At one point everyone wanted Erin -- IndyCar, NASCAR, sprint car. If she chose IndyCar, Crocker looked poised to take her place in the lineage of pioneering female drivers that included Janet Guthrie, Lynn St. James, Sarah Fisher and later Danica Patrick.
If she went to NASCAR, Crocker appeared to have a shot at finally blowing through the glass ceiling that has kept women from sticking in NASCAR's Cup level beyond brief appearances by Janet Guthrie and Shawna Robinson in the 1970s and 1990s respectively.
But suddenly life brought out the caution flag and Crocker seemed to spin. She tumbled out of NASCAR, in part due to a romantic relationship with her married team owner Ray Evernham. Today the 29-year-old Crocker is the smiling Mrs. Ray Evernham and has reconnected to racing’s nearest equivalent to bull riding — piloting a full-throttle, 900 horsepower, 410-cubic-inch sprint car.
The youngest of five siblings with two sisters and two brothers, Erin “grew up at the track.”
“My dad was always into racing,” Crocker said. “He never drove or anything he just worked on cars. He had my older brothers racing quarter midgets. I took the route of my brothers and not my sisters. I wasn’t into dolls or anything. I wanted to be at the race track so I started racing when I was 7 in quarter midgets."
Success was almost immediate as Crocker progressed through the dirt-track ranks, brought along quickly by her father who mainly wanted his son, Seth, and daughter Erin to be in the same classification of car. "We were thunder and lightning," says Crocker with a smile. Which was which? "Depended on the day."
Crocker progressed to mini-sprints and then full-fledged sprint cars, becoming the youngest winner here and the first-ever female winner there.
Everything was great. Crocker was hot and getting hotter. By the time she had graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, with a degree in engineering, Crocker was a highly decorated sprint car driver with a trophy case worth of hardware to prove she was more than just a woman competing in a male dominated sport.
In 2002 Crocker signed with Woodring Racing to drive a 360-cubic-inch sprint car. She won five feature races, as well as 12 heat events and was named the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame Outstanding New Comer. In 2003 Crocker graduated to the big dog of sprint cars – the 410-cubic-inch motor-driven winged sprints -- and qualified for the Super Bowl of sprint cars, the Knoxville Nationals, in Knoxville, Iowa.
Things just got better and better for Crocker in 2004 when she became the first woman to win a feature race in the best-of-the-best World of Outlaws dirt-track series.
Growing up, Crocker dreamed of running the Indy 500. Instead, her life took on a made-for-TV movie ride through ARCA and NASCAR trucks.Today Crocker believes she's started the "happily ever after" part of her life. She's married to Evernham, back in a sprint car running part-time in the World of Outlaws, and plans to run every weekend at Knoxville Raceway leading up to the Knoxville Nationals in August.
I talked to Erin on June 5 in the lobby of the Super 8 motel in Knoxville where she was preparing for a World of Outlaws race that night. Crocker spoke very candidly about her career, her relationship with Evernham, and how life is going on other side of a tumultuous half-decade of racing fame.
pressdog: So, you said you dreamed of driving in the Indy 500 growing up, what happened?
Erin Crocker: After that year that I won the World of Outlaw race (2004) and ran the entire (WoO) tour and qualified for the Knoxville Nationals, I started to gain a little bit of recognition. I did the Ford Women’s Driver Development Program and they kind of chose me and offered me a contract. At that time I got introduced to John Bickford, who really helped my career. And Lynn St. James was helping me at the time.
I really didn’t know which direction or where I wanted to go. I got hooked up with an agent Alan Miller who actually still represents Jimmy Johnson and Helio (Castroneves) and a bunch of different drivers. We started talking to NASCAR teams and between John Bickford and Alan they said, "You know, you don’t have money, you don’t have a sponsor, this (NASCAR) is an opportunity you can get there somewhat based on talent."
That was a big push for diversity and driver development program (in NASCAR) so I met with a few different big NASCAR owners and then I met with Ray (Evernham) and his deal was really straightforward and simple. It was "Here’s a one-year contract and I’ll give you this, this and this," where some of them wanted you to sign for 10 years, and I just didn’t know which direction I wanted to go. At the time we chose that (Evernham deal) and we thought that was the fairest deal. It was like three ARCA races and three Busch races and then we ended up running more than that so that’s how I ended up going that route.
pressdog: So to go the Indy route, you pretty much had to bring the sponsor with you?
Erin: Yeah, it seemed like that at the time — and even last year (2009) I tried to get in an Indy lights car again. NASCAR is becoming that way -- every form of racing is -- you need to try and bring money to the table. But at that time (2004) in NASCAR you could get there based on a little bit of talent without having money, where it seemed like that’s a lot harder to do in the IndyCar world.
pressdog: I remember back then, in the time we were just talking about, Erin Crocker was big, big news. Then you went up into NASCAR with Ray and now you’ve come out the other side of it. Is the fame still there?
Erin: I don’t know if it is. I always really appreciate the fans and enjoy the fans. That was never really a big part of it for me, to try to become famous. It was more about having people respect me for being a race car driver. It was important to me to qualify for the (Knoxville) Nationals and winning and Outlaw race, to have people look at me like "Alright, she’s legit; she deserves to be here" as opposed to just getting the attention from it. It’s not saying that I didn’t appreciate the fans or the fame or all the things that come with it, but it was never my motivation.
pressdog: Do you still get recognized and asked for autographs and everything?
Erin: Yeah, I do quite a bit and I think some of it is because I am married to Ray now. (Laughter.) I do, and what I like about coming back to sprint car racing and Knoxville is that sprint car racing fans seem to be really hard-core. They know their facts they know their racing and it’s like they never forget you.
NASCAR has a huge fan base but there are a lot of new fans and there are fans that are in it for different reasons. Where it seems like sprint car fans are in it because they love the sport of sprint car racing. They seem to know there facts their drivers. Some of the NASCAR media attention gets a little carried away, were when you come back here (to dirt track racing), you’re still a person. They still treat me like the racer I was seven years ago when I qualified for Knoxville the first time. You don’t get seen as a celebrity; you still get seen as a race car driver here.
pressdog: Having gone up into stock cars, what were some of the things that surprised you, both positives and negatives?
Erin: The positive was I don’t think at that time I realized how far (technologically) advanced NASCAR was. I had grown up with my dad watching it and I have an engineering degree, so that’s why I love IndyCars. I thought engineering-wise (IndyCars) are just the coolest race cars. When I first got to North Carolina (NASCARland) and saw how many engineers were hired per team, and how much went into each car, it was really a positive experience. I was like, “Wow, this is really high tech; this isn’t good old stock cars running at the local track." It was a really positive experience.
The first time I we went to an ARCA test I got on a private plane and I remember sitting in the plane and thinking this plane is flying because of my test. All these guys in this airplane are going because of me.
The negative was there’s a lot of attention that comes with that and a lot of pressure. I enjoyed it (the time in the NASCAR minors). I felt like I did really well in ARCA. The truck stuff, with a brand new team and never having run trucks before, there was a lot that went into that year, and then the whole thing about Ray and my relationship coming in there. There was obviously a lot of negative stuff written about it — not necessarily true — so all of that was really kind of traumatizing.
I feel like I learned a lot about people in general and how mean people can be. But, hey, it is what it is, and I feel like I am a stronger person after all that stuff.
pressdog: I was going to ask you about the media spotlight. You just said it kind of took you by surprised but were you prepared for how critical the fans can be and the media can be?
Erin: I don’t think there’s a way you can really be prepared for it. Everyone tells you to make sure you have a really thick skin and don’t listen and don’t listen, but until you’ve gone through it, I don’t think you can be prepared for it. I remember when I first started driving for Ray, we planned the next year to run the full truck series and I had six nationwide races and ARCA races -- we had a big schedule. He said “This is going to be the toughest year of your life” and I was like pfft I ran the World of Outlaws (laughing). It doesn’t get tougher than running 102 races with Steve Kinser and all these guys.
He (Ray) wasn’t kidding. It was certainly the toughest year of my life, and it wasn’t because of the racing and the competition. It was because your life starts to get taken out of your hands. You race. You leave for the track on Thursday, come home Sunday, then Monday you fly here for an appearance and Tuesday you have media training and you kind of lose control of what’s going on. There’s a lot of pressure to perform, and there’s a lot of media pressure. It was definitely the toughest year, but not because of what happens on the track, it’s the lifestyle.
pressdog: I’ve talked to other drivers, including IndyCar drivers, who when they finally get into a car, it’s like “whew, now I can relax.”
Erin: Yeah. That’s one thing that if I could do back and do it again I would try to let myself compartmentalize a little bit better. I feel like I didn’t give myself enough time necessarily to actually focus on the actual racing side of things. I was worrying about everything else that went with it. You want to make sure you say the right thing in an interview because your sponsor was watching. You want to be buttoned-up, and cover every area 100%, because I am kind of like that, kind of a control freak and anal. I want to be prefect in every aspect.
I wish that maybe -- not that I wasn’t focused on the driving but if I were to do it again ... Coming to a sprint car race, it’s just racing and racing and racing. That’s all you think about. You think about the car, about what you want to tell your crew chief. Where there (in NASCAR) I’d get distracted like “uh oh I have to do this interview I better say this, this and this.” It just can be a lot. It’s a lot to try and focus on every aspect if you’re a perfectionist.
pressdog: And you are?
Erin: I try to be.
pressdog: I’ve seen a couple articles about "Ray and Erin starting over." Do you get that kind of vibe?
Erin: I don’t think it’s starting over. I’ve been happy with where my career has gone, to have the opportunity to run the full truck series and be part of Evernham Motor Sports when it was really strong. I’m not trying to start over and change anything. That was a great experience.
To me, I grew up going to the race track every Saturday night whether we were racing quarter midgets or going to watch the local modified race in the Northeast or whatever. So, to me, I love Saturday-night racing. It’s great to be treated like a celebrity and be flown around on private planes, but I’m just as happy staying at the Super 8 and riding down the road in a toter home (combination race car toter and motor home common in the sprint car world). I just am. We were laughing, last week we went to Rick Hendrick’s charity function, which is at this really nice golf course in Charlotte, and we went to black-tie affair for another charity, and then we are at the dirt track for two nights. I’m like “This kind of fits my personality.” I like this stuff. A lot.
pressdog: Is your goal now to get back to NASCAR cup or IndyCar or ...
Erin: No. I don’t really have a goal of getting back to either of those places. What comes at me I’ll think about it at the time. If I got the opportunity to drive an IndyCar with one of the top teams would I pass it up? Probably not. But am I searching for it? No. The same thing for NASCAR. For a while there after we lost the General Mills sponsorship, I tried really hard to get another really good opportunity. Some days you just feel like you are on a treadmill. You are working, working, working and you are not getting anywhere.
So if whatever opportunities approach me, I may consider them, but I’m not really searching for them. I love sprint cars. We started this team this year to have some fun together. Ray came to a bunch of my races last year and was looking for a new challenge. We have a lot going on. He’s got a race track (East Lincoln Speedway in Stanley, NC) and TV and all sort of projects.We were looking to do a little bit of racing. We’re both racers.
But his idea of having a little fun went from "let’s get a 360 (cubic-inch-engined sprint car) and run locally" to here we are at Knoxville with two 410s. But I’m not complaining. It just cracks me up. Yeah "We’re just going to run some local stuff,” and that lasted maybe a week before we had a bigger plan.
pressdog: Would you like to be full-time World of Outlaw driver again?
Erin: No. Not that I don’t want to, but it’s just a huge commitment. It’s your life. When I did it and experience it, it was awesome. But now I’m at a point in my life where we’re married and I have a beautiful home in North Carolina, and I like spending a lot of time with my family that lives in the Northeast. I just don’t now if I want that commitment. And I know that Ray doesn’t want it. He’s got so many other things going on. He consults for other people and TV and stuff. I don’t think either of us really want to commit to it. But I want to run enough where you’re in the car enough that you’re competitive; you’re not a fish out of water.
Erin: It’s something that I got the idea last year. I’m not sure I am the best deriver in the world to give the best advice, but we kind of did it more of driver development deal. The two times we’ve done it, we have students come for two days we spend one day at the track and one day at our shop. I think they actually got more value out of the stuff we did at the classroom. It was four girls and two boys in the first class and they were all about 14 or 15 and were running mini-sprints and had aspirations of running IndyCar or NASCAR.
I think a lot of stuff maybe I had wished I had known getting into it -- how much of a commitment it is and some of the things to think about. It was neat. I enjoyed it. I don’t know if I had a teaching career laid out of for me, but it was fun. I think they got a lot out of it.
Erin: I think Twitter is a promotional tool. I don’t even have a website going right now. We are working on some website stuff, but in the meantime Twitter is a way to let your fans follow you. I try to be careful with Facebook, because that’s a little more private and they can find out a little bit more information about you, but on Twitter we try to have some fun with it. Ray is always abusing me on there.
I think it's a way for people to see your personality. They get to know the inside. Everyone wants to know a little bit about what goes on behind the scenes. Ray and I are -- all things considered -- pretty normal down-to-earth people. We have a good sense of humor, so I think it’s fun. You let fans know where you are racing so they can following the results. We let them know when there is something we want to promote at our little dirt track (@eastpr) or whatever it is. But you can also let them see a little bit of your life.
pressdog: Yeah there are exchanges between you guys about the shoes and stuff ..
Erin: Ah, yeah (laughter) he’s always on me about my darn shoe collection. Everyone know about my shoe issues now.
pressdog: You seem pretty open about your relationship, and I’m comparing that to a few years ago when it was tense as you said. Have you come through that now?
Erin: What happened between Ray and I, I don’t think either of us expected it or ... Growing up and getting an opportunity to drive in NASCAR, I wasn’t like “Hey I hope I fall in love with my car owner. That’s going to really help my career!” But we actually really talked about it. We were like “alright if we want a relationship, we both know what this could do to our careers we have to want it that bad.”
I think people in the media and the public, their perception of what happened between Ray and I was way off base from what it really was. It was actually pretty respectful, pretty -- all things considered -- it just wasn’t what people made it out to be.
I think I definitely clammed up a lot because no one wants to have people saying bad things about you and have people calling you a home wrecker. People said some rally awful things, and that’s not who I am. So now, a few years later, I feel like we’re married we’ve been together that whole time, people are looking back at it and saying “You know what? Maybe it’s not what people said it was."
I think there’s just a level of respect that we’re still together and it was something real. It wasn’t something ... So many people said "Oh, it was because you wanted to keep your ride." Well that’s the last thing you do if you want to keep a job. Like please. I think now we’re just both a little bit more comfortable with it.
People -- not necessarily friends of ours and acquaintances -- other people look at it and have a different view. Which is fair enough. If I saw from a distance someone else going through (the same circumstances), I might have my own opinion about it too. But now, a few years later, we’re married and I just think I’m more confident about it. I’m not so clammed up. It’s like “Alright, see, weren’t just doing something for fun. It was because we really cared about each other." I think there’s just a different level of respect for it.
Erin: Not really. I’m sure if I went through it again -- and it all played out like it did -- I’m not sure there was much I would have done different. If I could have chose the timing of Ray and I starting a relationship, yeah maybe I’d do that. But things happen for a reason they happen when they do. I feel like that affected sponsorship and people’s perception.
I would have like to have more time for people to see me as a racer in the stock car world and give me more of a chance (before the relationship began, started generating news and taking the focus off Crocker's on-track performance), but there’s no complaints. I wouldn’t change anything. I have Ray Evernham as my husband and my crew chief, on a sprint car. Life is really good right now.
For info on seeing Crocker race at Knoxville, or the Knoxville Nationals, go here.
In part 2, Crocker talks about her first love -- driving the 900-horsepower of winged mechanical mayhem that is a 410-cubic-inch sprint car. Read it HERE.