How racing cars gave Detroit Lions C Evan Brown the fearlessness to succeed in NFL

Detroit Free Press

Evan Brown was tearing through the inside track at Texas Motor Speedway at 100 or so mph, heading into one of the final turns of a Legend Car race he was determined to win, when he found himself upside down on top of another car and engulfed by flames.

Brown, who will make his eighth straight start at center when the Detroit Lions host the Minnesota Vikings today at Ford Field, recounts the story now with the nonchalance of a Sunday afternoon.

His crash wasn’t quite Ricky Bobby rolling down the raceway in Talladega Nights, but it was a seminal experience for a then-12-year-old at the height of his racing career.

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“I pitched it in there and wheels hit, ended up going sideways upside down,” Brown recalled this week. “At that point I was just like — I remember thinking, I was like, ‘Oh, this isn’t good.’ And then I remember seeing flames coming through by my feet, I’m like, ‘Oh, this really isn’t good. Yeah, I definitely messed something up here.’”

Brown did not suffer any burns or broken bones in the crash, and the fire was extinguished in seconds by emergency personnel. But he did receive a good tongue-lashing from his father, Ron, his pit crew chief and race financier, for neglecting to shut off the engine when he went airborne.

Ron Brown said the crash was “terrifying” to watch, and Evan’s mother, Nobu, was in horror in the stands. But Ron Brown also recalls proudly how Evan handled it the next week when he returned to the same track with a rebuilt car — including a new fire-suppression system — and won.

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“He was a little shaken up,” Ron Brown said. “I mean, he was definitely shaken up a little bit. But he was ready to go the next week. It wasn’t like, ‘I don’t want to do this.’ Or, ‘I’m afraid.’”

Evan’s racing career spanned the better part of a decade.

He started racing go-karts as a 4-year-old and progressed through the junior racing ranks. He raced Rotax karts, where he won a national championship as an 8- or 9-year-old and got into dirt kart racing before graduating to full-body cars.

Brown raced Bandolero cars and did more dirt racing in caged cars before finishing in the Legend series. For a fleeting moment, he thought he might be a NASCAR driver one day.

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“Kind of, sort of,” he said. “But it honestly just started out as a hobby that we did and developed into it, and I started to improve and get good at it. Then it kind of developed into getting into it more and more, doing better, then I started traveling for it and at that point you had big trailers towing all the stuff.

“You had to bring a car, sometimes two cars, if you’re racing another series, three cars in this trailer. All the parts. Anything you need to fix a car at one point. Extra tires, extra axles. Absolutely everything you could break.”

The Browns built a detached garage on their property in Texas that served as their workshop and they traveled the country for races at speedways in Charlotte, Atlanta, Indianapolis and Monroe, Louisiana.

Those experiences did not come cheap. Ron Brown estimated he spent $30,000 to $40,000 a year on Evan’s racing.

But in many ways, they taught Evan the traits — the competitiveness, fearlessness and drive — he needed to become a surprisingly key cog in the Lions offensive line this season.

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“I definitely think (that is the case),” Ron Brown said. “It’s about, ‘I’m going to compete and I’m going to do the best I can and I’m going to take on the opponent every week,’ and it was same thing at the track. We’d go to tracks that we’ve never been to and we’d look at it and do some research beforehand and find out what gear we needed to put in the car and go out there and practice.

“And the first time out there, he’s shifting and he has a five-speed car and he’s racing and you’re bumper to bumper and you’re in this big oval, like a big bowl, and you’re going 90 to 100 mph when you’re 3 inches off the guy’s bumper in front of you.”

Brown said he was drawn to racing not for the adrenaline rush he got by going fast speeds in tight spaces but because of the thrill he experienced chasing victory.

The fiery crash he had at Texas Motor Speedway happened because he was trying to pass the first-place car for a win, and Brown said he was “never fearful to throw my car in there and make room for myself and push people out of the way” as a driver.

“When I was younger you got the little ribbons, first-, second- and third-(place) ribbons,” Brown said. “Well, we threw out the second and third ribbons because at that point, those don’t really matter. You kept all the blue ribbons up on the wall. And then as you get older and that, then you start getting little plaques for first, second and third. We threw out the second and thirds, ’cause again those don’t matter. It’s the firsts (that count).”

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Brown gave up racing when his size became a competitive disadvantage around his freshman year of high school. Around the same time, it became apparent he might have a future in football.

Ron Brown sold off his racing equipment and turned his detached garage into a weight room, and Evan shined as a player at Texas high school powerhouse Southlake Carroll, where he won a state title as a sophomore.

A four-year starter at SMU, Brown bounced around the NFL, playing for three teams in his first three seasons before finding a home in Detroit. He was ticketed for backup center duties this fall, but was pressed into action in a Week 4 game against the Chicago Bears when Frank Ragnow suffered a season-ending toe injury. Brown has not left the lineup since.

“Listen, Evan’s been solid,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said last month. “I mean, he’s stepped in and he’s a sharp guy now. He’s smart and he’s really been — I hate it when you ask me stuff like this, but it’s kind of one of those guys, I don’t want to say you take for granted, but you kind of don’t think a lot about it and that’s a good thing, man. He’s in there and we know he’s going to set the table up and he’ll mix it up.”

Brown, who played primarily on the practice squad for the New York Giants, Miami Dolphins and Cleveland Browns, made his first career start in the Lions’ Oct. 10 loss to the Vikings in Minnesota.

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He helped key the Lions’ 108-yard rushing performance that day with a key block on Jamaal Williams’ team-long 13-yard run.

Eight weeks later, ready to face the Vikings for a second time, the Lions (0-10-1) remain the only winless team in the NFL, but Brown can see how much and the team have grown.

“(In racing) it’s working on the car, fixing parts, getting it all ready for the event on the weekend and you go into Fridays and Saturdays, tune-ups, practice, and then you have your final event,” Brown said. “That’s kind of how football is. You’re getting your body right during the week, recovering from the last game, but you’re getting yourself ready for the next game and to go out and perform on the weekend and then right back at it again and again.

“So I think the hard work aspect of that and the kind of routine of it can carry over, and then I think the competition aspect of it, you’re racing to win. And you play football to win.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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