Sunday, November 23, 2014

LASTCAR EXTRA: One year later, Erik Davis and Always Evolving Racing drive in memory of team co-founders Paul Walker and Roger Rodas

Erik Davis and his Always Evolving Racing
Ford Mustang at Sonoma, 2014
SOURCE: Brock Beard
This past August at the Sonoma Raceway, I had the opportunity to cover the Pirelli World Challenge Series, a multi-divisional sports car series which runs 50-minute sprint races on road courses all across the country.  Parked in the series paddock near the entrance to Turn 7 were an eclectic collection of factory teams and independents who drove everything from the Ferrari 458 GT3 to the Kia Optima.

At the far end of all this, a single teal-and-white Mustang sat beneath a tent.  In front of the car was a blue fuel container with the name “Vin Diesel” scrawled on a strip of orange tape.  It was a peculiar sight, but not after noticing the logo on the reflective surface of the team’s hauler: Always Evolving Racing.

Predominately a tuner shop, Always Evolving began in the 1990s as Autobahn Exotics, established by Rich Taylor and his good friend, actor and producer Paul Walker.  Financial difficulties with the shop led Walker to Roger Rodas, a financial advisor and aspiring racer.  The two became close friends, and the team’s name was changed.

As part of Always Evolving’s reorganization, Rodas introduced Walker to Erik Davis, an SCCA racer, and in late 2012, the three planned to enter the World Challenge Series.  Walker’s film contracts prohibited him from competing, so Rodas and Davis would drive the team’s two cars in 2013.  They would run Mustangs as both had collected several older models over the years.

The two enjoyed a successful first season.  In a field of 45 entrants in the GTS division, Rodas came home 13th in points with Davis in 16th.  Rodas earned the team’s best finish - a 5th at Toronto.  All of this was accomplished without factory support.

“It’s definitely not a factory team,” said Davis during our interview.  “We’re effectively Ford customers.  We do enjoy some on-track support.  Ford comes here, as you know, there’s a lot of Mustang teams in the World Challenge, and so there’s factory representatives that are here.  But, you know, Ford’s here to sell cars and sell parts, so ultimately we’re a customer of Ford’s.  They do provide us some crash damage parts and stuff like that on a sponsorship basis, but not a factory effort by any means.”

On Saturday, November 30, 2013, Always Evolving was gearing up for an even better 2014 campaign.  That day, Rodas' #52 Mustang was on display at the shop as part of the their monthly car meet and charity drive.  Tragically, less than a mile away, Rodas and Walker would lose their lives in a single-car accident.  With so much said of Walker, I asked Davis about how he remembered Rodas:

“What I can tell you is Roger was one of my best friends on the earth.  He was a caring individual.  There’s probably a lot of people that would’ve said he was one of their best friends, which is a pretty interesting fact that very few people can actually say about another person.  He had a significant impact on a lot of people’s lives in a very positive way.  He was a loving father and a great husband and a tremendous businessman, and very astute, and I miss him a lot.”

In the media frenzy that followed, Davis stayed out of the public eye.  As Always Evolving’s last surviving co-founder, the responsibility was his to determine the team’s future.  He chose to keep the team going, moving out of Rodas’ shop in Valencia to his in Burbank, and again prepared to enter two cars in the World Challenge Series.  Belgian driver David Sterckx was tabbed to drive Rodas’ #52 while Davis remained in the #75, both in the same teal-and-white colors.  To honor both men, the team also continued its charitable relationships with the Mustard Seed Ranch and Dream Rides 4 Kids.

“For me personally,” said Davis, “it was important that we pay tribute, you know, to both Paul and Roger, and we did that in different ways for both of them.  In Roger's case, it's very visual and you can see it, and in Paul's case it's in more of an insider manner in which we did it.  We didn't ever want to appear like we're exploiting Paul or his name or anything along those lines, and ultimately, we wanted to respect his family's wishes.”

Sonoma was the next-to-last round of the 2014 World Challenge season.  When talking with Davis about how his season went, I was reminded of the struggles I’ve seen other teams face in my coverage of NASCAR.  In 1993, Alan Kulwicki lost his life in a plane crash less than five months after winning the series championship.  As an owner-driver, Kulwicki had made preparations for Jimmy Hensley to drive if such were to ever happen.  But the team still faced serious challenges as the rest of the staff tried to reorganize.

“We started out the season later than we would’ve liked based on, you know, the circumstances that occurred in November, so we started the season a little behind the 8-ball when you look at purely the racing effort.  Went into St. Pete, which is the first race of the season, and my car was totaled. . .We had David (Sterckx) and a spare that wouldn’t have been ready by Long Beach.  We elected to buy another car and engineer that for ourselves going to Long Beach.  And then we went into Long Beach two weeks later and David’s car was totaled in the first lap of Long Beach.  So, you know, tough way to start the season obviously.  We were forced to take a race off and ultimately got two cars ready.  So we own four cars currently, four Mustangs.  Three are race-ready, one is close to race-ready, although it will probably be kept inside the stable as a personal car for me, and once the season’s over, it’ll be retired.”

But, like Kulwicki’s team, Always Evolving has found a way to keep going, thanks in no small part to Davis’ efforts and the work of a close-knit crew.  On the Friday I spoke with him, Davis was called away for several meetings, and he is currently preparing for 2015.

“So, you know, as far as this season goes, we definitely didn’t achieve all of the things we wanted to achieve in the sense that we’re not gonna win a championship - that’s what every race team wants - but we did come out here and I feel represented the brand well.  We kept the brand alive.  We paid tribute to our two fallen friends, and ultimately created what I see as an opportunity to move forward with the brand in a much bigger way going into 2015 and into the future.  You’re gonna start to see some very interesting news coming out and we’re pretty proud of what we’ve been able to put together this year.”

In the second race at Sonoma, Davis finished 9th in the GTS division, his best finish of 2014.

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