What was the opening line that Dickens guy used all those years ago? “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”
Yeah. That’s what it was.
It was November 2000, and I was nearing the end of my first full season in professional broadcasting with The Nashville Network. TNN was a powerful cable network at the time, presenting 20-some live World of Outlaws Sprint Car races each season to a very significant number of viewers.
It was a fascinating and fun introduction to live broadcasting, working with seasoned television producers and directors. The entire project was underwritten by a strong budget and a major network commitment.
You meet a lot of people in broadcasting – a LOT of people – and some of them leave a lasting mark. That’s how I would describe working with Steve Evans. Evans left his mark; not just on me, but on an entire sport.
Simply put, few men in the history of motorsports broadcasting can match Steve in terms of longevity, entertainment, and on-screen presence, particularly in Drag Racing. During the sport’s formative years of the 1960s through 1990s he had an immeasurable impact, literally defining how to promote and cover the sport in an exciting and inspiring way.
Have you ever heard those classic “Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!” radio spots that pioneered one of the most exciting eras in the history of Drag Racing? I was a kid when those ads were on the radio, and it thrilled me to discover that Steve was a key figure in the advent of those unforgettable spots.
Steve Evans was, in every sense of the word, a legend. On camera he was larger than life, and when I first met him it was somewhat intimidating. Not because of personality; Steve was an outgoing and easy person. It was more about stature, because this man was a giant in the world of horsepower and automotive performance.
When I joined the TNN team I was an absolute rookie behind the microphone. My first TNN show was in early February 2000 at the Copper World Classic at Phoenix Intl. Raceway, which we were to broadcast (tape delayed) on Sunday. Saturday afternoon our producer Tom Gee – with whom I would eventually work a lot of shows in the coming years – came down out of the production truck to join Steve in giving me a working introduction to broadcasting.
Pit reporting 101. Between them, these two guys had worked hundreds of shows. I immediately sensed that it was time for me to shut up and listen.
How to look right at the camera. Hold the microphone like this. This is a two-shot; this is a one-shot. Don’t ever give up control of the microphone.
The absolute basics, taught by guys who had been down every road.
Thanks to their coaching, I stumbled through the first couple of shows, including my first live broadcast at the Las Vegas Dirt Track a few weeks later where my microphone worked only about half the time. It was a very stressful outing, and the first guy to reassure me at the end of the show was Steve.
“Chin up, dude,” he said. “You’ll never work another one like tonight.”
Steve had no specific reason to be nice to me; I could offer him nothing in return. But he went out of his way to be helpful and supportive, and that meant more than I can explain. I’ve never forgotten those moments of kindness and encouragement.
There is something called star power; you can’t define it. You can only witness it.
Star power is when people go a little bit crazy when they see someone “famous,” rushing to ask for an autograph or pose for a picture. Steve had star power; everywhere we went, people wanted a piece of Evans.
But away from the people and the lights and the action, Steve was a funny, personable guy. For a man of his experience and accomplishments, his ego was surprisingly modest. Each night, when the show had wrapped and we were back at the hotel, he loved having a drink with everybody on the crew — from the talent to the guys in the truck to the newest utility grunt – while he regaled us with hilarious tales.
Those, to be sure, were the best of times. The worst of times… well, that came on the first day of November, 2000.
We were back at the Las Vegas Dirt Track for the World of Outlaws season finale. Our crew call was 3 p.m. that afternoon, and when my colleague Bobby Gerould and I arrived at the track we noticed that Steve hadn’t yet arrived. This was highly unusual; Evans was a consummate pro and he was never late for anything. The afternoon hours clicked away and we sat down for our production meeting, and still no Steve.
Steve and Bobby and I were all staying at the same hotel on the strip, and when the meeting concluded Jeffrey Green, our executive producer, took me aside and asked for the phone number to our hotel.
“Nobody has heard from Steve?” I asked.
“Not yet,” Jeffrey said.
“That’s just weird,” I replied. “Not showing up, not calling…that’s not at all like Steve.”
“It’s probably nothing,” Jeffrey said in his reassuring way. “I’ll call the hotel and track him down.”
We geared up and got started on the show, and it was business as usual. But it wasn’t; I couldn’t shake this powerful sense that something was terribly wrong. Everyone got through the feature race – won by Sammy Swindell – and we finished the show with interviews from Victory Lane and the final sign-off from the guys in the booth, Ralph Sheheen and Brad Doty.
Tom Gee was always a delight to work with, constantly in our ear as he kept the show pointed in the right direction. He was enthusiastic and fun and each night when we signed off the air he always said something to make us laugh, diffusing the tension.
But that night at Las Vegas, Tom’s tone was dramatically different. As our bump music played to exit, Tom came on the radio.
“All right, everyone, I need you to stay quiet and stay on the radio for a few minutes. Jeffrey would like to talk to all of you.”
I knew what he was going to say, and I knew it was going to hurt. All the way to the bone.
Steve had died of natural causes in his hotel room. He was 58 years old.
Time has helped take the edge off of the emotions of that night, but not completely. I can still vividly recall the way everyone slowly went through the motions of the tear-down process, eyes down, not speaking. I’ve experienced lots of ups and downs at various broadcasts through the years, but nothing like that night in Las Vegas.
It’s been almost 17 years since that long, dark episode, and I still think of Steve often. Time has helped me forget the darkness, focusing instead on the laughter, the funny stories, and his wicked and sharp sense of humor.
This much I know: Steve Evans taught me a lot, and not just how to properly hold the microphone. He taught me about being a professional, and about being generous with one’s time and kindness.
Legend. That’s you, Steve. If I told you that, you’d laugh and crack a few jokes about yourself and then we’d go to the hotel bar and have a drink. Or two. But I would say it then and I’ll say it now and I’ll say it forever: Steve Evans is a legend. And I miss him.