&D department, with former Corvette engineer Rex Stump at its head. Evernham described this department as “Area 51,” a top-secret skunkworks that existed parallel to HMS’s regular racing operations, intended only to learn and to innovate . 

At the start of 1997, Stump asked everyone at HMS for suggestions on how they could do better. No constraints, no rules, just a clean sheet of paper to design the perfect race car. All in all, Stump got over 60 suggestions, and enlisted James Garde to find loopholes in the rulebook that would allow them to implement as many as they could.

Every component of this new car was reimagined for better overall weight distribution: light, low, and leftward. Hendrick’s team was the first in NASCAR to pay attention to unsprung weight specifically. Rather than building the car to be durable, as was conventionally done, Stump’s team beefed up only the frame rails (to minimize flex) and lightened everything else, using hollow axles, aluminum driveshafts, and wheel hubs that Stump has only described as “not titanium,” the exact makeup of the exotic alloy still a tight-lipped secret. The shock absorbers were mounted outside the frame. Just like Smokey Yunick did, Stump lowered the frame rails and raised the floor pan to maximize underfloor aerodynamics. 

It was around this time that Evernham got involved with the project. Hendrick’s other crew chiefs were less willing to gamble on the fragile car, exotic materials, and questionable legality, but Ray Evernham dove right in.

Initially, nobody could get the car to work. Even the #5 and #25 teams tried to make it turn fast laps at Charlotte Motor Speedway, (this was, of course, in the days of open testing) but even Jeff Gordon could barely get it within a half-second of the previous best chassis. This was a car designed from the ground up to be perfect, and it just. . . wasn’t.

On a whim, Evernham threw some softer springs in the car – way, way softer. Usually, the front valence of a Cup car at the time was about four inches off the ground when the car was stationary. This one now sat about six inches high. Next to a regular Cup car, the new one looked like a Trophy Truck. It didn’t matter much, at 3PM on an unusually hot spring day, the track was too slick for good laptime anyway. As long as Jeff could keep the car out of the wall, at least they would learn something.

On the first lap, he was a full second faster.

With the softer springs installed, the valence was actually closer to the ground under load as the car entered the turn, and the underbody of the car was suddenly close enough to the ground for the Venturi Effect to work. Rex Stump and Ray Evernham had built a ground effect stock car – one that was perfectly legal, at least at the time. NASCAR had been kept fully briefed on the progress of the build, to ensure that Hendrick would be able to enter the car in the 1997 Winston.

The final piece of the puzzle came when Hendrick signed a sponsorship agreement with Universal Studios that would see the #24 decked out in a paint scheme advertising Jurassic Park: The Ride. It was the big Tyrannosaur on the hood that gave the car its nickname: “T-Rex,” a moniker that also honored Rex Stump, the mad scientist who engineered it. 

So the Hendrick team rolled up to All-Star weekend with the perfect race car. A mistake in qualifying meant Gordon would only start 19th. He sliced his way towards the front, finishing the first stage third, then recovering from an inverted field in stage two to finish fourth. But the T-Rex was just playing with its food before eating it. Gordon led all but one of the final stage’s ten laps, and took home the million-dollar prize, proving the T-Rex’s concept in the process: exotic materials and ground effect had a place in NASCAR.

At least, they did until the next morning, when NASCAR officials reached out to Evernham and Hendrick, telling them to never bring T-Rex back to the track. The one-of-a-kind car was the talk of the industry. After it completely destroyed the competition, NASCAR knew it had to step in or else every other Cup car ever built would be suddenly rendered obsolete. 

Stump challenged NASCAR representatives to find anything illegal about T-Rex, inviting them to look over the car in the Hendrick shop the next week. No illegal parts were identified, but NASCAR released a series of new rules in the following days that banned the car from competing ever again. So it found a new home in the Hendrick museum, with its record standing at one victory from one start: the perfect race car.

I was born in 1999. By the time I started watching NASCAR regularly in 2008, Jeff Gordon was an aging veteran on a winless streak and Ray Evernham owned a Dodge team struggling to keep up with the front-runners. I missed out on the glory days of the T-Rex. But to me, this car and its story represents everything great about the now-bygone era of teams building their own stuff. This Hendrick team that had already won the last two championships (in dominant fashion, too) were still pushing themselves to do better. They used exotic alloys on a live-axle stock car with a four-speed transmission. They built a ground-effect Monte Carlo with a dinosaur on it.

Just like they had done to Junior Johnson in the ‘60s, NASCAR let them show up once, but then rewrote the rules to make sure the car never raced again. Just like Smokey Yunick, Evernham, Stump, and Garde found loopholes in the rulebook that NASCAR had to paper over. Yes, the story of the T-Rex is a glimpse at a NASCAR future that never came to pass, of exotic materials and aerodynamic trickery, but it’s also a reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same. 

Sure, the threat of L2-level penalties and race disqualifications now hang over the heads of any teams that mess with controlled-supplier parts. But do any of us really think that will stop them?

After all, if you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’.

Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 here.

Featured image courtesy of Ashley Lopez, who took this photo of me in summer 2019.

Published by Jack Swansey

Originally from North Carolina, Jack has been a NASCAR fan since 2008, and his favorite driver is Bubba Wallace. At Wesleyan University, he studied film and anthropology and wrote his senior thesis about the fan culture of American stock car racing. When not watching NASCAR, Jack is probably looking for some other motorsport to watch, scouring antique stores for hard-to-find diecasts, or investigating the history of some obscure backmarker team or another. To fund his HotWheels collection, Jack works in television production.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: