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

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.

"I drove against other girls," Pratt said. "They called them 'powder puff races' but you can't say that anymore. Once, I finished third against about 10 other girls in a jalopy race at Western Avenue Speedway in Gardena."

Ask Evelyn Pratt how she keeps going at such a pace at 84 and she says, matter-of-factly, "I'm athletic. I was a rassler in high school, up in Aberdeen, Washington. I could always take care of myself. My doctor says I'm stronger today than I was 10 years ago. I'm from good German stock."

Working weekends at races is only part of her routine. Three days a week, she operates a lawn-mowing and tree-trimming business.

"I do it all myself," she said proudly when asked if she had a crew to help her. "Here, look in the back of my station wagon." It was crammed with mowers, trimmers and other tools of the gardening trade.

She was a school crossing guard for a number of years and was named "Outstanding School Guard of El Monte" one year. In her spare time, she crochets afghan robes for her racing friends.

Riverside Reunion

Memories of Riverside International Raceway will be rekindled next Thursday night when a raceway reunion is held at the Petersen Automotive Museum. Featured will be Dan Gurney, the driver who was so popular there in the 1960s that fans wore "Gurney for President" buttons to the races. Also expected to attend and speak briefly are Phil Hill, Parnelli Jones, Dick Guldstrand, Chuck Daigh and Carroll Shelby.

Tickets are $100. Details: (323) 964-6325.

The Hod Rod Scene

Funny car champion Tony Pedregon collected $400,000 at the NHRA Powerade award banquet Monday at the Kodak Theatre, then was given his release by John Force so he could pursue other options before the 2004 season.

"Tony's been a great teammate," said Force, whose championship season loss to Pedregon was his first in 11 seasons. "We wish him the best except, of course, when he pulls alongside one of our Fords."

Pedregon is expected to join his older brother, Cruz, in a family funny car team.

Force said he had no drivers picked out to replace Pedregon or Gary Densham, who is also leaving the team.

"I feel about Tony like he was one of my kids," Force said. "We've had eight years together and I've seen him grow up. I have a lot of mixed emotions about seeing him go."

Brandon Bernstein drove in only eight of 23 NHRA events, but his three wins were enough to earn him the $20,000 Auto Club Road to the Future Award as rookie of the year. Brandon will be back in the Budweiser King top-fuel car next year, replacing his father, Kenny, who won four of the last five national events.

Last Laps

Jeremy Toye and Jeff Stern will continue their duel for the Formula One Toyota Cup championship Sunday in the 11th round of the series at Willow Springs Motorsports Park.

Cort Wagner of Los Angeles and Brent Martini of Laguna Beach received Grand American Road Racing Assn. championship watches for winning the GT championship. It was Wagner's second consecutive title.

The NASCAR Winston West banquet, which was postponed Nov. 2 because of wildfires, has been rescheduled for Dec. 12 at the Eldorado Hotel in Reno.

Indy 500 winners A.J. Foyt and Johnny Rutherford are the first two inductees into the Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame.

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This Week

NASCAR: Ford 400

* When: Today, qualifying (Speed Channel, 10:30 a.m.; Sunday, race (Channel 4, 10 a.m.).

* Where: Homestead-Miami Speedway (oval, 1.5 miles, 8 degrees banking in turns); Homestead, Fla.

* Race distance: 400 miles, 267 laps.

* 2002 winner: Kurt Busch.

BUSCH SERIES: Ford 300

* When: Saturday, race (Channel 4, 9 a.m.).

* Where: Homestead-Miami Speedway.

* Race distance: 300 miles, 200 laps.

* 2002 winner: Scott Wimmer.

CRAFTSMAN TRUCKS: Ford 200

* When: Today, race (Speed Channel, Noon).

* Where: Homestead-Miami Speedway.

* Race distance: 201 miles, 134 laps.

* 2002 winner: Ron Hornaday.

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