Sanford’s J.D. McDuffie carried the entire city with him each time he entered a NASCAR Cup Series race throughout his 27-year career. There were times when he didn’t qualify for races and during those lonely times, he wouldn’t say a word. He would pack his tools, load his race car and unceremoniously head home.
McDuffie’s final start came 31 years ago on Aug. 11, 1991, on the 11-turn Watkins Glen International road course. Sadly, he lost his life when a left front wheel broke away at high speed, taking the brakes on his No. 70 Pontiac with it. McDuffie died instantly after slamming hard into a post and wire fence during the fourth lap of the 90-lap race in Turn Five, a treacherous area of the track that’s been redesigned due to McDuffie's crash and is known today as the bus stop.
His car landed upside down, nearly atop the Pontiac of close friend Jimmy Means. After climbing from his car, Means waved frantically for rescue workers to get to McDuffie, realizing he had been badly injured.
Means recalled the crash some three decades later for an article written for Speed Sport Magazine, as if watching the reel of events as it played in his mind.
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“Actually, he (McDuffie) was behind me when we went into that corner. He was racing me so hard,” Means recalled. “I remember commenting to myself, ‘Dang, J.D., you’re all over me.’ I remember thinking, ‘J.D. is tough today.’ I turned off into the corner and something broke on his car right behind me. When he got to the corner, I was turning, and he couldn’t turn. He hit my nose and turned me into the fence and hit me. His car got into the air and turned sideways and there was nothing he could do. If we had the seats we have today he would have walked away.”
It is believed McDuffie lost his life instantly after suffering severe head trauma. After a red flag period of 1 hour and 50 minutes, the race resumed with Ernie Irvan going to victory lane. McDuffie’s death was announced during the red flag period, something that has never been done since in NASCAR competition. A dark feeling of despair shadowed victory lane ceremonies since everyone there knew the beloved McDuffie was gone. There wasn’t really anything to celebrate. It was more about having to go through the motions.
“After all I’ve been through, this is a great victory, but winning is tempered by J.D.’s death,” Irvan said. “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.”
The night before the race, McDuffie signed autographs with Dale Earnhardt and won a celebrity race at Shangri-La Speedway in nearby Oswego, New York. He was all smiles Sunday morning and even bought his crew breakfast, something he couldn't always afford to do.
McDuffie was supposed to have finished that race at Watkins Glen and then should have driven his Chevrolet transporter affectionately known as ‘Ole Blue’ back to his shop located on Willet Road just outside of Sanford to start getting ready for the Winston Cup race at Michigan International Speedway on Aug. 18th.
Ironically, crew members from Junior Johnson's No. 11 and No. 22 teams drove 'Ole Blue' back to McDuffie's shop.
On Wednesday, Aug. 15, the 52-year-old McDuffie was laid to rest. More than 700 mourners filled Grace Chapel Christian Church and more than 3,000 paid their respects on Aug. 13 at a funeral home not far from the home he and his wife, Ima Jean, shared.
McDuffie was remembered for being quiet and virtually unnoticed throughout any given race weekend. He would unload his car, get it ready to qualify, race, hope to finish without a crash or blown engine, and go home. There would be no chance of winning. A good finish was all he wanted.
Thomas Pope, a longtime motorsports writer and sports editor for the Fayetteville (North Carolina) Observer, often covered McDuffie’s racing efforts. Even though listed as being from Sanford in all of NASCAR’s public relations information, McDuffie’s true residence was the small hamlet of Lemon Springs, N.C.
“Race fans loved J.D. because he was a blue-collar race car driver,” Pope said. “They were amazed that he could race against the best in the world at NASCAR’s highest level on the budget he had using the parts and pieces that he had. Somehow, he made it work for a very long time. He didn’t have the high-dollar sponsors all the other guys did but teams helped him with what he needed.”
McDuffie finished fifth four times during his career in 1970, 1971, 1978 and 1979. In 1971, he finished third in a 100-mile race at Malta, New York. Seven years later in 1978, he won the pole position at Dover, Delaware, using McCreary tires prior to the Delaware 500. He ultimately finished 33rd in that race with a broken engine valve.
“J.D. was a totally different person on the race track than what he was in the garage area,” Means said. “On the track, he was fiercely competitive and he took pride in running the very best that he could and tried to outrun all of the other independent drivers out there. He was a solely competitive individual and it was hard to race him because he was a good racer and a very good mechanic."
When a young reporter in the mid-1980s asked McDuffie why he had five cigars in his driver’s uniform pocket, he said in his distinct eastern North Carolina accent; “I chew on one every 100 miles. If I make it to the fifth cigar, I’ve had a pretty good day.”
Longtime residents of Sandford remember McDuffie as their hero when he raced in NASCAR’s elite Cup Series from 1963 to 1991. The city will celebrate with J.D. McDuffie Day on Sept. 5, when a 72-foot mural inspired by the late racer will be unveiled during a fan festival including a car show. The mural will be located at 329 Carthage Street in Sanford.
This article originally appeared on The Fayetteville Observer: JD McDuffie crash: NASCAR driver's death remembered at Watkins Glen