Wednesday, March 7, 2018

#JD70: J.D. McDuffie's Career at the Darlington Raceway

J.D. McDuffie's final No. 70 being painted in Sanford
during the Phoenix race weekend, November 1990
PHOTO: Charlie Berch
J.D. McDuffie never raced at Phoenix (now ISM Raceway), which hosted its first three Cup races toward the end of his career. According to Watkins Glen photographer Charlie Berch, who was staying with the McDuffie family in Sanford during the weekend of the 1990 Phoenix event, the driver was watching the race at home. That day, McDuffie was taking a break from painting what would turn out to be the final car he ever raced. Two weeks later, the burgundy and black #70 Pontiac hit the track for the first time in practice and qualifying for the season finale, the Atlanta Journal 500 in Atlanta. The car failed to qualify.

Instead, this week we’ll look at McDuffie’s career at the Darlington Raceway.

McDuffie made 39 starts at Harold Brasington’s egg-shaped oval, but didn’t qualify for a race there until September 2, 1968, during his fourth season on the circuit. Even then, McDuffie barely made the cut for the 19th Annual Southern 500, edging Paul Dean Holt for the final starting spot on the 44-car grid. His Buick lasted just 22 laps into the race, climbing past Bobby Johns and Bill Champion before the car lost oil pressure, leaving him 42nd.

McDuffie’s first of three Top Tens at Darlington came on May 2, 1971, during the Rebel 400. Driving a 1969 Mercury Cyclone, McDuffie lined up 34th on the 36-car grid and climbed his way up to 7th. It’s interesting to note that McDuffie finished this well despite coming home a full 28 laps behind race winner Buddy Baker. Back then, the gap between the fastest and slowest cars was much greater than it is today, and the rate of attrition was much higher. Baker himself took the lead after Donnie Allison’s dominant Wood Brothers Mercury blew an engine while leading with 11 laps to go. Despite the failure, Allison had lapped so much of the field that he only dropped to 4th. In the end, Baker took the checkered flag by more than seven full circuits over Dick Brooks.

McDuffie’s best finish at Darlington came on April 15, 1973, during a Rebel 500 dominated by polesitter David Pearson. On that day, McDuffie started 26th out of 40 drivers and made his way up to 5th in a 1972 Chevrolet, this time 21 laps down to Pearson. He was also just two laps from catching fellow owner-driver Richard Childress, who impressed in his very first Darlington start. Just like two years earlier, bad luck bit the Allisons in the final laps. This time, it was Bobby Allison whose #12 Coca-Cola Chevrolet lost an engine after leading 96 laps, but only slipped to 3rd in the finishing order.

The attrition snatched up McDuffie as well. In 19 of his 39 starts, he failed to finish, but only twice did he finish last at “The Lady In Black.” The first time came on September 6, 1971, just four months after his 7th-place performance. McDuffie had failed to qualify for that weekend’s Southern 500, but managed to pick up a ride in Junior Fields’ #91 1971 Chevrolet, making him the ninth different driver to run for Fields that season. Unfortunately, a steering failure ended his day after just two laps. The other run didn’t come until March 29, 1987, when the engine on his #70 Rumple Furniture Pontiac let go after just one lap of the TranSouth 500.

Much like Rockingham, Darlington was a relatively short drive from McDuffie’s home in Sanford. On race weeks there, he often stayed in Lumberton, North Carolina, located approximately halfway between his home and the track. As covered in this piece by nascarman, Maurice Leggett, journalist for The Robesonian, and the Ramada Inn at Lumberton played a role in supporting what turned out to be McDuffie’s final Darlington start on April 7, 1991. A fundraiser was held, allowing fans to get their names on the side of #70 that weekend. As in his first Darlington start, McDuffie needed to beat one car and did – this time edging Mark Stahl for the 40th and final starting spot. He finished 30th.

And, of course, it was at Darlington in 2016 that Landon Cassill and Front Row Motorsports ran a special “throwback” scheme honoring McDuffie, carrying both longtime sponsors Bailey Excavating and Rumple Furniture.

Today, Lumberton still has several hotels frequented by race teams. At least one crewman from King Autosport, Mario Gosselin’s XFINITY Series team, stayed in the same hotel I did during my trip east last year. The latest edition of The Robesonian still fills the newspaper racks.

1 comment:

Matthew L. Lewis said...

That was also (as far as I can recall) Mark Stahl's final race with Hooter's sponsorship (or perhaps they may have continued through Charlotte) before they completely abandoned him in favor of sponsoring Alan Kulwicki full-time for the remainder of 1991.