Thursday, August 11, 2016

8/11/91: The story of J.D. McDuffie's final race, 25 years later

J.D. McDuffie working on No. 70 on August 11, 1991
SOURCE: Mike Demers
The morning of August 11, 1991 was mild for a late-summer day, just seventy degrees at its warmest.  A gentle breeze blew across the front stretch, fluttering the row of flags above pit road.  By noon, the dark, foreboding clouds that brought so much rain the day before were still there, blanketing the sky in a quilt of greys and whites.  Even so, there was only a thirty percent chance of showers hitting the track, and they weren’t expected until early evening.  With the green flag scheduled for 1:10 P.M., the race would be over by then.

Ernie Irvan looked forward to the start.  After his win in the season-opening Daytona 500, the hard-scrabble driver from Modesto, California had plenty of fans in the stands, but not many in the garage area.  His aggressive driving style sparked a series of multi-car accidents as his butterscotch-colored No. 4 Kodak Film Chevrolet raced for the lead, including an 8-car wreck at Pocono and a 12-car pileup at Darlington that critically injured veteran Neil Bonnett.  One week after the Pocono wreck, during the driver’s meeting for the DieHard 500 at Talladega, Irvan made a public apology to his fellow competitors.  “I want to earn everybody’s respect back,” he said, “I want to be liked in the garage area, and I’d appreciate it if you guys gave me a shot at it.”  Most in attendance clapped politely - except Rusty Wallace.

Irvan had an eventful weekend at The Glen, though he hadn’t ruffled any feathers.  He’d blown an engine on Thursday, rolled out last in qualifying, and somehow pulled out the 3rd-fastest time.  He’d also urged his fellow drivers to be cautious with Goodyear’s new radial tires.  “You just can’t get these tires broken loose,” he said in an interview Saturday with the Democrat and Chronicle.  “That doesn’t mean they’re bad tires, but we’ve just got to learn their limits. . .You’ve got to make sure you don’t go past the limit.  That’s when you wreck.”

Thus, to Irvan’s certain relief, he wasn’t the talk of the driver’s meeting.  Instead, everyone was talking about J.D. McDuffie and his win the night before at Shangri-La Speedway.  The outspoken Irvan couldn’t help but give the veteran a good-natured ribbing.  “J.D., you smoked ‘em last night, didn’t you?” he said.  “You’ve been holding out on us all these years!”  McDuffie, wearing a navy Son’s Auto Supply shirt, jeans, and his Rumple Furniture cap, only laughed.

Irvan knew McDuffie’s struggle too well.  In 1982, the Californian was a virtual unknown in NASCAR, a local racer who brought what his trailer could carry to North Carolina to make his name on the national circuit.  He’d worked odd jobs for years as a welder and fabricator, earning just enough to run late models at the Concord Speedway.  It wasn’t until 1987 that Irvan made his Cup debut with car owner Marc Reno, and for another three years, he ran near the back with limited sponsorship.  The fast No. 4 had been his for barely over a year.  Perhaps for this reason, his Morgan-McClure Motorsports team lent McDuffie the set of tires No. 70 practiced with on Saturday.

There wasn’t much left to do to the No. 70 that morning, so the McDuffie Racing team went over the car one more time.  By 9:30 A.M., the fluids had been checked, the brakes had been bled, and the wheel studs were lubricated.  The crew also waxed the car, tightened the wheel nuts, and installed a new radio.  Don Owens moved an air duct on the right side of the car.  The steering was one of the few parts McDuffie always instructed the crew to leave alone.  So Mike Demers stepped back and took a picture of McDuffie himself using a long socket wrench to tighten the nut on the end of the outer tie rod.  The driver also made a mount for the rear view mirror to keep it from vibrating during the race.

Six crew members wearing L.C. Whitford Co. trucker hats and t-shirts pushed No. 70 to the gas pumps and filled the 22-gallon tank.  Then they steered it to the inspection queue where NASCAR officials performed a visual check of the carburetor, manifold, fuel cell, and tires.  Despite its older body and chassis, the car fit all NASCAR’s templates for a 1991 Pontiac Grand Prix and weighed a proper 3,500 pounds.  At 10:00 A.M., the crew pushed the No. 70 onto pit road - the first car out.  As fans took pictures of the car, the crew set up their gear in pit stall No. 5, between the No. 24 Team III Racing crew for “road ringer” Dorsey Schroeder and Junior Johnson’s No. 11 Budweiser Ford for local hero Geoffrey Bodine.  The crew had tires mounted and ready to go.  There would be no rolling around today.

After the driver’s meeting, McDuffie saw his name on a banner on a beam twenty feet in the air and asked Demers who wrote it.  McDuffie then stayed in the paddock, relaxing in “Ol’ Blue” for a moment before he changed into his blue-and-white driver’s uniform, the same one he wore the night before at Shangri-La.  Marty Burke met him at the hauler, and asked once more about the green L.C. Whitford shirts and hats.  “If you don’t want us to wear this, we will not wear this,” said Burke.  The driver looked back at him, thought, then shook his head.  “Nah,” said McDuffie.  “That’s just kind of a silly thing anyway.”

On McDuffie’s way out to join the rest of the crew, he met with another photographer, Charles Berch.  Berch, publisher of the Instant Replay Sporting Photo News based out of Dundee, New York, also volunteered his time doing publicity work for McDuffie Racing.  A year earlier at Watkins Glen, No. 70 carried Instant Replay’s logo behind the rear tires, helping the paper through its second year in operation.  As the two met, Berch had McDuffie stand next to fellow drivers Dave Marcis and Richard Petty.  On July 14, 1971, the three drivers finished in that order at the Albany-Saratoga 250 a race on a third-mile paved track in Malta, New York, 233 miles east of Watkins Glen.  McDuffie’s third-place finish that day was his career-best.  Berch then worked his way toward his spot for the day on the inside of Turn 5.

McDuffie and Mike Demers walked out to the grid, where other cars now joined No. 70, lined up two-by-two.  On the way, a fan named Gary Westfall handed Demers a hat over the fence.  Gary asked for McDuffie to sign it and make it out to his wife Kathy.  McDuffie obliged, signing it in black pen.  He handed it back to Demers, who gave it to Gary.  McDuffie accidentally spelled his wife’s name “Cathy.”  She didn’t care.  She clutched the hat tightly as she and her husband took their position at their infield camper, the one with the big “Go J.D., No. 70” sign on one side.  Demers said “Thanks, J.D., I’ll talk to you later” and grabbed his radio - it was his turn to be crew chief.

Ed Peters, the L.C. Whitford employee on the crew, served as the front tire changer.  He helped McDuffie climb into No. 70 on pit road.  “I told him to run 100 (miles per hour) and win the race for us,” he recalled.  Once inside, the driver found his glasses which he lost at Pocono three weeks earlier.  They were wedged beneath his seat.  Within view of No. 70, another McDuffie banner appeared from the stands on the other side of the track.  Chico Reyes, the jack man, stuck his head in the window.  McDuffie pulled his hair.  The two laughed.  “He pulled my hair, every race,” said Reyes, a friend of McDuffie’s son Jeff.  “It was a tradition.  It was kind of like we’d put the window-net up and shove my head in there and he’d pull my hair and off he’d go.  He did it the night we won at Shangri-La.”  Ed and Chico were among the thirteen men and women on hand to pit No. 70.

Marty Burke spoke to McDuffie one more time, going over their strategy for the race: take it easy the first few laps, then in the final stages pick our way up to the Top 20, maybe even a Top 15.  This was no mere boasting.  McDuffie had often performed well on road courses.  In 1986, he was running 9th in the late stages of a race at Riverside when Tim Richmond spun him out.  This car was even better than that one.  “It was the most prepared we’d ever been for a race,” said Burke.

Mike Demers and McDuffie tested the team’s radios.  “Mike, can you hear me?” asked McDuffie.  “Loud and clear, J.D.”

Then came the command to fire engines.

~

With James Taylor’s “Traffic Jam” played over old racing footage, ESPN’s television broadcast kicked off just before 1 P.M.  The 40 starters idled on the grid, waiting for the signal from officials to enter the course.  Reporting from pit road, Dr. Jerry Punch summed up a weekend of “Injured Stars and Injured Cars.”  He stood behind Dave Marcis’ Darlington car as it warmed up in 20th, then moved one row back to point to the repairs made on Ricky Rudd’s Chevrolet.  In the garage area, fellow pit reporter John Kernan continued to discuss the challenges of Goodyear’s new radial tires, and how the drivers had to adjust their driving approach on the road course.  During the segment, ESPN’s camera man shoots Kernan through the center hole on a wheel in McDuffie’s pit.

For the road courses, ESPN’s trackside reporting wasn’t limited to pit road.  Lead announcer Bob Jenkins stood by himself in the infield booth while his two fellow play-by-play commentators stood at key passing zones.

First to introduce himself was Benny Parsons.  Parsons was cut from the same cloth as McDuffie, born in the small town of Ellerbe, less than fifty miles south-west of Sanford.  A Detroit taxi driver as a youngster, Parsons worked his way up the racing ranks from local short tracks to ARCA and Winston Cup.  He’d go on to claim the 1973 Winston Cup championship and the 1975 Daytona 500.  He also sold race car parts to McDuffie and in 1980 loaned the independent a motor that got him into a race at Talladega.  “I can’t afford the new stuff,” said McDuffie in 1977.  “But the used parts I buy from Benny Parsons usually are just as good as new.  It’s a matter of putting them together right.”  After his racing career, Parsons eased smoothly into his new life as a color commentator for ESPN.  His outgoing nature and excitable personality was a boon to ESPN, which organized pre-recorded segments to emphasize his playful side.  The Watkins Glen broadcast would include a new episode of “Buffet Benny” and “The Hat of the Week.”

On this day, Parsons was stationed on the outside of Turn 1, standing atop one of Watkins Glen’s several 20-foot-high wood spotter’s stands used by reporters, crewmen, and track officials.  “I’m in my favorite place on the race track, Turn 1,” said Parsons as McDuffie rolled off pit road behind him.  “Terry Labonte on the pole will be coming down through here up to 140mph, braking - slowest part of the race track - down to 65mph.  A good place to pass if the fella on the outside knows you’re there.  If he doesn’t, you’re in big trouble.”

Next was Ned Jarrett, another former NASCAR champion turned broadcaster.  “Gentleman Ned” had retired at the peak of his career in 1966, and in the decades that followed became a fixture on television and radio.  The eldest member of the ESPN group, his was the quieter, more studied voice in the booth, breaking down the intricacies of a sport he’d seen change over three decades.  Like Parsons, Jarrett was also a McDuffie supporter.  In fact, one of the first cars the Sanford man drove, a 1963 Ford Fairlane, was given to him by Jarrett.  The two struck up a friendship then, and no matter what network he worked for, Jarrett found time to meet and talk with McDuffie in the garage area.

This August at Watkins Glen, Jarrett was working Turn 5, standing atop another wooden tower behind the tire barriers.  Over his shoulder, the leaders crept through the turn.  “If you get in trouble here, it’s big time trouble,” he said.  “Most of that trouble that happened you fellas talked about happened right here in Turn 5.  But, after that much trouble in the days leading up to a race, it seems like the guys calm down a little bit.  Let’s hope that’ll be the case today.”

As ESPN went to commercial, the field came down pit road behind the black Ford F-150 pickup that would serve as the race’s “pace car.”  A pit road speed limit was one of the latest rule changes for 1991.  The sanctioning body’s hand was forced following a series of dangerous pit road accidents, culminating in the tragic death of Michael Ritch, who was struck by a spinning Ricky Rudd while changing Bill Elliott’s tires.  NASCAR’s first proposal for the season-opening Daytona 500 didn’t involve a speed limit, but instead a ban on pit stops under caution.  A blue or orange sticker with a big blue “1” or orange “2” was handed to each driver before the race.  The sticker determined which of the first two green-flag laps after a caution their team could pit.  Since the rule forced drivers to restart the race with worn tires, crashes and confusion ran rampant.  It wasn’t until the seventh race of the season at the tiny North Wilkesboro Speedway that a pit road speed limit was introduced.  The limit varied by track and the size of pit road.  Watkins Glen’s was one of the slowest - just 35mph.

That weekend at The Glen, NASCAR also debuted its own mascots.  The “NASCUBS,” a cadre of anthropomorphic animals in driver’s uniforms, were each matched with a lesson for young fans.  Towering over the billboards behind the entrance to Turn 2 was a giant inflatable “Rocky,” the grinning teddy bear whose message was “safety must come first, both on and off the track.”

After the first pace lap, Davey Allison surrendered his 9th starting spot to make a pit stop.  On top of his injured hand and rebuilt car, the throttle linkage on his Ford was now freezing up, making it difficult to slow the No. 28 on The Glen’s tight corners.  Quick work by the Robert Yates Racing crew got him back on the track as the field lined up for the start.  After two pace laps and ESPN’s run-through of the starting lineup, Terry Labonte and Mark Martin addressed the starter’s stand for a rolling start.  At that moment, Allison was running last in Turn 9, trying to catch the field as it drew away from him.  Flagman Doyle Ford waved the green, and the Budweiser at The Glen was underway.

As the field accelerated across the starting line, the leaders spread out four and five wide from 3rd on back.  On the inside, closest to the pit road wall, Wally Dallenbach, Jr. looked to make a move on Ernie Irvan, and was himself throwing a block on Dorsey Schroeder.  To the outside, Mark Martin had Geoff Bodine and Ken Schrader to contend with.  All of them followed Terry Labonte into “The Ninety” at Turn 1.  The leaders came off the corner two-abreast, then funneled down to single file trailing Labonte on the uphill march through “The Esses” of Turns 2, 3, and 4. Already, Labonte and Martin began to gap themselves from the rest of the field.

Meanwhile, at the back, six cars had already started to lose touch with the rest of the starters.  The group was led by 40th-place starter Michael Waltrip, who by the exit of Turn 1 had already drawn to the inside of McDuffie in a battle for 34th.  Five carlengths behind McDuffie was Jim Derhaag’s No. 54 with fellow “road ringer” Kim Campbell behind him in the No. 20 NAPA Oldsmobile.  Two carlengths behind 37th-place Campbell was the red No. 13 Buick of Oma Kimbrough.  In the first five laps, the trailing Davey Allison would catch and pass them all, climbing all the way to the 28th position.  The first car he caught trailed this six-car pack by over two seconds: the No. 71 of Dave Marcis.

Prior to the start, Marcis had voluntarily surrendered his 20th-place starting spot and joined Michael Waltrip at the rear of the field.  By the end of Lap 1, Marcis’s Darlington car had lost so much time to the rest of the field that he was completely by himself, his Chevrolet so slow in Turns 1 and 2 that it seemed to have lost an engine.  In reality, Marcis’ transmission wasn’t designed for the frequent gear-shifting of road course racing.  Trying to do so resulted in a terrible vibration.  To avoid losing another car with eleven races still to go in 1991, Marcis planned to pull out in the early laps.  Failing another on-track incident, the result would be Marcis’ first last-place finish in more than two years.

On Lap 3, Irv Hoerr’s experimental Oldsmobile was running in 15th.  His 13th-place starting spot was a promising start to the weekend, but things had already taken a turn.  Heading through Turns 2 and 3 on the third lap, his blue-and-silver No. 44 Oldsmobile started trailing white smoke from behind the left-front wheel.  Slight damage to the upper part of the front valence seemed to point to an overheating problem, but Hoerr later reported it was an oil leak “getting on the blowers.”  The smoke worsened as Hoerr slowed on Lap 4, the leaders maneuvering around him down the backstretch to put him a lap down.  Pit road was still more than a mile away.

When Hoerr’s car started smoking, J.D. McDuffie had just been passed by Allison, moving him back to 37th.  Heading through the Esses, No. 70 trailed Allison’s No. 28 by a full second, allowing Derhaag to close his No. 54 Oldsmobile to McDuffie’s rear bumper.  For the next two laps, Derhaag pondered a move around the burgundy Pontiac.  As the two sailed down the backstretch on Lap 5, McDuffie moved to the middle of the track, sizing up a car in front of him.  Derhaag saw an opening to pass on the inside.  A risky move, but possible.  Whoever braked last and caught traction first would get the spot.  But right when Derhaag was about to turn right and make a pass, something stopped him.

“I don’t mean to sound goofy,” said Derhaag, “but it’s always like I’ve had this little angel on my shoulder telling me what to do and what not to do.  Something just didn’t look right.”  So he backed off.

Then he spotted smoke coming from the left side of McDuffie’s car.

~

That same lap, ESPN’s broadcast held on the roof camera of Dale Jarrett’s No. 21 Citgo Ford, which ran just outside the Top 10.  Bob Jenkins relayed the real-time data from the computerized telemetry box displayed on the lower-right of the screen.  Jarrett’s top speed came on the backstretch - 174 mph - then slowed to 86 at corner apex.  Jarrett accelerated into in Turn 6 and slipped at corner exit, losing a spot to Brett Bodine’s No. 26 Quaker State Buick.  Then his father Ned broke in.

“And there’s trouble!  Big trouble here in Turn 5!”

McDuffie's No. 70 on the grid before the 1991 Budwesier at the Glen
SOURCE: Mike Demers
As Bryan Clauson’s tragic death reminds us, racing is a dangerous sport.  It takes both tremendous bravery and skill to climb behind the wheel, knowing that risk is there, and that others have lost their lives in competition.  J.D. McDuffie was another of these drivers.

The preceding is an excerpt from a book I am writing about McDuffie, the last of NASCAR’s independents, who 25 years ago today lost his life in a crash at Watkins Glen.  The book will focus not only on his final race, but the entirety of his racing career, including new details never before published.  Since our interview with McDuffie Racing crewman Marty Burke in 2011, LASTCAR.info has been compiling more research and conducting additional interviews.  A first draft is nearly complete, but I want to collect even more material to make this book the best it can be.

If you would like to be a part of this project, particularly if you knew or were a fan of J.D., or were at Watkins Glen that day in 1991, please contact me by E-Mail at brockbeard@gmail.com.  More details about the book and its release date will be available when ready.  Stay tuned to LASTCAR.info and my Twitter feed @LASTCARonBROCK for more details.

3 comments:

Walt said...

Brock, what a wonderful post, sir. Your posts have always been well thought out and this is a great start of a tribute to JD McDuffie.

I also want to say that your posts of past NASCAR last place finishes has prompted to go back in the wayback machine to watch as many old NASCAR races from 1990-1997 back to a simpler time in the sport and watch the races in full if theyre available on youtube in chronological order (Im up to the southern 500 in 1990...thank goodness there was no charters back then!)

But from a NASCAR fan from 1993, thank you for all these great posts from todays races and back to the past as well. Go underdogs!

Matthew L. Lewis said...

Always love reading your posts and seeing the pics of the underdogs, especially from older races dating back to the mid 80s when I first fell in love with the former sport. Can't wait for the book! I know it will be a great read and thank you for all of your efforts! -Matthew Lewis Atlanta, GA.

Bob M. said...

I was 24 at the time - home from college, and watching the race with my dad. When they came back from commercial break, and nothing had changed, I knew then it was a BAD wreck, and probably a fatal one. Benny Parsons said it best, when they went to commercial break after the bad news was delivered; "We love you Jean, and we're sorry." :-(