August 11, 1991. On a dark and cloudy late afternoon in the Finger Lakes region of New York, the 38 remaining starters of the Budweiser at the Glen rolled slowly down the backstretch, rumbling past a hushed crowd like a funeral procession. The announcement had just been made. Bob Jenkins, the play-by-play announcer for ESPN, offered a statement of his own.
“It is always difficult to report the death of any race driver,” he said. “They know the dangers and the hazards, and they choose to race because they love it so very much. J.D. McDuffie was in his 653rd Winston Cup race. He had never won a Winston Cup event.”
ESPN had planned to air footage from a short track race later in the broadcast, anticipating a strong run for J.D.’s #70 Pontiac. But that car was now destroyed along with that of fellow owner-driver Jimmy Means following a terrible wreck on Lap 5. Means had walked away, but following a nearly two-hour red flag, everyone had just learned why J.D. had not. Now, the footage rolled.
“But just last night, ironically enough, at Owego, New York at Shangri-La Speedway, J.D. McDuffie was involved in a celebrity race. And J.D. McDuffie driving the 07 car, believe it or not, took the checkered flag first and won that race, just down the road from Watkins Glen International where his career ended today.”
A view from victory lane. The veteran driver in the blue racing suit put on his Rumple Furniture trucker cap and waved to the crowd. The promoter handed J.D. McDuffie a $100 bill, which he used to pay for the team’s breakfast that Sunday morning.
“J.D. got out of the car with his son Jeff watching and received the applause and the congratulations of all of those in the grandstands. J.D. McDuffie leaves his wife Jean and his children Jeff and Linda and our sincere condolences to all the McDuffie family from all of us here at ESPN.”
The memory of that tragic day never left the McDuffie family, and Ima Jean McDuffie in particular. For three days short of exactly thirty years, she fought to make ends meet as best she could, just as her husband had with his race team. Every day, she’d write memories of her husband in a diary she always kept with her.
In time, those memories would include a trip to Darlington in 2016, where the Bailey family in Jackson, Michigan – longtime backers of the team – drove her to see Front Row Motorsports’ “throwback” scheme Landon Cassill raced in honor of her husband. Soon after, she shared these and other memories with me as I put together her husband’s biography. She was as firm with me as any media member during her husband’s career. In her words, she wanted to make sure it was “a good book.”
On Sunday, the green flag dropped for another Cup Series race at Watkins Glen. During those early laps, Ima Jean’s children Jeff and Linda were at her bedside in Sanford. Around Lap 5, Ima Jean was reunited with her husband. She was 83. Barely a day later, Bob Jenkins would follow her. He was 73.
With the news of these past couple days, I’ve tried to think of the best way to honor both Ima Jean McDuffie and Bob Jenkins without interjecting myself into the story. But I can’t.
Bob Jenkins was a big part of my childhood – the keystone of most Sunday mornings at 9:30 A.M., my first decade in the sport. His commanding, yet humble presence always kicked off the same way every time. At the exact moment in the SpeedWorld theme song would come the same bright, yet measured tone – as familiar and comforting as a McDonald’s hamburger: “ESPN – The Worldwide Leader in Motorsports and the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing welcome you live to Bristol, Tennessee for the Food City 500!”
From there, Jenkins was like the conductor of a large band, skillfully bringing out the best in what was the most impressive collection of on-air talent NASCAR had ever seen. Benny Parsons and Ned Jarrett with him in the booth, or out on the course at road courses. Dr. Jerry Punch, Bill Weber, John Kernan, and many others on pit road. Every one of them had their strengths, but all of them made sure to make way for Jenkins’ legendary calls. Most of those moments were exciting. “And both of them spin!” is a phrase that itself conjures just one memory, one place and time. Other moments were serious, or even tragic, as they were that day in 1991. All seemed pitch-perfect to the moment, and delivered as lively as the images shown. My favorite driver, Jerry Nadeau, was immortalized with Jenkins’ final last-lap call for NASCAR. I've always hoped that Jerry feels that honor as keenly as I do.
McDuffie’s story - and Ima Jean’s role in it - has occupied much of my adolescence and adulthood. From 2000, when I bought a 1:64 scale Classic Trophies Pontiac at Bad Girls Antiques in Martinez, California, I couldn’t figure out why there was so little information on the man who raced it, the family he raised, and the team he relied upon. It wasn’t a single-minded mission, but a curiosity that kept pulling me in from time to time. Finding a picture in college, an article in graduate school. Then I started to find people, and the book began to come together, if only as a place to store all this information. I never thought Ima Jean would speak to me. Yet, as I picked up my phone that day after work, there she was, as eager as anyone to share her story – the final missing pieces of a puzzle two decades in the making. It was a privilege to have known her, if only for such a short time.
When he signed off to end that final race at Atlanta in 2000, Bob Jenkins was again called to say the right things at a most difficult time. As always, he didn’t fail. He recognized all that he and his team had accomplished, and the intangibles that made ESPN succeed as much as the sport it covered. He called it “magic.” In our jaded existence, magic may feel even more impossible than it is. But it’s there. How else can anyone explain Sunday, when on Lap 5, J.D. called Ima Jean home?
“But most importantly,” said Jenkins in 2000, “we thank you, our fans, who have contributed so much to our coverage down through the years. It was for you that we’ve done this since 1981. Without you, there would have been no magic.”
Godspeed, Ima Jean and Bob. And thank you for everything.