Wednesday, March 14, 2018

#JD70: J.D. McDuffie's Career at the Ontario Motor Speedway

PHOTO: Getty Images
Less than seven miles west from the Auto Club Speedway, where NASCAR runs this weekend, is the site of the Ontario Motor Speedway. Nothing remains of the track today other than the roads that once formed a rectangle around the property. The Citizens Business Bank Arena dominates what would have been the infield of the 2.5-mile Indianapolis-style oval. Even a small park named for the track sits about one block west of where Turns 3 and 4 actually were.

“The Big O” hosted nine Cup Series races from 1971 through 1980. And, though the track was 2,481 miles west of tiny Sanford, North Carolina, J.D. McDuffie made the long drive each year. He qualified for all nine races, and never once finished last there.

In the inaugural race, held February 28, 1971, McDuffie entered a two-year-old Mercury, the marque he would run for most of that season. After radiator trouble in his 125-mile qualifier knocked him out of the Daytona 500 field, McDuffie arrived in California with new sponsorship from the T.D. Welker Construction Company. He qualified 42nd in a tremendous 51-car field – no small accomplishment, since another 30 drivers failed to qualify. He finished 35th when the engine let go short of halfway.

McDuffie’s best Ontario finish came on November 24, 1974, when his 1972 Chevrolet climbed from 25th to finish 10th in a race won by Bobby Allison. McDuffie finished nine laps down to Allison, on the same circuit as Richard Childress, who lost an engine in the final laps. McDuffie came just short of a second Top Ten two years later, this time coming one lap short of taking 10th from the late Bruce Hill. Again, McDuffie was nine laps down, this time to race winner David Pearson. Among the drivers McDuffie beat that day were Bobby and Donnie Allison, Cale Yarborough, Richard Petty, Buddy Baker, and last-place finisher Darrell Waltrip, out with engine failure.

McDuffie’s own engine let go in three of his nine Ontario starts, though in all but the inaugural race, he completed more than half distance of the 200-lap, 500-mile marathon. In 1979, he made it 104 laps into the Los Angeles Times 500, ending a day where he’d qualified a respectable 20th.

The final running of the Los Angeles Times 500, won by Benny Parsons on November 15, 1980, saw McDuffie qualify 31st in his Bailey Excavating Chevrolet. This time, he closed within six laps of the winner to finish 14th. He was also second among owner-drivers that day, four positions behind Buddy Arrington in an old Petty Enterprises Dodge. It was on that same day that Dale Earnhardt scored his first of seven Winston Cups, having edged Cale Yarborough by 19 points thanks to a 5th-place finish. It was also the first title for his crew chief, Doug Richert, who was just 19 at the time.

Reserve your copy of "J.D.: The Life and Death of a Forgotten NASCAR Legend" at Waldorf Publishing. Click here for more details.

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