Off-Road Racing legend Walker Evans is being inducted into the Specialty Equipment Manufacturers Association (SEMA) Hall of Fame. Even the casual off-roader knows the name, Walker Evans. Winning off-road racer and NASCAR Truck Series driver with three top-ten finishes. He is also a truck wheel manufacturer and UTV accessories manufacturer. Just to mention a few of his accomplishments.
Immediately recognizable in his ten-gallon Stetson hat, Walker embodies a John Wayne vibe when you meet him. From the iconic hat to his western boots and his easy-going demeanor Walker even now at age 83 carries himself like the champion he is.
Before racing off-road, Walker was a contractor in Riverside, California, building houses. He always had a desire to race and to surround himself with the best people. A mantra that served him well in contracting and racing as well as in the automotive aftermarket business.
Whether he is behind the wheel of a truck or behind a desk Walker Evans is not one to come in second place. He once said, “Show me a guy that’s happy with second, and I’ll show you a guy that’s always second.” Let us take a look back at Walker Evans’ distinguished racing career.
It all started in 1969
At the inaugural NORRA Baja 500, Walker found himself behind the wheel of one of actor James Garner’s AMC Rambler sedans. After an impressive third-place finish Walker knew this off-road racing thing was for him. The Garner team fell apart very quickly, and Walker set out to find another way to drive.
The Ford Years
Walker approached Bill Stroppe and pitched driving one of his trucks. Stroppe turned down Evans and countered with another kind of offer. Stroppe told him to go and buy his own truck and parts and Stroppe’s team would help him build it. After he proved himself, Stroppe would prepare him a factory truck.
At the 1970 Baja 500, Walker racing the #174 truck, had a lot of passing to do. The problem was entry #175, Mickey Thompson in a truck also prepped by Bill Stroppe. Imagine for a moment lining up to start and in your rearview mirror is the great man himself. But Walker did beat him, and everyone else in his class that day. Even though he did rearrange some of his front-end body panels in the process.
Already a good driver with some obvious talent, Walker started pre-running the races with the rest of the Stroppe Team. This included Parnelli Jones, Larry Minor, Rod Hall, Carl Jackson, and Stroppe himself. This certainly helped accelerate the learning curve and sharpen his skills. Walker quickly became a man to beat.
As dedicated to winning as he was, he embraced the code of Baja of helping when he could during the race. In the 1973 Baja 1000, Walker saw motorcycle competitor Mitch Mays on the side of the road in the middle of the night. Mays asked if he could ride in front of Walker and use his lights to get to the next pit so he could fix his lights. Walker obliged and lit the way for Mays through 60 miles of Baja desert until he got to his pit.
Through 1974, Walker continued winning in that Ford even while that year saw big changes in off-road racing and for several big names. In 1974 the Arab-controlled OPEC played havoc with countries that they had differences with, the United States being one. This caused cancellations of the Mint 400, the Mexican 1000, and several other races.
Another change happened at the Baja 500 that year. Parnelli and Stroppe had a fatal accident with a spectator on a motorcycle. It would be one of the last times Big Oly would compete and shortly thereafter Parnelli left the Stroppe Team and went out on his own with Chevrolet. He would take several key members of Stroppe’s team with him including car builder Dick Russell and Walker Evans.
The Chevrolet Years
Looking for lightning to strike twice Parnelli and Dick Russell, who co-designed the Big Oly Bronco, went about building a Chevrolet Blazer in the same style. They also added a two-wheel-drive pickup for Evans to run what was now known as Class 8. That class would reign supreme with the fans until the advent of the Trophy Truck.
The Chevy was painted in a bright yellow color and it was built with the best of everything for its time. It was also very fast and reliable, unlike the Blazer. So fast that to get better road conditions and shoot for an overall, they entered it in the two-seat unlimited class at some races.
Because the Blazers were not catching that old lightning in a bottle the deal fell apart by 1977 and Walker went back to campaigning a Ford. He also opened his own shop and started building his own race trucks, and for some others as well.
Evans started working with manufacturers to bring their special products alive. For American Motors he built land speed AMC Javelins and the Jeep Celebrity Challenge CJ-7s. The Jeep Celebrity Challenge was massively popular from 1978 to 1980. All the big names in acting and singing were driving a Walker Evans prepared CJ-7. James Brolin, Ted Nugent, Tanya Tucker, Larry Wilcox, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and three cast members from the Dukes of Hazzard.
The Dodge Years
By 1978 Walker caught the attention of Chrysler and started driving a Dodge pickup for the next 22 years. That rainbow-striped paint job on a field of blue and white became famous. Whether in the winner’s circle, pounding through the desert, or in advertisements scattered through all the off-road magazines of the day and on television that truck was everywhere.
Originally Dodge pickups were raced for Chrysler by John Baker, a former Bronco driver. As Baker moved over to head up racing the new D-50 mini trucks, Evans took over in full-size pickups. This is also where Evans started a successful decades-long relationship with the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, Rough Country Suspension, and at one time or another Hamm’s Beer, several Las Vegas Casinos, Shell Oil, American Racing Wheels, KC HiLites, Craftsman Tools and Mr. Gasket just to name a few.
By 1979 the off-road hierarchy was pretty firmly set for overall wins on four wheels. At the time, tube-framed, often VW-powered single and two-seat race cars were typically leading the pace. The age of trucks and 4x4s taking overall wins seemed over. Then came the 1979 Baja 1000.
In what turned out to be an incredibly clean run totaling 20 hours and 48 minutes, Walker Evans and passenger Bruce Florio beat the fastest single-seat VW by an hour from Ensenada to La Paz. It was an incredible feat and if he already was not, it had certainly cemented Walker Evans as a legend.
Walker continued to outdrive, out-innovate, and outlast everyone else in Class 8 throughout the 1980s and most of the 1990s. Not that the competition was viable, because it was. Names such as Jeff McPherson, Steve Kelley, Frank “Scoop” Vessels, the Kishiyama Brothers, Michael Nesmith, and others were very fast and capable drivers. Walker was just quicker on most race weekends.
Mickey Thompson Entertainment Group
Mickey Thompson had some success with his Off Road Championship Gran Prix in 1979 and 1980 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. By 1982 he brought it back as a full series starting at the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds. It was a success, and soon manufacturers were building new trucks.
Mickey felt that the future was the mini trucks for several reasons. First, the full-size trucks looked slow on a tight short course track and that was not entertaining. Second, the mini truck is more nimble and you could get more on the track.
After Chrysler let Mitsubishi take John Baker and rebrand his trucks as a Mighty Max, Walker built a new stadium truck branded as a Dodge D-50. At first, it was odd seeing Walker in anything but a fire snorting V8-powered full-size pickup. The crowds, however, got used to it very quickly.
Walker pounded around in that D-50 for several years and took some heat wins and event wins. Later when Chrysler bought Jeep into the mix, his team handled the short course racing for the Jeep Comanche line with other drivers. Even notching one title in the process.
NASCAR Truck Series
In 1994 several powerful off-road racing teams approached NASCAR about a truck series with chassis-based on stock cars but modified to look like pickup trucks. As it got started Walker decided that he would like to build a team for the fledgling series.
His sponsors Dodge and Goodyear backed him in the effort and Walker Evans was now a pavement racer. He ran the series for two years, in 1995 and 1996, and was able to record three top-ten finishes. Walker stepped away at the end of 1996 to concentrate on his desert racing and the new Trophy Truck formula.
Retirement… kind of
By the end of 2000, Walker decided to step aside and took up the mantle of team owner for younger talented drivers. This allowed him and his partner, Randy Anderson, time to build up their business as well.
Walker Evans Wheels are some of the best-looking wheels out there (in this author’s opinion). They have wheels for trucks, UTVs, street, and race applications. Next came shock absorbers for UTVs and trucks. It is the foundation of their business today.
It is also the main reason that Walker Evans is being inducted into the SEMA Hall of Fame. He is already in three other halls of fame, the Off Road Motorsports Hall of Fame, the Riverside Sports Hall of Fame, and the Motorsports Hall of Fame.
Standing still is not one of the things that Walker Evans does well, he’s a man of motion. He once said, “It takes a motor to get my heart started.” In 2013 Walker took one of his most famous off-road trucks out of mothballs and took it out for one last spin at the NORRA Mexican 1000. A five-day rally down the Baja Peninsula. He won his class, of course.
Walker continued to do occasional driving at competitive rock crawling events, riding motorcycles, flying his own airplane, and driving an off-road buggy. He keeps busy for a man his age and yet shows few signs of slowing down.
The SEMA Hall of Fame is stacked with the best and most innovative minds in the automotive aftermarket. Whether that person is from the manufacturing end or the business end they have earned there way into the hall. Walker Evans did it too, but like with most things he did it in his distinct style.