Wednesday, August 8, 2018

TRAVELOGUE: An emotional and uplifting weekend at Watkins Glen for McDuffie, Berch, and myself

(from left to right) Charlie Berch, myself,
Sally Berch Daggett (Charlie's sister),
and Linda McDuffie at Smalley's Garage last Saturday
PHOTO: Wendy McDuffie
When putting together my book “J.D.: The Life and Death of a Forgotten NASCAR Legend,” and thinking about places for book signings, Watkins Glen was on top of the list. My brother Miles and I have been going to races at the Sonoma Raceway since 1992, but had never been to the road course in upstate New York. I’d never even gone there during the production of the book, and relied heavily on other sources to try and understand the track and its long history.

So, when Charlie Berch, who was standing in Turn 5 on August 11, 1991, invited the two of us to stay with him this year, we jumped at the opportunity. And when Linda and her wife Wendy offered to meet us there, we all had a feeling we were in for something truly special. But what actually took place surprised all of us.

On our first night, last Wednesday, we crossed the border into Canada to meet with Robert Taylor, a motorsports artist who I met online back in 2013. We did a feature on him for, sharing his incredible hand-drawn works. Ever since, we’d been meaning to meet up, particularly for the Truck race at Mosport, where he serves on Norm Benning’s crew. Flying into Buffalo presented the perfect opportunity. Many of the drawings he’d completed and had signed were framed and ringed his entire living room, leading down the hallway to his bedroom. This included every Truck Series winner at Mosport. Some of his latest works included three different drawings of Kaz Grala’s #61 for Fury Race Cars.

When my credential request for Watkins Glen was declined, I was floored when Rob got me in touch with Jessica at Fury, who got me a pass into the XFINITY garage. Rob knew Jessica from her time working at Brad Keselowski’s truck team, and was eager to help. All he asked in return was I bring his drawings of the #61, give the team the originals, and have Kaz Grala sign the copies for his wall. Done. Kaz and Jessica couldn’t wait to see the drawings after qualifying on Saturday. Thankfully, the drawings made it back safely to Canada, even after the cardboard tube they were in got caught in the rainstorm during the XFINITY race.

Our original plan was to stay with Rob through Thursday and see the sights, but a scheduling conflict arose earlier in the week, so we had to leave early on Thursday. Still, we had time Wednesday night to see Niagara Falls, which was just down the street from his home. Even on a weekday, there were large crowds milling about, and we got there just in time to watch the fireworks. Rob was an excellent tour guide, and we’ll have to come back to do it proper some time.

The reason we had to leave early on Friday was our first promotion with the J.D. McDuffie book. We had been invited to do a television interview with Andy Malnoske, the sports editor at NBC affiliate WETM-18 in Elmira, New York. Andy is good friends with Charlie. Originally, we were going to do an interview on Friday at the track in victory lane, but someone at the track intervened just days before we left. Undeterred, Andy said if we could come down Thursday night, we could do the interviews in studio and still make it onto his Friday night pre-race show.

As my brother and I worked our way back across the border, Linda and Wendy had already made it to Charlie’s house. Linda had driven the car all the way from Denver to upstate New York in less than a day. It was exciting to know that both of them were making the trip. My brother and I had worked out things with Charlie’s months ago, and when we told Linda and Wendy, I was surprised when they said they’d like to come up as well. They’d originally been looking to stay at a bed-and-breakfast in the area, but so close to race day, the decision was made that we all stay together with Charlie in humble Monterey, New York, just seven miles from Watkins Glen International. Incidentally, between the track and his home are the former headquarters of Hakes-Welliver Racing, the team that fielded Jim Derhaag’s first Cup ride in the 1991 Bud at the Glen.

We made it to Charlie’s early in the afternoon on Thursday, right as Charlie had to step out to photograph a local sporting event away from the track. Charlie and his girlfriend Tammy couldn’t have been any nicer hosts. They set my brother and myself up in their upstairs bedroom with Linda and Wendy in the next bedroom over.

Charlie’s home had a fascinating history. They bought the grey two-story building two decades ago. It was the oldest house in the county, built in 1830, and once served as a brothel with seven bedrooms and two different entrances. Among the many improvements Charlie and Tammy made was to the garage adjoining the kitchen on the ground floor. What was once a dirt-floored room was now a richly-appointed sports bar reminiscent of the Seneca Lodge, decorated with racing memorabilia and souvenirs from Charlie’s beloved Pittsburgh Pirates. As a private bar, friends and locals would come by to purchase five-dollar red Solo cups - the alcohol was free. This bar would be our center of operations for much of the weekend.

While Charlie was out at his shoot, my brother and I relaxed with Linda and Wendy. I had to admit, I was nervous about meeting Linda for the first time as I didn’t know what she thought about the book. I was relieved when she said “He did his homework.” For much of the afternoon, we talked about her father. Wendy had a great idea to film our conversations in one-minute clips to post on their J.D. McDuffie fan page on Facebook. There were so many more things I learned in our conversations:

Linda described her father climbing in a race car as him like “an astronaut” in the race car. “He was so cool,” she told me. When she noticed the shrine Charlie made to J.D. in the bar, including a cover image from a 1974 Dover program, she remembered being in the third grade and hopping in her father’s car, saying “Let’s go!” And the two of them went out and drove around the Rockingham.

One other time in the 1970s, J.D. and Linda took a personal car, perhaps a Chevrolet Laguna, and actually took it out on the banking at Talladega. They made it out onto the banking in the corners, so high the car felt like it was going to tumble down to the apron. The police made them pull off the track.

Linda’s first car was a 1983 Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS, the first year they were built, and it was blue, the only color it came in at the time. Despite being known for the blue Rumple Furniture car on the track, J.D. always preferred black cars.

Linda also drove Old Blue, but J.D. wouldn’t let her shift because the transmission was temperamental. “Let me do this,” he’d say, as he grabbed the shifter while she pushed in the clutch. Often times, Linda’s mother Ima Jean would be following in their passenger car.

More than anything, there were the stories about J.D. as a family man. Linda was brought to tears when she remembered the silly drawings he’d make of his wife and children’s faces, and put them on the fridge. He’d say proudly, “J.D. loves Jean, Linda, and Jeff.”

Her best “dad moment,” as she described, was again when she was in the third grade. She’d come home crying from school because her classmates were talking mean about her father. The next day, J.D. came to the school to talk to the kids about racing. One of the things he said was “When a tire blows, you ain’t got a choice.” Linda never had any problems with her classmates after that.

When Charlie got back, we all loaded up in the car and went to the track. We had planned to pick up our credentials that day, but the office was closed. Fortunately, Miles and I had bought tickets to the race when my credentials fell through, so we had access for three of us to get in. So Charlie, Linda, and myself drove into the track for the first time. It was then that Charlie and I captured the moment Linda first approached Turn 5. The wall was taller and stronger, the grassy run-off smaller, and then there was the Inner Loop. It was an undeniably emotional moment. “I’m just pissed off,” Linda said, and expressed her anger that these changes only happened after 1991. We stood there for several minutes, Charlie pointing to the small rise in the grass where he was standing. “He was a good man,” I told Linda. “Even people who don’t know anything about racing, that’s the first thing they tell me when they read about him.” She told us later it was cathartic to come and see that spot. And, from how the rest of the weekend went, it seemed that way.

As it started to get dark, we picked up Miles and Wendy and went on a guided tour of Watkins Glen. Charlie steered us to South Franklin Street, showing us Smalley’s Garage, where the book signing would be, and we went around the original 1948 road course. We made pretty good time, squealing the tires on Charlie’s SUV and startling a couple deer on our way to the cobblestone bridge. By then, it was getting close to time for the TV interview, so we grabbed some drive-thru and headed to Elmira.

Of the group of us, I had by far the least television experience. Linda had been interviewed before, and as I mentioned, Charlie was good friends with Andy at the network. My dad was interviewed on CNN for one of his cases when he was a couple years older than me, but that was about it. But Andy was so down-to-earth, it really helped calm my nerves. He even showed us the bobblehead that was made of him, just like the one in Charlie’s bar. Andy was about my age when the accident happened, so we had that in common as well.

It was after 8:00 P.M. when we went into the studio with a few other members of the WETN staff. Linda and myself went up first to speak with Andy. We’d set up a nice table arrangement in front of us with a couple copies of the book and an authentic Rumple Furniture hat that Linda saved from her father’s office in 1991. Don Rumple at Rumple Furniture had also sent us new hats that we wore throughout the weekend. Wendy helped a lot getting pictures of us during the segment, and Miles and Charlie kept things light from off-camera. I felt rusty at first, but Linda and Andy were easy to play off – although in our first take, I forgot to mention the book signing and Linda forgot to mention her effort to get J.D. into the North Carolina Motor Sports Hall of Fame. It was a pre-recorded segment, however, so we got it all in.

After that, Andy did a second interview with Charlie, who brought with him prints of the last two pictures taken of J.D. in 1991. Between recordings, Linda pointed to a girder above the stage which had several numbers on it. She noticed the “70” was directly in our line of sight. When the interviews were done, we all thanked Andy and all signed a copy of the book.

It was a busy Thursday, so we all slept in on Friday except for Charlie, who went out to the track to shoot. Linda drove us to the track and to Watkins Glen itself, getting acclimated to where everything was. A friend of Charlie’s had originally secured XFINITY passes like mine for Linda and Wendy through Morgan Shepherd’s team, but when I learned the #89 team withdrew during an update to my preview article, I got on the phone with Charlie. His friend stepped up big time and scored the pair of them hot passes.

From there, we went to historic Smalley’s Garage, located right on the original 1948 course on South Franklin Street. The shop had been there since the beginning, the spot where we stood where technical inspection had been carried out. Right from the moment we walked through the doors, the owners Karl and Karla treated us like family. They stepped up big time after the Watkins Glen International signing fell through. They showed us all through the shop and shared stories of J.D. A customer came in who happened to have worked with the Dingman Brothers team for Greg Sacks, and wept as she met Linda. I signed copies for Karl, Karla, and their son, and Linda and Wendy presented them with J.D. shirts and hats they had printed back in Denver. They were so excited to host the book signing on Saturday night, and I crossed paths with Karl again at the track, where he was wearing his Dale Earnhardt shirt.

We then headed back to the track to watch XFINITY Series practice. It was then that the experience felt even more surreal. It was Linda’s first race weekend in decades, and I believe Wendy’s first ever. Miles and I have been used to bringing people into the sport, but this was something very different. Right off the bat, the rain tires were intriguing. We stood at the bottom of Turn 1 and talked about how different the cars are now, the Mustangs, Camaros and Camrys with their electronic dashes and roof flaps and everything else. It drove home just how much the cars, the track, everything had changed in that time. And when we showed Linda footage from the Charlotte Roval test, she said, “I can tell you what that’s gonna be – a hot mess.”

We stayed until the end of XFINITY practice, then grabbed some food on the way back to Charlie’s place so we could watch the airing of Andy’s NBC segment. We convened at Charlie’s bar, and were joined by Charlie’s fellow photographer friend Tom, who had as a Yankee fan has enjoyed a friendly rivalry. About halfway through the one-hour show, when they went to commercial, we saw a glimpse of J.D. from his 1985 segment on CBS. We all shouted, and I gave Linda a high-five. “I think I know what’s coming up!” I said.

Sure enough, Andy led right into it after the break. I thought he was just going to air our interviews. As it turned out, he and the WETM staff stayed up until the early hours combining archival footage into a full four-minute segment. We watched it in near silence, Wendy capturing the moment on film. When they showed the accident, I put my arm around Linda. It was stunning, tasteful, perfect. I couldn’t believe I was a part of it. There were tears and applause, and Andy even made sure to mention the book signing at Smalley’s. I couldn’t wait to send the link to the video to my parents back in California, then to my publisher.

On Saturday, Linda, Wendy, Miles, and myself headed to the track with Charlie for the day of the XFINITY race. Our plan was to watch the action, then meet up at 5:30 P.M. to beat the traffic back to Smalley’s. I helped Linda and Wendy find their way through the garage, then went out to find the Fury Race Cars team to get Rob’s drawings signed. Rob also included a drawing of Joey Logano’s Cup car from 2015 which I showed to his friend Tommy at the Penske hauler. Along the way, I ran into sim racer J.P. Windschitl, a hardcore Josh Bilicki fan and LASTCAR reader. He was there to present Bilicki with a custom diecast he made of the #45 Prevagen Toyota. He was the first of three LASTCAR readers I took selfies with around the track. I see from Bilicki’s twitter page that he got the car, too.

I also crossed paths with Claire B. Lang, who I’ve met working the media side of things at Sonoma and Darlington. I told her about the book near the end of XFINITY qualifying, and she readily offered to interview me in the media center. I was out of breath, but excited for the opportunity. Charlie told me she also got in touch with Linda, so I thank her for that as well. Charlie flagged me down when he caught the ear of Lee Spencer, and the pair of us were interviewed once again. Thank you to the both of them for letting us share our story.

I was standing at the garage entrance for the start of the XFINITY race while Miles was in Turn 10 and Linda and Wendy found a shady spot. I have to admit that I winced when Tommy Joe Martins ran off the track in Turn 6, particularly since it was a brake failure and the #78 font almost looked like it was a car #70. It was a relief that he was okay. When we watched the Sunday broadcast at Charlie’s bar the next day, Linda couldn’t watch during NBC’s opening crash montage.

After I interviewed Martins, I made my way to Turn 10 to meet with Miles when the wind picked up and it started spitting rain. I turned the corner to buy a couple ponchos, but by the time I reached the stands realized that was not the proper protocol. Miles was among the die-hards in the stands, just watching the action as the field tip-toed by, and not one of them were wearing parkas. Some took off their shirts. The rain prevented us from staying to the finish of the race, so we met up with Charlie and headed to Smalley’s to set up.

When we got to Smalley’s, they had two classic modifieds parked there from Schenck Racing. One was a bright orange #5, a tribute to Mal Lane. The other was a blue #46, and from the frame rails dangled a tiny urn containing the ashes of a fallen racer. The owner had Linda sign them both in black Sharpie. Linda and I signed Karl's 1:24 scale diecast of J.D.'s burgundy car - her on the rear deck and me on the rear glass. It's now on display in the garage.

One interesting thing about Smalley’s is the Walk of Fame on the sidewalk in front. There are several stones laid there honoring the names of past drivers. To be eligible, all you have to do is have raced at Watkins Glen. Charlie told me about this days before, and I was absolutely on board to get one of these done for J.D. A day or so later, I was just about to offer my donation when Charlie took me aside and told me “It’s already done.” “What?” I asked. “It’s done.” Apparently, the International Motor Racing Research Center at Watkins Glen had already had it made, and they were going to present it to Linda at the signing. Unbelievable. I told Miles, and had to bite my tongue not to tell Linda.

I thought the stone was going to be presented to Linda, but when we arrived for the signing, it was already there, lying on the checkered-flag painted curb where Smalley’s gas pumps once were.

J.D. McDuffie
Car #70
653 Cup Starts 1963-1991
NASCAR – Grand National – ARCA

There were tears and smiles again. Linda got her picture taken next to the stone. Bill Green from the IMRRC was there for the presentation. We were all so happy for her, and for J.D. The stone is going to be put on the Walk of Fame during the track’s vintage weekend later this summer.

And that was just the start of the evening.

We had tables and awnings set up, and the staff at Smalley’s brought us all kinds of snacks – donut holes, cookies, iced tea, and New York-style pizza. Once all that was set up, people came by from the nearby souvenir alley almost immediately. Just about everyone who stopped by bought a book, as well as the J.D. shirts, hats, and lanyards that Linda and Wendy brought with them. Miles helped wave down the post-race traffic, wearing one of the hats and carrying a book.

Our second visitors were an older couple, including a man wearing an authentic J.D. McDuffie shirt and cap produced after the accident. The couple told us they were camping at the track when the accident happened, and for each year after brought with them a sign they hung on the catchfence. The black plastic sign bore a wooden cross, a laminated J.D. McDuffie card, and the words “70 J.D.: Not Forgot’n.” For years, the couple hung the sign by their camper every year at Watkins Glen. When camping prices became too high, they kept the sign in storage in a blue bag. On that night, they gave the sign to Linda.

It seemed everyone had a story about J.D., no matter their age. We met fathers who told their sons about him, people my age who said the 1991 Bud at the Glen was the first race they’d been to. When we were packing up at 9:00 P.M., a truck pulled in, and a man named Mike jumped out to meet us. He was relieved to have caught us, as were we. Mike told us he brought food to J.D. at the track for years.

After that, it was back to Charlie’s bar for a proper celebration. With a replay of the XFINITY race playing in the background, we raised a toast and stayed up well into the morning.

Linda and Wendy couldn’t make it to the track on Sunday, and I have to admit, with everything that happened that weekend, Miles and I were slowing down as well. We took it easy during the Cup race, which turned out to be an instant classic with Chase Elliott taking a popular victory (and Joey Logano claiming a rare and unusual last-place finish). To cap it off, I was present when Spencer Gallagher, who I'd corresponded with on an internet forum since 2011, made his first Cup Series start.

We all got some much-needed rest at Charlie’s, then said our goodbyes on Monday morning. Miles and I capped off the trip by stopping by the Research Center, where a copy of my book will soon join the biography section. Then it was back west to Ontario and Rob, where we presented him with his drawings and some Fury Race Cars swag.

Back home again in Antioch, I look on my shelf at the #70 hat Linda and Wendy gave me after we met. Next to it is a 1:64 diecast of the burgundy #70 that Linda gave me from her personal collection. I told her the first time I saw a diecast like that was my first exposure to her father. An antique shop in Martinez, California in 2000. I didn’t know who he was, so I looked online for more info. It was then that I learned about the crash. The 653 starts. The long nights working in Sanford. Linda, Jeff, and Ima Jean. I was eighteen then, finishing up high school. I had no thought of making a book at the time, but looking back, that was the first step that led me to writing it.

I also set aside a copy of my book which Linda, Charlie, and Rob signed. Placed carefully in the book is a thick plastic card with a dried red rose petal inside. On his J.D. McDuffie display in the bar, Charlie kept a rosebud from the arrangement he left on J.D.’s grave in 1991. He placed the bud inside a 1994 diecast of the blue Rumple Pontiac. One night during our trip, he took off two petals and placed them inside the cards. The first went to Linda, the other to me.

For all that took place over that week, I did my best to stop and really take in the moment. It’s so hard to do that in racing, or in life, really. But even now, sitting here, it’s all still sinking in. I am so thankful for what we all accomplished that week, and honored to have been a part of it.

To Linda, Wendy, Charlie, Tammy, Andy, Jessica, Rob, Karl, Karla, Bill, Kip, and the many others involved, thank you for all your help making this journey a reality.


Matthew L. Lewis said...

Man, this is a truly great story! So glad you all had a great trip! Just reading about it brought back great memories of my trip from Atlanta when our band played at the Glen. Glad you're getting some well deserved media hype as well! Where was the old Hakes-Welliver shop located out of curiosity? What is in it now? Jim just sent that pic I sent to you over the phone and haven't talked with him since.

Brock Beard said...

Let me check with Charlie on that. We just drove by it, but I'm sure I can get more info.

Unknown said...

I received a signed copy of "J.D.: The Life and Death of a Forgotten NASCAR Legend" during your book signing in Watkins Glen last weekend. It's a fantastic book about a true pioneer of the sport! I read it nonstop on my return flight home. Thank you for telling J.D.s incredible life story of passion, determination, and love for racing. It is a must ready for any NASCAR fan.

Brock Beard said...

Thank you - I'm so glad you enjoyed it. And thank you for making it out to the book signing. It was great to meet every one of you.