J. D. McDuffie ~ Lived and Died for Racing
In loving memory of John Delphus McDuffie
December 5, 1938 – August 11, 1991
As the stock cars move to Watkins Glen this weekend, it will mark 25 years… one quarter of a century, since that Sunday in 1991, when that beautiful track turned suddenly ugly and claimed the life of J.D. McDuffie, one of the independent racers that were the backbone of the sport for many years, and actually remain so today. Without them, there would be no one for the top dogs to beat.
Now, J.D. never made much of a dent in the record books, and his biggest claim to fame was a love of racing and the fact that he was one heck of a nice guy. So for those that have never heard his name, or those that feel like taking a trip down Memory Lane, please read on and I'll introduce you to J.D. McDuffie, whose name is forever entwined in the memory of so many in the racing world, with the 1991 running of the race at The Glen.
John Delphus (J. D.) McDuffie was born on December 5, 1938, in Sanford North Carolina, where he and his wife Ima Jean later made their home and raised Jeff and Linda, their two children. (If anyone were counting, that would make J. D. only a few months younger than your tour guide)
On July 7, 1963, J. D. went racing for the first time on the Grand National circuit (Winston would not arrive on the scene for another eight years) at Myrtle Beach Speedway, then known as Rambi Raceway. He started in the 14th position and finished 12th. Because Floyd Powell already had the #70 that J.D. had always raced on smaller circuits, his 1961 Ford ran with only a large “X” on the door, but he would later reclaim his favorite number.
J. D. was not a rich man when he entered racing, and I doubt that he was any richer when racing took his life, except in friendship. I don’t believe there was a single soul in the racing world, drivers, owners, media or fans, that didn’t love J.D. The words I’ve heard used most to describe him are “determined”, “sweet” and “loveable.” J. D. McDuffie was all of those things and more.
Much the same as many of the independent drivers of the day, he operated on the proverbial shoestring, making do with used parts and once-run tires, while doing most of the mechanical work on the car himself. He had very few employees over the years and most of those that he did have worked only part-time. His pit crew was usually made up of workers picked up at the track on race day.
When you look at the big fancy haulers that the moneyed teams use to transport their cars, you are not looking at anything like what J. D. used to carry his. I had the profound honor of meeting him once, in Florence SC, just outside of Darlington in 1991. In the parking lot outside our motel sat what appeared to be a pickup truck with a flatbed body, and strapped onto that flatbed was the familiar old #70. I’ve since learned that he called that makeshift hauler, “Ol’ Blue.”
Standing outside the truck, with the ever-present cigar clenched between his teeth, was J. D. McDuffie. It was obvious that he was not only the racecar driver, but the truck driver as well. We stopped to wish him well and chatted for a few minutes, then went about finding our supper. If I’d realized that we’d lose J. D. only five short months later, I’d have stayed a lot longer and talked a lot more.
That cigar I just mentioned was a perennial prop with J. D. and he was seldom seen without one, even in the racecar. In fact, he used to claim that a good cigar would last him 100 miles and if he went through five cigars, he’d had a good day because he finished the race.
The big-money days were just coming into NASCAR back when he started racing and sponsorship for racecars was becoming the way to go. Unfortunately, that didn’t bode well for the independent racers that were working on the smallest of budgets. Because they relied on inferior equipment, sponsors tended to shun them, feeling that they were slow cars and that their dollars would be better spent on the fast cars. Many of those drivers might have been among the greats, had someone taken a chance and put them in first class rides, but the cycle was a vicious one that tended to make the rich richer and the poor poorer.
J. D. was not without lettering on his car most of the time, but his sponsors included local businesses like “Son’s Auto Supply” and “Rumple Furniture” rather than any nationally or even statewide known product. Such sponsorships were likely to mean nothing more than an extra set of tires strapped to the rack on “Ol’ Blue”, still he persisted over the years, all for the pure love of the sport and the thrill of the race. I’m quite sure that companionship entered into that equation as well, for J. D. loved people as much as they loved him
His records, as I said, were not impressive, probably even to him. Over 28 years, he started 653 Grand National (Cup) races, finishing in the top-five only 12 times and in the top-ten 106 times. He never won a race, with his best finish of third coming at Malta, NY in a 100-mile race in 1971. He did however capture one pole in his racing career, at Dover in 1978, running on McCreary tires, which may well have been the reason. That pole enabled him to run the very first Busch Clash (Or Budweiser Shootout or that "Unlimited" thing they run now) in 1979.
It was in that 653rd race that the shadow of poverty probably cost J. D. his life. It happened in the brutal fifth turn at Watkins Glen on the fifth lap of the race. Something broke on J. D.’s car, leaving him without brakes and with a tire gone. His car careened sideways into the car of fellow independent driver Jimmy Means, and both cars left the track. Means was able to slow his #52 Pontiac a bit, but McDuffie, with no brakes, struck a tire barrier at full speed and went airborne. Means also hit the tires as McDuffie’s car sailed over him, struck a guardrail upside down and came to rest in that position, atop Means’ car. As we watched in horror, no one had to be told that this was a bad accident. Jimmy Means scurried out of his car and tried to assist his friend but turned immediately away from the car and began gesturing wildly to corner workers for help.
Help would arrive quickly, but to no avail. J. D. had been killed instantly when the roof of the car struck the guardrail. Though I’ve heard several accounts of the injury and cause of death, this writer will simply say, “Head injuries.” The race was under a red flag for one hour and forty-eight minutes for repairs to the guardrail and removal of what had once been that familiar old #70. Most of that time was spent on the latter task, and in the end, they simply lifted the car onto a flatbed and tied a tarp over it. One of the saddest moments I’ve ever known was watching that truck pull away, knowing that never again would we see John Delphus McDuffie or the old #70.
Later, Jimmy Means would comment, “It looked like he didn’t have any brakes. I saw him lose a wheel and he was up in the air before I got to the fence." Jim Derhaag, a Trans-Am driver imported for the road course race had been behind McDuffie and Means on the racetrack and offered this explanation of what he saw, “When he (McDuffie) got to the braking area, I saw some smoke, like maybe a brake line had ruptured and fluid got on the headers. He just never slowed down.”
Ernie Irvan, the eventual winner of the race saluted his fallen comrade in Victory Lane with the words, “After all I’ve been through, this is a great victory, but winning is tempered by J.D.’s death. I dedicate this victory to him. Every time we went through the turn where he crashed, I thought about him. I’ve known what it is like to struggle in this sport without a sponsor just like he did, and I’ll always remember him.”
Although it came too late for J.D. the fifth turn at the Glen (which had been the site of several previous injuries, including two broken legs sustained by SCCA Trans Am driver Tommy Kendall) has been modified. No longer do drivers approach its sweeping radius at full speed, as the little chicane we are all familiar with was placed just before the turn to reduce the speed of entry. At least we can say that we learn from our mistakes… sometimes.
J. D., whatever part of heaven you’re in, I’m sure that you’re winning races because you were always a winner in my book. Unlike many of the low-budget teams of today, you never started a race with the intention of parking... not once.
J.D.! This Bud's for you!
Most of the previous copy was done from my memory. However, in this age of instant information, there is video of that day, and I present it here for anyone strong enough to watch it, knowing that a man lay dead in that upside down machine. I watched it once, twenty-one years after it happened, only to be sure it was authentic and complete. I have not watched it again.
Lastly, this short video presents a tribute to J.D., offered by my dear friend in giggles, Benny Parsons; as always, Benny said it just right...
We’ll not have the usual Classic Country Closeout this week. Instead, please enjoy this short video tribute to J.D. McDuffie. I had not seen this before, though it says it’s been here quite a while. It must have been waiting to be the perfect closing for this sad reminder of yet another we’ve lost over the years of racing.
Be well gentle readers, and remember to keep smiling. It looks so good on you!