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Even at 84, She's Still a Pit Bull for Sprint Cars

November 14, 2003|SHAV GLICK

Her picture is on the wall at the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Iowa, but with it are not the usual helmet, gloves and driving suit. Evelyn Pratt's legacy is a red bullhorn.

For more than 30 years, the feisty little woman from El Monte has barked orders to sprint car drivers, from Williams Grove Speedway in Pennsylvania to old Ascot Park and most tracks in between where sprint cars have run.

Pratt, 84 and that's not a misprint, will be in the infield tonight and Saturday night at Perris Auto Speedway, acting like a traffic cop to more than 60 drivers whose strong suit is sliding 750-horsepower vehicles through the corners of dirt ovals. She is pit steward for the Sprint Car Racing Assn., which sanctions the Budweiser Oval Nationals, a $100,000 event that has attracted the best drivers from all over the country.

"If I see someone out of line, I tell 'em, and if there's any backtalk, I'll fine 'em," she said defiantly. "They know I'm all business. When I say, 'Get in line,' they know they'd better get where they're supposed to be."

She was once described as being like "a lion tamer at a circus matinee." She has also worked with the U.S. Auto Club, World of Outlaws and NASCAR.

Her working day starts about 3 p.m., when she receives the list of entries.

"The first thing we do is pull the qualifying pills, sort of like they do in the lottery," she said. "That determines the order they qualify. If I see that one of them hasn't paid his entry, I tell them, 'No money, no pill.' They either hand me the money or I show them the back gate."

It can be costly. A prepaid entry fee is $75. At the track it's $250.

Tony Stewart has felt her wrath. Before he became Winston Cup champion, driving stock cars, he did something Pratt didn't like in a sprint car.

"I went right up to Tony in no uncertain terms and told him he was out of line, and I was going to fine him. I don't play any favorites. I've known his dad, Nelson, as a friend for many years, but that doesn't mean anything when I'm on my job.

"You know, after the race Tony came up, put his arm around me and said, 'Thanks, you taught me a lesson.' Now, every time Tony is around, he looks me up and tells me how much I meant to him.

"The truth is, I love every one of the guys. I love them like they're my boys. But I never let them forget that it's all business out on the track."

After qualifying, Pratt determines the heat lineups and announces them in a high-pitched voice that resonates throughout the infield. She doesn't use the bullhorn anymore. It became obsolete with the roving microphones, but she still keeps one in her truck, just in case.

"It's my job to keep things moving," she said. "Once one race is going, I'm lining up the cars for the next one. I have to push, push, push to keep them in line. I don't fool around. My objective is to get the races over on time, and the boys know that if they're not up there, we're going without them."

While all the pushing is going on, she checks each driver for the proper helmet and uniform and each car for the decals it carries for sponsor money.

"I've been doing this since I went to Ascot in 1972 with my wrecker," Pratt said. "We ran a service station in Upland with a wrecker service and [husband] Bill had a car he raced there, so I went along with the wrecker and began moving cars around. Next thing you know, they asked me to help officiate and here I am.

"I've been around so long, I worked with a lot of these boys' daddies. I've known J.J. Yeley since he was a baby. He calls me 'Mom.' "

Yeley, 27, is the U.S. Auto Club sprint car and Silver Crown champion from Phoenix and is one of the favorites in the Oval Nationals.

Bill Pratt, who has had health problems since retiring in 1992, still fields the red No. 12 car in SCRA races. It is driven by Greg Bragg of Visalia and will be in action at Perris.

The Pratts will be doing double duty this weekend. Besides Evelyn's pit work and Bill's managing the team, they will be grand marshals of the Oval Nationals. Bill has had sprint cars longer than any current SCRA car owner, his string of consecutive years as a sprint car owner going back to the 1960s. Among his drivers have been Rick Goudy, Billy Wilkerson, Clark Templeman, Max Sweeney, Tony Simon, Steve Ostling and both of Parnelli Jones' racing sons, PJ and Page.

Up until 2001, on weekends when Winston Cup races were at Phoenix International Raceway, Evelyn would work as pit steward there in the daytime, then hustle to nearby Manzanita Speedway to officiate sprint car races at night.

"I didn't quit because I got tired, I quit because the new regime at NASCAR is so cheap," she said. "They wanted me to work free and they wouldn't even give me a pass for my husband.

"Then they started charging us $300 to park our motor home where I could get to it when I was working. It just wasn't a friendly atmosphere like it once was, so I quit. I miss a lot of the boys, especially Bill Elliott."

She even raced, about 40 years ago.

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