Wednesday, August 08, 2007
tribute: j.d. mcduffie
This Sunday, Johnny Sauter will race his Haas Automation Chevrolet in this year’s running of the Centurion Boats at the Glen. It will be the first time in sixteen years that a car bearing the number 70 will have competed in a NASCAR Nextel Cup race at Watkins Glen’s 2.45-mile road course. While that statistic may seem hardly worth noting in its own right, one need only look back to who carried the 70 during that race in 1991 to realize it begs not only a mention of who raced it, but a tribute. As the NASCAR community continues to honor the lives of Bobby Hamilton, Benny Parsons, and Bill France, Jr. this season, I suggest we also take a moment to remember J.D. McDuffie.
Sadly, few of NASCAR’s newest fans know about J.D. McDuffie, a man whose career was not blessed with the same glamor and extravagance enjoyed by today’s superstars. Others recall him as little more than a statistic, his name welded by tragedy to the cold, emotionless fact that he ran the most-ever races in NASCAR’s top series of any winless driver. Yet for those whom he touched, J.D. McDuffie left behind more than enough memories to remember him by, many more than this or any other tribute can do justice.
In a career which spanned twenty-eight seasons from the days of Petty and Pearson in the mid-sixties to those of Earnhardt and Wallace in the early nineties, Sanford, North Carolina’s John Delphus “J.D.” McDuffie chugged along in his own number 70 through 653 races as a driver in NASCAR’s elite division. An independent in every sense of the word, McDuffie not only owned, raced, and worked on his own car, but personally ferried it from track to track on an open flatbed trailer he affectionately named “Ol’ Blue.” Like other owner-drivers of his time, the few cars McDuffie had at his disposal were themselves rolling underdogs, cars powered by secondhand parts his more well-funded competitors had cast aside. No matter how worn-out the parts were, however, McDuffie possessed an almost magical ability to make them work just one more time.
Even as the cars, competition, and indeed the sport continued to change around the greying racer, J.D. McDuffie remained a recurring reminder of the same rough-and-tumble era of NASCAR’s genesis toward which Brian France has shown little regard. As the art of the pit stop rose to new levels of complexity, McDuffie still relied on shoestring crews to pit his car, hiring people around the area whenever he made the big show. While owners like Rick Hendrick and Junior Johnson were courting mainstream sponsors, McDuffie continued to make the most of the support provided by his loyal fraternity of lesser-known sponsors, mom-and-pop stores with names like Rumple Furniture, Run-A-Bout, Classic Trophies, Medford Speed, and Son’s Auto Supply.
Like other drivers from NASCAR’s formative years, McDuffie even had a curious eccentricity which affirmed his unfiltered blue-collar charm. What Dave Marcis is to his wingtip shoes and Tim Flock was to “Jocko,” the pet monkey he let ride in his race car, J.D. McDuffie was to enjoying a good cigar. Not only was the veteran often seen smoking one in the garage area as he tuned up his weary engine for race day, but he would even duct-tape several more cigars onto his dashboard to enjoy during the race. A good race, McDuffie was known to say, would be one during which he smoked them all, for that would mean he had finished the race under power.
Though it is true that he never won a Winston Cup race, J.D. McDuffie was never one to complain, and even as the odds for success grew worse, he still reveled in the sheer joy of competition as the lighthearted David among a growing number of Goliaths. For his determination, McDuffie was as much a respected competitor in the garage area as he was a beloved fan favorite in the stands. As such, the day McDuffie hoisted his lone Busch Pole award at Dover in 1978 is as well-documented as any victory ever scored by his competitors, the wily veteran beaming that he had just qualified for the inaugural pole winner’s race, then known as the Busch Clash at Daytona, in 1979. In all, given the length of his career in such drastically-changing times, McDuffie was a man who truly exemplified the words of fellow owner-driver Dave Marcis as a driver who “could do almost anything with nothing.”
It was for all this and more that McDuffie’s untimely passing at Watkins Glen was so tragic.
On August 11, 1991, sixteen years ago Saturday, J.D. McDuffie died in a wreck during the opening laps of the Budweiser at the Glen. Just five laps into the event, a catastrophic brake failure sent McDuffie’s Pontiac hurtling off the backstretch and into turn five’s tire-covered steel guardrail, killing him instantly. He was 52.
Sixteen years later in an interview with ESPN, Darrell Waltrip was correct in saying that the NASCAR schedule leaves no room for celebrating the best of times, much less grieving the worst. Like a leaf carried down a stream, drivers and fans alike are powerless against the sheer momentum of the sport, anticipating the next lap, the next race, the next season with equal ferocity. What Waltrip failed to mention, however, is how grief can achieve momentum of its own, momentum so subtle and powerful that it can steer the sport in a different direction without anyone realizing it. Such was the case after the loss of J.D. McDuffie.
In the space of just two seasons, veterans Phil Barkdoll, James Hylton, and Jimmy Means, who was also involved in McDuffie’s fatal accident, would run their last races as owner-drivers. Darrell Waltrip's own owner-driver team followed suit in 1998. Some said money was the issue, others pointed to the rise of multi-car teams, but what was strange was neither ever seemed to stop them before. Not when McDuffie was around. Even the Cinderella season of Alan Kulwicki in 1992, a driver whose career was also cut short by tragedy, only delayed the decline of independent teams to the point that even Dave Marcis retired in 2002. The days of the owner-driver seemed to be all but gone.
Yet, despite - or perhaps in spite - of the odds, Robby Gordon still chose to leave Richard Childress Racing to re-open his owner-driver Cup team in 2005, the Californian standing alone in tribute to the independents of NASCAR’s past. Ironically, one possible reason that Gordon decided to return to his roots could date back to that dark August day in 1991.
When word of McDuffie’s passing reached the fans that afternoon, ESPN commentator Bob Jenkins eulogized the veteran the one way no one other than McDuffie seemed to have thought possible: as a winner. Jenkins pointed out that the very night before that tragic day came a special race at the old Shangri-La short track in nearby Owego, New York. It was a celebrity event which highlighted the night’s action, one which pitted members of Richard Childress’ pit crew against none other than J.D. McDuffie. There, under the glare of moth-riddled short track lighting, McDuffie won the event in an utterly surreal fashion with open race track all around him. Never before or since has the figure of McDuffie, nor of NASCAR’s owner-drivers in general, been captured so poignantly. It was not until after this tribute, after McDuffie was shown enjoying the spoils of his hard-earned victory with his family, that the Watkins Glen event was restarted with Ernie Irvan taking the checkered flag.
It is after mentioning this tribute again that I leave you, the reader, with just one request. When you see Robby Gordon race against Johnny Sauter’s number 70 this weekend - particularly as they negotiate the “bus stop” installed on the course in response to the events of August 11, 1991 - take a moment to not only remember J.D. McDuffie, but be sure to remember him as the man, not the statistic.
(sources include greg fielden, duane falk, and the readers at racing-reference.info; special thanks to bryan hallman for the above photo of j.d. mcduffie’s number 70 at north wilkesboro in the spring of 1991 and the mcduffie family for supplying the photo of mcduffie for fielden's "forty plus four" book)
For more stories and photos about J.D., click here to check out an excellent tribute site.