Donlavey has influenced young and old
By Curt Cavin
INDIANAPOLIS (July 27, 1998) -- He owned stock cars driven by legends such as Fred Lorenzen, Lee Roy Yarbrough, David Pearson, Johnny Rutherford and Bobby Isaac. And that was just in 1972.
W.C. "Junie" Donlavey has fielded NASCAR Winston Cup teams since 1950, two years after its creation. There is no one who has touched more people.
In the past four decades, Donlavey has employed 63 drivers for 763 Winston Cup events. That mark should stand forever.
But knowing about Donlavey is to know him on a personal level. At age 74, no one in the sport has a more engaging smile. There are few with as many friends.
When he won his first and only Winston Cup race in 1981 with driver Jody Ridley at Dover, there was a procession of well-wishers. When he returned to the racetrack this month after heart surgery, he couldn't shake enough hands.
"There is no finer person in this garage than Mr. Donlavey," said Ken Schrader, who drove three seasons for him in the 1980s.
In the first half of his career, Donlavey's team provided cars for the superstar drivers whose regular teams didn't want to travel to the smaller tracks. That's how he became joined with six NASCAR champions (Pearson, Isaac, Buck Baker, Joe Weatherly, Cale Yarborough, Benny Parsons) and nine Daytona 500 winners.
In 1972-73, Donlavey competed in 54 races with 23 different drivers. As they came and went, Donlavey benefited as much personally as he did financially.
"For me, it was always about running with good people," he said. "There are so many in this sport and that's the reason I've stayed in it so long.
"I think we've been able to help people, but I know they helped us. I learned so much from the Pearsons and the Bakers and all the great drivers who drove for me."
Donlavey is treasured because of his investment in the sport. For every champion that drove his car, there were two young drivers that owe Donlavey for boosting their career.
Donlavey helped Ricky Rudd in 1979 when his career was floundering. When Schrader needed help in 1985, Donlavey hired him. Donlavey also took Robby Gordon on as a challenge in 1991.
Donlavey also helped Harry Gant, Ernie Irvan, Buddy Baker and even Christine Beckers, a Belgian who earned a start in the 1977 Daytona 500. Donlavey's investment in young drivers has been so significant that there is a movement to get NASCAR's rookie of the year award named after him.
"The one thing I don't like about this sport is that there are hundreds of people around the country who are good drivers who will never get the opportunity," Donlavey said. "We've had a lot of drivers who only wanted a chance to see if they could make it.
"Some did and some went home, but they all left happy to have gotten a chance."
The irony of Donlavey's career is that for all of the opportunities he's provided, only Ridley has delivered a Winston Cup victory. Schrader won the qualifying race at Daytona in 1987, which is the other trophy Donlavey embraces.
Donlavey doesn't seem to mind. He is satisfied with his role in the series. He sees friends at the track each week and loves the challenge of competing with veteran Dick Trickle.
When his car is not good enough to win, Donlavey relaxes and appreciates the duel at the front. Racing is not only his life, it is his hobby.
"When Ridley won, it wasn't really the win that was important to me," Donlavey said. "It was the attitude of all the teams when we won. They were just as happy as if they had won it themselves.
"That makes you feel good. That's why I'm involved with all these people."
After a 1940s stint in the Navy, Donlavey settled into the auto repair business in Richmond, Va. His staff was growing and most of the men were interested in racing. So was he. Three years later, they built their first car.
In 1950, Donlavey's gang was ready for NASCAR's top division, and they arrived at Darlington, S.C., with co-drivers Bob Apperson and Runt Harris. The car didn't finish that day, but Donlavey was hooked.
It wasn't for the money, either. Donlavey went 10 years before his car earned more than $400 in a race.
"We did it for the love of racing," he said. "We didn't know what money was in the sport because none of us had it."
By 1975, Donlavey's children were grown and his business was thriving. He decided to go racing full-time and he hired Dick Brooks, whom he had worked with during the revolving-door years of 1972-73. Brooks ran 25 races, finishing in the top five on six occasions.
In 1983, Brooks appeared to have the Daytona 500 won until Donlavey's car developed a tire problem. It wasn't the first of Donlavey's close calls. Four years later, Schrader was leading the same 500 late only to over-rev the engine leaving the pits.
In 1972, Donlavey saw his driver, Ramo Stott, lose to James Hylton in a photo-finish at Talladega.
"We've had some opportunities to win races, but fate usually stepped in and didn't let us," Donlavey said.
Ironically, it was something like fate that allowed Ridley and Donlavey to win in '81 at Dover. Yarborough and Neil Bonnett were first and second when each broke down in the final 20 laps. For that reason, Donlavey said he feels better about Schrader's Daytona qualifying-race victory in '87 because he beat Bill Elliott with fourth-turn pass.
"Elliott was the king at that time," said Donlavey, who through that period had one full-time employee and several volunteers. "They came off the corner side-by-side and we all knew Bill was going to beat Kenny. When he didn't, that was a great moment."
Donlavey isn't sure how many of those kinds of days are left for him. In March he underwent heart surgery to replace two valves. He attended only one race since, although he says he feels "like perfect." He plans to be here this week for the Brickyard 400.
Recently, Donlavey was offered the chance to sell the team, but he refused when the buyer asked to move the operation to Charlotte. For Donlavey, the issue was loyalty.
"I couldn't see letting this thing leave Richmond like that," Donlavey said. "Richmond is home to our families."
There will soon come a day when Donlavey stops being involved, stops being one of the grand men of the sport. NASCAR does not have a replacement. There might not be one.
"What I enjoy about Junie is his outlook on life," Trickle said. "He's a genuine-type of person, likes people and loves racing. My kind of man."
"It's his loyalty and determination to the sport," Schrader said. "We've got a lot of good and honest people in this garage area, but Mr. Donlavey is at the top. If there's something on his truck that someone needs, I don't care whether it's a sandwich or a spare engine, he'll say, 'We'll bring it to you.'
"You have to love someone like that."
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