Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Twenty Years Later, Former #70 Crewman Marty Burke Remembers J.D. McDuffie

J.D. McDuffie, circa 1991
(SOURCE: McDuffie Collection; "Forty Years of Stock Car Racing"
by Greg Fielden)
Twenty years ago Thursday, under heavy overcast skies, a young Marty Burke walked out onto pit road at Watkins Glen International. He stopped at the driver’s side of a Pontiac that sat 35th on the grid for the 1991 Budweiser at the Glen. The car was burgundy and black with a sharp white racing stripe around the middle, a distinctive paint scheme the driver came up with after spotting a sharp-looking new Cadillac outside a restaurant earlier that year. Peering through the window of car #70, Burke met eyes with the fifty-two-year-old driver, who was still smiling from beneath his open-faced helmet about his win in a celebrity race the night before.

The driver was J.D. McDuffie.

Over the rumble of idling engines, Burke talked with J.D. about their plan for the 90-lap race. They would run in the middle of the pack early on, then make a bid for the Top 20, maybe even a Top 15 if things shook out right. J.D. was winless in 652 previous starts and hadn’t finished any better than 22nd since late 1987, but driver and team had many reasons to be excited.

Thanks to shocks rebuilt by Bilstein, a brand-new transmission purchased on auction from the defunct Blue Max Racing team, and a powerful motor built by fellow team member Gerry Glenn, the oldest car in J.D.’s fleet could now run flat-out down The Glen’s 2600-foot backstretch. In Happy Hour, J.D. even pulled up on polesitter Terry Labonte, who broke the track record in qualifying, before both braked for treacherous Turn 5.

Consistently, J.D. negotiated the hard downhill right-hander safely, even as nearly a half-dozen of his fellow competitors - including defending winner Ricky Rudd - left practice with cars damaged or destroyed by the unforgiving tire barriers at the edge of Turn 5's grassy runoff.

Even a new sponsor took notice of J.D.’s performance as local New York construction firm L.C. Whitford Co., Inc. signed-on for a one-race deal, putting their logo on the quarter-panels.

“We went all over the car,” Burke recalls. “It was the most prepared we ever were for a race.”

But nothing could prepare Burke - and everyone else in attendance - for what happened on the fifth lap.

For Burke, the crash that claimed the life of veteran NASCAR driver J.D. McDuffie that day took with it not only a boss, but a business partner, a mentor, and a close friend. In an interview I conducted with Burke in May, I invited him to share some of these memories.


THE BLUE-COLLAR RACER

Four years after he got his start in NASCAR by working as a crewman for Elmo Langley’s Cup team, Burke began working for J.D. in 1985. At the time, the Sanford, North Carolina driver was competing in his 21st season on what was then the Winston Cup Series. Burke recalls J.D. was a quiet man who spent most of his time working on his race cars, but was very much a fixture in the garage area. Recent NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Ned Jarrett often came by to chat with J.D. during his work with ESPN, as did any fan who stopped by:

“Since J.D. was not a super star,” Burke recalls, “the fans must have found him very approachable, and he never disappointed them. We would be out to dinner and they would come up and ask for his autograph and he would always oblige. The fans always wanted to talk with him as I really believe they thought of him as a blue-collar racer, and many fans related to that.”

Still, as a southern owner-driver at a time when multi-car teams and northerners like Geoff Bodine were gaining popularity, J.D. could use all the help he could get. Burke recalls the youth movement in today’s NASCAR was already changing the sport in the late 1980s, as shown by the difference in age of the fans who came by:

“The kids really were more attracted to the stars of the day. J.D.'s fan base was much more of the true racer and race fan.”

While other drivers in the garage area were friendly with J.D. as well, the increasing demands of big-name sponsors on their drivers started to restrict how much assistance he received from his fellow drivers. A working relationship like the one fellow owner-driver Dave Marcis had with Richard Childress Racing at the time was nonexistent at McDuffie Racing:

“[M]ost teams would loan us something if we needed it. But nobody ‘supported’ J.D. I think a lot of it had to do with the pressure of your own team’s performance. Even back then, the sponsors paid you to perform and that pressure was certainly there for the more well-financed teams.”
J.D. McDuffie's final car, co-owned by Marty Burke,
carrying Burke's Classic Trophies logos at Pocono, 1991
(SOURCE: Jack Kromer, Stock Car Racing Magazine)

As a result, as with crewmen for many other single-car teams at the time, Burke’s work for J.D. required he fill a number of roles for the organization - so many, in fact, that by 1991 he’d worked every position but jackman. As J.D.’s rear tire changer, for example, Burke hustled-up tires from other teams, most often Melling Racing, and calibrated stagger on pit road. Also, as one of J.D.’s sponsors, Burke’s Pennsylvania company Classic Trophies, one of a number of businesses he owned at the time, was on the #70 when money was tighter than usual. And it often was.

Working for J.D. also brought Burke into the fold with a small group of teammates, sponsors, and supporters who often accompanied the veteran driver at the race. The elder statesman of the group was Tom Rumple, whose Elkin, North Carolina company Rumple Furniture funded the team for nearly a decade. Mike Demers, whose company Son’s Auto Supply also sponsored J.D., assumed the role as crew chief “due to his booming voice,” Burke recalls, and worked with his wife at J.D.’s fan club. Gerry Glenn, of the New Jersey-based Medford Speed Shop, was J.D.’s engine guy, working alongside his son, Gerry Jr. AC Spark Plugs, J.D.’s only mainstream sponsor during the twilight of his career, remained with the team over his final six seasons, provided spark plugs and air filters at the track, and read the plugs for the team. Even though he was an independent, J.D. also received a lot of assistance from Pontiac with Morgan-McClure’s team acting as distributor:

“We got all the sheet metal we needed [from Pontiac],” says Burke, “and they sent a couple of blocks and cylinder heads every year. Yes, J.D. would change brands if he could get a better deal as he had to do what was best for him. But deep down he was a Chevy guy!”

Even as his fellow independent drivers were gradually squeezed out of the sport, J.D. and his rag-tag group continued to plug away, at times turning heads with surprising success. One of Burke’s fondest memories came during SpeedWeeks 1989.

One year earlier, a fiery crash in the 1988 Twin 125-mile qualifiers resulted in severe burns to both J.D.’s hands, putting him on the sidelines for much of the season. By 1989, J.D.’s crew had managed to successfully rebuild the car for another run at the Daytona 500 field. This time in the qualifiers, J.D. dodged a tremendous pile-up in the tri-oval and came home 15th, locking him into what was to be his 15th and final Daytona 500 start. And, as many drivers will tell you, J.D. refused to put a price on a chance to start “The Great American Race:”

“In 1989 we made the Daytona 500 and Kyle Petty didn't. They stopped by and talked to J.D. about buying him out of his spot. J.D. wouldn't sell. He told me, ‘he came here to race.’ Me, I would have taken the [money]!. . .I know he was really happy about getting in the race. We missed the jetting on the carb on race day, so we were not really very fast. I think we finished 25th. But we finished!”

Though it is true that J.D. has 32 last-place finishes, the most of any NASCAR Sprint Cup driver as of this writing, Burke also pointed out that, while start-and-park teams did exist at the time, J.D. never used this strategy - even when it was more economical to do so.

“We never did start-and-park, that I can say with certainty! We would try to stay in the race and wait for others to drop out and move up that way. . .There were some start-and-parks during our days and NASCAR really frowned upon it.”


THE PROTÉGÉ

But what Burke remembers best about those seven seasons was working alongside J.D. himself and the lessons he learned from him as an aspiring race car driver.

“[J.D.] took me under his wing. We normally bunked together at the races and we would talk about the racetracks and how to drive them before we went to sleep.”

After J.D.’s son Jeff McDuffie left the team in the mid-1980s, the veteran turned his attention to Burke, who was looking to cut his teeth as a driver in ARCA. J.D. found an eager student in Burke and, by early 1991, the two had worked out a plan to both secure sponsorship for J.D. and get Burke’s career started:

“My plans that I did discuss with him was to try to get a sponsor and race. . .I was young and could speak clearly and thought I might have some appeal to a potential sponsor. . .So my desire was to get a sponsor for the #70 and J.D., and for me to get experience in ARCA and in a couple of years move up into Cup, hoping to have J.D. as my mentor & crew chief using his race shop (obviously the sponsorship money would go directly to him).”

“That was my plan, he knew that I wanted to race and was doing everything he could to help me. We talked about how to drive the tracks that ARCA raced on (Michigan, Pocono, Talladega & Daytona). I would never have asked him to step out of the car, that would have to be his decision.”

The first phase of the plan commenced in March of 1991, when Burke purchased the oldest of J.D.’s three Winston Cup cars. J.D. acquired this particular car five years earlier from Tom Winkle, a Defiance, Ohio car salesman who invested in the #70 team in 1986. Winkle, looking to follow in the footsteps of an already-successful Rick Hendrick, purchased the car from Richard Childress, converting it from one of Dale Earnhardt’s old Wrangler Chevrolets into a 2+2-bodied Pontiac sponsored by AC Spark Plugs. Winkle, impatient with the team’s progress, parted ways with J.D. early in the 1986 season, but J.D. kept the car. Since J.D. still had two newer Hutcherson-Pagan chasses with fresh 1991 Pontiac sheetmetal, one dark-blue (J.D.’s customary paint scheme, carried on the car that made the 1989 Daytona 500 field) and the other cherry-red, this oldest #70 was now Burke’s.

But racing luck was not on J.D.’s side. Though he and his blue Pontiac qualified for the spring race at Darlington and finished under power in 30th, he failed to qualify for eight of the 1991 season’s first ten races and skipped the 500-miler at Atlanta.

After he missed the show at Talladega that April in his Darlington car, J.D. was allowed to compete as a late entry in the ARCA race, the Poulan Pro 500k, back when Cup backmarkers were allowed to compete in the series. Unfortunately, the day ended with J.D.’s car destroyed following a tragic late-race accident. After he ran as high as 9th, J.D. cut low entering turn one to avoid the flipping Oldsmobile of young Chris Gehrke. Just as he hit the grass, Gehrke’s car collided with Carl Miskotten’s Buick, sending a huge chunk of debris into J.D.’s path. J.D. drove away uninjured from the resulting crash to finish 25th, but Gehrke was fatally wounded.

Then, just under a month later, J.D. qualified for his 2nd Cup race of the season at Dover only to leave with his second red Pontiac annihilated after Kenny Wallace sent him spinning into the inside wall on the backstretch. Again, J.D. was uninjured, but now both his cars were destroyed, waiting to be repaired back in his garage.

Less than two weeks later, Burke was slated to make his ARCA debut at Pocono. But with both of J.D.’s cars now weeks from being repaired, he insisted that J.D. run his old burgundy car in the Cup race instead. It’s a conversation Burke has relived many times:

“Pocono was coming up and I was already entered in the ARCA race. I really had a tough time convincing J.D. that I wanted him to run in the Cup race and I could wait. He said he made a commitment to me to have my car ready for the ARCA race and I was to race at Pocono. We didn't get into an argument but I had to do a lot of ‘convincing’ that we needed to stay in the Cup Series. J.D. was a man of his word, I know that he knew the smartest thing was for him to race my car in Cup, but he knew how badly I wanted to drive. Part of me is glad I convinced him, part of me is not, who knows what would have happened?”

Thus, while the two Hutcherson-Pagan Pontiacs were being rebuilt back in Sanford, Burke assumed yet another role for J.D.: as car owner.

J.D. qualified Burke’s car for both Cup races at Pocono that summer, finishing 34th in June and a season-best 25th in July. The car also made an appearance in ARCA, finishing 13th at Michigan in June. With neither of the damaged cars ready in time for Talladega, the team then looked toward preparing Burke’s car for Watkins Glen.

With work completed, J.D. strapped that Pontiac to the rear of “Ol’ Blue,” the team’s aging open-topped hauler, and headed out for the long drive north.


“WINNERS BUY”

As J.D. McDuffie neared New York, “Ol’ Blue’s” brakes failed.

Somehow, he was able to bring the hauler to a safe stop, but was unable to afford any lost time getting to the track, knowing he would have to qualify on speed as three teams would be sent home. So, J.D. put a pop-rivet in the brake line, climbed back in, and brought both car and driver safely to the 2.428-mile road course. Burke met J.D. when he arrived at the track for signing day on Thursday, August 8, 1991.

The next day, J.D. had qualified for his sixth consecutive start at The Glen, one of his favorite racetracks. Another obstacle had been overcome. The risk had paid off. Now, it was time to have fun.

Looking back on the Watkins Glen weekend, the events leading up to the race feel surreal to Burke. In a season plagued with tremendous difficulty for a team struggling to survive, an unexpected trip to victory lane gave J.D. and his team a boost of confidence right when they needed it most - no one knowing how short-lived their joy would be.

On the night of August 10, hours before the start of Sunday’s 90-lapper, J.D. McDuffie participated in a one-hour autograph session with Dale Earnhardt, then headed out with Burke and his crew to compete in a celebrity race at Shangri-La Speedway in nearby Owego, New York. The race would be between J.D. and members of Earnhardt’s pit crew. Burke recalls the moment that would become the veteran’s on-air eulogy during the ESPN broadcast the next day:

“It was a lot of fun for J.D. He was given a car and there was no question he was the class of the field. He pulled out into the lead and tried to keep the rest of the field close so they could put on a good show for the fans. He knew that he was the class of the field, he was more happy for us than he was for himself.”

The excitement of that victory - and its importance to the team as whole - cannot be overstated. The most vivid of Burke’s memories came when J.D. and the rest of the team went to breakfast on the morning of Sunday, August 11, 1991, all of them still savoring the win:

“Sunday morning we all went to breakfast and J.D. bought with the money he got night before. When J.D. was with me, Mike Demers or Gerry Glenn, we took care of all the expenses. . .J.D. grabbed the breakfast check and said, ‘Winners Buy’ and that really stuck in my mind all these years.”

“As humble as J.D. was (and he truly was a humble man) that morning he was beaming with pride, not because he won the race, but because he wanted to buy us breakfast.”

J.D. paid the check. Then the team drove back to Watkins Glen.


TODAY

In the years since the crash, Marty Burke has continued to carry on the legacy of J.D. McDuffie. In 1991, he licensed the likeness of J.D.’s #70 - complete with Burke’s Classic Trophies logos - to die cast manufacturer Racing Champions, arranging it so the profits would go toward helping J.D.’s widow Jean raise their grandson.

Though the events of August 11, 1991 put Burke’s racing career on hold, he soon discovered that he had more in common with J.D. than he thought: no matter what the adversity, Burke was determined to not give up his dream of racing.

He sold Classic Trophies in 1997 and moved from Pennsylvania to Texas, where he resides today as an owner-driver of his own drag racing team and custom race part business. Today, Marty Burke Motorsports has held NHRA national records from 2000 to 2004 and continues to compete today. On the front page of his website is a photo of his modified Mustang - painted the same shade of burgundy as the car he shared with J.D. - rearing-up at the starting line. And, with every flash of the green lights and the roar of his engine, Burke continues to pay tribute to his mentor and the friendship they shared.

But, most of all, Burke is protective of J.D.’s legacy and determined to dispel the misconceptions of the competitor who made him the man he is today.

“When you write your article about J.D.,” he told me, “just know that he was a true racer and an outstanding gentleman. A lot of negative things have been written about him in the past about ‘running junk.’ He never ran ‘junk.’ The parts might have been used, but they were not wore out! He had to run to conserve his equipment, yes he would have loved to run up front, but he had to make a living.”

“J.D. could do more with less (money, parts etc.) than anyone I know, but mostly he was a fine man and my friend.”

J.D. McDuffie (waving at the camera) and crew at Watkins Glen, circa 1990
(SOURCE: Claychamp123 at the NewYorkRacing Forums)

6 comments:

Smiff_99 said...

Awesome article, Brock......I love it when people take the time to highlight the careers of guys like J.D.

Every time I see the cars go through the inner-loop, I think of J.D.

Tom Delgado - Hurping and Derping Since 2010 said...

Yes, awesome article Brock. I bet J.D. McDuffie's watching Marty Burke from heaven and is proud of him.

Matthew L. Lewis said...

Thank you for the excellent article, Brock. But if I may point out one error:

"Ol' Blue" (JD's open back hauler) had LONG since been retired. I am certain that as of 1988 he had a large, enclosed hauler (like the one pictured in the die-cast set: White with Red & Blue stripes) as I have a picture of it leaving Atlanta in 1988 after what must have been a DNQ for the season finale Atlanta Journal 500.

mburke6662 said...

Matthew,
We could not afford to run the 18 wheeler in 1991. Ol Blue was put back into service. Brocks report is accurate
Thanks,
Marty

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Jade Graham said...

however, allowing McDowell to return to the track. Robby, with only enough sponsorship to run the distance in the upcoming Cup races at Chicagoland, Texas, and Phoenix, called it a night and fell to 43rd. gaining motorsport sponsorship