This Week in Ford Racing November 9, 1999 NASCAR Winston Cup Going into this weekend's Pennzoil 400, Ford has 498 all-time wins in what is known today as the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. As the race to 500 continues, today's feature focuses ...
This Week in Ford Racing November 9, 1999
NASCAR Winston Cup
Going into this weekend's Pennzoil 400, Ford has 498 all-time wins in what is known today as the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. As the race to 500 continues, today's feature focuses Junie Donlavey, a man who has been with Ford as a car owner since 1960. Race to 500 DONLAVEY MADE HIS MARK BY DEVELOPING QUALITY DRIVERS The record may only show one win, but the resume Junie Donlavey has compiled since joining the Ford family in 1960 is one of the most impressive in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. Some of the sport's top drivers like Joe Weatherly, Tiny Lund, David Pearson, Harry Gant, Ricky Rudd, Jody Ridley, Buddy Baker and Ken Schrader have all taken turns behind the wheel for him. Even though he doesn't run the full circuit anymore, Donlavey remains one of the most beloved figures in the sport.
* Has provided driving opportunities for more than 150 men since 1950. * Won his only NASCAR Winston Cup race on May 17, 1981 with driver Jody Ridley at Dover Downs. * Presented Spirit of Ford Award, which is Ford's highest honor in racing, on Sept. 9, 1999.
JUNIE DONLAVEY, Car Owner --90-- Donlavey Racing Taurus -- HOW DID YOU BECOME AFFILIATED WITH FORD? "Basically, I've always been a Ford lover. My first automobile was an A-model Ford and then I went to a '35 Ford, so when I was a kid that's all I had. Then, when I got my first modified in 1949, that was a Ford. I ran in modifieds all through the 50's and then in 1960 we bought a brand new '60 Ford and went to Daytona with it and that's what we've been with ever since."
DO YOU REMEMBER YOUR ONE VICTORY LIKE IT WAS YESTERDAY? "Yes, I do and not because of the win, but because of the way the competitors treated us after that win. They were as happy that we had won as if they had won and that was the biggest thing about it. We've always tried to be as close as we could be to the competitors. They would help us and we would do everything, if we could, for them and through the years it's been just a good family organization working in NASCAR."
CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THAT RACE SPECIFICALLY? "It was up in Dover and we had a good run going. We were running in third. Neil Bonnett and Cale Yarborough were running first and second when they developed problems close to the end of the race and we were able to take advantage of it. All the years that we've run we have never been heavily sponsored. It's always been a sport with us. We've always enjoyed it. We've enjoyed being with the competitors and the race fans, and I never, ever thought that I would want to make a living out of being a race car owner, but as far as being a sport I've really enjoyed it. We knew our limitations and we enjoyed taking a whole lot less than what they had and being pretty competitive. Dick Brooks back in those days was driving for us and, I tell you, if he would have been driving for a heavily backed team, he would have been a superstar. I've got so many good memories of all the people and the drivers we've been associated with and it's worth far more than a bank full of money."
DO YOU FEEL WINNING IS OVER-RATED IN YOUR MIND? "To me it is. To a lot of the competitors that's what they went in it for. Sometimes I would feel sorry for 'em because they'd finish second -- right on the bumper of the winning car -- and get out and act like they've just had the biggest wreck they've ever had in their life and the engine blew all at the same time. They were that disgusted. My thoughts on life are a little from what theirs were. I wanted to enjoy it. I don't know, maybe being in the service and World War II gave me a different outlook on life when I came back. I had a brother that was in the Air Force and he was killed and I had a lot of friends that were lost. I don't know, I just took a whole different outlook on life when I came back. It seemed that what I was looking for was the enjoyment of life the way it should be and, up until right now, that's what I've had."
CAN YOU TALK ABOUT SOME OF THE DRIVER'S YOU'VE HAD OVER THE YEARS? "What we did was we were available to help NASCAR to bring different people in. We had three rookies of the year and we had a lot of guys that wanted to be Winston Cup or Grand National drivers, but after they would make a race or two they would find out it really wasn't what they wanted. Then we had some that came in, like (Ken) Schrader and Ricky Rudd that went on to great heights. In '83, I think, when Ford started SVO it was kind of just a family deal. Everybody was together and we didn't have many Ford runners back then. It's just been a real pleasure being associated with Ford all these years."
ARE YOU FRUSTRATED WITH THE WAY THINGS HAVE GONE RECENTLY? "No, not frustrated because the one thing about participating in any sport is if you don't like it you can quit. But I still enjoy it. I see a lot of things that has taken the sport away from being fun or being as competitive as it could be for the whole field. I don't know you put 43 cars out there and you have four, five or six real dominant cars there is something wrong. The rest of the cars are there to perform to perfection as much as possible and for them to be left by the wayside, I don't know, it just looks like it's become a money game and I never was into that so I don't understand it like they do."
IS THERE ONE CAR THAT WAS YOUR FAVORITE? "I think some of the best runs we had was in '83 when they came out with the T-Bird. That seemed to suit the driver that we had and were very competitive with it. If we would have maybe had a little heavier back end we would have been bad news for them, but the car, to me, was a very dominant car."
Jody Ridley won the NASCAR rookie of the year award in 1980 driving for Donlavey, and provided him with the only Winston Cup victory of his career when he won the 1981 Mason-Dixon 500 at Dover Downs. Ridley, who still resides in Chatsworth, Georgia, drove three full seasons for Donlavey (1980-82).
JODY RIDLEY -- HOW DID YOU LAND THE RIDE WITH JUNIE? "In the early seventies Junie was what they used a call a rental car. He went around to different tracks and would get a local guy or a local favorite in the car. They got me a ride in that thing in '72 or '74 and had a pretty good finish. I drove for him once or twice a year up until 1980 every time they'd come to Atlanta. I don't think they ran all the races up to that point, but he called me up during Christmas in 1979 and asked if I'd be interested in running all the races and run for rookie of the year and all that stuff. That's when I started running with him. He's just a guy that's easy to get along with. If you did bad that was OK, there was never any disharmony. Of course, he was under financed at that time and didn't have a sponsor or anything, so we did the best we could with what we had."
CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THAT FIRST AND ONLY WIN? "We had a pretty good car. We didn't really have a winning car that day, but they didn't have a lot of cautions and they couldn't run and put new tires on all the time. So we were able to stay up front and then the top two cars blew up and we just happened to be at the right place at the right time. Neil Bonnett blew up and then Cale Yarborough blew up."
ARE THERE ANY MEMORABLE MOMENTS THAT STAND OUT FROM VICTORY LANE? "It was probably the highlight of my racing career because it was a deal where we were racing and new most of the time we really didn't have a good shot at winning. We were under financed and didn't have a major sponsor. We had a pretty good car and we had a lot of top 10s, but we weren't a winning caliber racecar. That was just a case where everything fell into place that particular day. That was really good for Junie because he never had a win and I think he took it all in stride. Junie doesn't really get emotional about anything anyway, but everybody was really pleased. He was tickled about it, but Junie didn't ever make a big thing out of anything, he just loved to be at the racetrack. If you did badly, you just went on to the next one. The thing about that, though, is it got us on the winner's circle program. I tell you the way we were. We always had to run and make sure that we didn't blow our stuff up because we didn't have unlimited equipment. We got on the winner's circle after that and I ran the next year and we tried to run harder. We wound up fifth in the points standings the year we won, but the next year we ran harder and I think we blew up 10 or 12 times. He pretty much knew what the motor could stand, but he was trying to make the car run better for me because he knew I wanted to win. We had to finish to make ends meet. We couldn't wind up blowing up in 1981, but when we got on the winner's circle he got some extra money so we could run harder the next year but it caught up with us."
WHAT WAS THE CAR LIKE THAT YOU RAN IN 1981? "We ran 31 races with the same race car. It was unbelievable but we did. That's when they downsized them and there weren't a whole lot of extra cars going around. We had one car that we ran at Talladega, road races, Bristol, Wilkesboro -- the same car everywhere. There wasn't a paid member on that crew, I don't think at that time. They didn't want me to work on it, either. They just wanted me to show up and drive. We got that win in '81 and did it all without a sponsor and with the same racecar. That's really unheard of, but we did end up fifth in the point standings. I guess people don't realize what kind of an accomplishment that was for what we had, but that was really something. We didn't tear it up too much and they just rebuilt it every week."
YOU WON ROOKIE OF THE YEAR IN 1980, SO THAT WAS A GOOD PLACE FOR YOU TO GET SOME EXPERIENCE, RIGHT? "It was. I left him in 1982 but there wasn't any animosity on either side. I should have stayed on, I guess, because he came up with some sponsorship that particular year and Ford came out with some new stuff like aluminum heads and new body style and all. But I got an offer from one of the top-notch cars and decided to leave. Of course hindsight being what it is, you can look at it and say I probably shouldn't have because as it turned out I didn't even get the ride when it was all said and done. We're still buddies just like always and I wouldn't trade the time I had with him for anything."
Ricky Rudd was a promising newcomer who had nearly two full years of experience under his belt when he got the opportunity to drive for Donlavey in 1979. In 28 races that season, Rudd posted a pair of third-place finishes and four top-five efforts overall. Since then he has gone on to be one of the most respected and successful drivers in the sport.
RICKY RUDD --10-- Tide Taurus -- WHAT WAS YOUR EXPERIENCE LIKE DRIVING FOR JUNIE? "I drove for him in the late '70s in '79. I was a pretty young guy at that time; I was probably about 21 or 22 years old. It was almost like having kind of a father figure there...kind of like a driving instructor, coach. I learned a lot from Junie. At that time I hadn't run many short tracks, only a couple. When I came to racing it was go-karts and then I was Winston Cup, so in the early start of my career I ran very few short tracks. When I got to Junie, he probably helped me more than anybody as far as how to drive a short track. When I came to Junie I barely knew what all the flags were. So it was an educational experience as much as anything. It was fun. The story I remember was being at Darlington in '79. Junie always had a car at Darlington that would just run and I was leading the race. I qualified third or fourth with Junie's car and took the lead and just drove away from everybody. I had about a half-straightaway lead and was checkin' out. I came off the old turn four and bumped the fence, scraped the fence, and knocked the front-end out of alignment. I couldn't steer the car. Physically, I just didn't have the arms to steer it. I came on the radio about 15 laps later and I said, 'Junie, the car is steering hard. You need to get a relief driver lined up because I can't steer this car.' He came back a second later just real calm and said, 'Well Bubba, how was it driving before you hit the fence?' Anyway, he basically was telling me to sit out there and suffer. I did the damage, so I've gotta pay for it. It was an educational experience with Junie. I didn't want to leave the team at the time, but I basically got fired. They hired Jody Ridley to come in and drive because he brought sponsorship. I didn't bring any money with me and about that time Junie needed everything, so, basically, I got fired. But we're still good buddies. I got fired and I'm still friends with him."
Ken Schrader began his NASCAR Winston Cup career with Donlavey in 1985 and drove three full seasons for him until making the move to Rick Hendrick's operation in 1988. Before doing that, however, Schrader provided Donlavey with a major thrill by winning one of the 125-mile qualifying races at Daytona in 1987.
KEN SCHRADER --33-- U.S. Tobacco Monte Carlo -- "I ran five races in '84 for Elmo (Langley). I was trying hard to get a deal with Elmo. Junie kept beating on Lee Morse (then manager of performance, vehicle and equipment operations, Ford Special Vehicle Operations) like he had to. 'Hey, I need some help, need some help, need some help.' And I was beating on Lee Morse about, 'I need a ride, need a ride, need a ride.' And finally I think he got tired of both of us and just hooked us up. Three years. Two years, I think we finished 15th, 17th in points. It was that kind of road. My very first Daytona 500 I finished 11, five laps down. It was a little different then. Now you're 11th five seconds back. "It was a lot of fun. I learned a lot. "The third year we won a pole and won a qualifying race, finished 10th in points. A little car trailer, never took a back-up car. The second year we ran, most all year we had one fulltime person, two for part of the year. But Junie had his tribe, that came in at night. Just a good gentlemen and a fantastic supporter of the sport. I learned a lot from him."
ONE OF THE THINGS THAT STANDS OUT ABOUT JUNIE'S CAREER IS THE YEAR YOU WON THE QUALIFIER AT DAYTONA. TALK ABOUT THAT A LITTLE BIT. "I qualified third for the 500. We had been fast down there in practice and stuff. When we qualified third, it was so neat. Just the people congratulating Junie. Then when we won that race, just to be in victory lane with Junie and all the people congratulating him. And I threw that 500 away. I screwed that 500 up. We came from the back to lead it. I had trouble on a pit stop that I screwed up leaving the pits and that cost us that race. We ran seventh, and that cost us a lot better finish, a possible win. We were the only car to pass Bill (Elliott) that month, and we passed him a couple times. But that was really good. Bob Johnson helped us a lot that year. But to see those people and how happy they were for Junie was amazing. It was pretty neat. At Darlington I thought we had a shot a getting the pole. Junie had never had a pole. I thought we had a shot. We were about three or four cars from the end in qualifying, and Earnhardt had rode down there with me that day. Earnhardt set the quick time about four cars in front of us and they were all over him. There was no one in line that was gonna beat him. And he said, 'whoa, watch the 90 car.' And we went out and beat him. They used to have that old family grandstand in turn four on the inside and I came around and knew we got the pole. We didn't have radios then or nothing, but there were two Red Baron guys on the back straightaway setting up ovens up top. When I came around after I finished my lap they were jumping up and down unreal. I come back and old Donlavey, who had never had a pole, was standing on top of those stands and just made a thumbs up motion like that was a good lap. Nothing phases him. It was a wonderful two years, '86 and '87."