By Team Ford Racing Correspondent
Winners fade from Victory Lane, but new ones take over. Great crew chiefs eventually wander off pit road, and new faces appear. Champions will be replaced with new champions.
Junie Donlavey cannot be replaced.
One of auto racing’s greatest men died Monday. Donlavey passed away in Richmond, Va. with Alzheimer’s disease.
In a touch of sweet irony, Donlavey was 90 -- the number his cars carried in NASCAR’s top series.
The only statistic that stands out about Donlavey’s career as a Cup team owner is 863 -- the number of races his cars competed in through the years. His first year on a Cup starting grid was 1950; the last was 2002. He won only one time -- with driver Jody Ridley at Dover, Delaware, in 1981.
But it will not be numbers that tell the story of Junie Donlavey (The obituaries, by the way, list his name as Wesley Christian Donlavey. Forget that. He was Junie.). When he left this Earth Monday, racing lost perhaps its Last Great Gentleman.
If Junie had enemies in the sport, they never made themselves known. For a half-century, his place in racing was as the kind fellow traveler, a man who took the time to know everybody and to wish them well.
Junie was a racer, of course, and he wanted to win and do well, but he understood the limitations of his wallet, and he rolled through his life having fun with what he had.
“Nobody kept going as long in the same kind of situation as Junie,” said Ken Schrader, one of Donlavey’s dozens of drivers over the years. “He ran a program on very limited funds. He cut a lot of corners. But he gets the kind of respect as if he was king of the car owners.”
Donlavey never had the budget to race lap for lap with the big guns, but this was of little consequence in the big picture. Junie was at home in the Cup garage of every racetrack, and the rear of his team hauler always could be depended upon as a place of grand conversation and remarkable insight.
If he ever yelled at people, it was a quiet yell. “There was always a race next week,” Schrader said. “He didn’t change, good or bad. The only way to get him mad was if you did something stupid. And we did.”
As Cup racing swelled into a national phenomenon in the 1990s, virtually everything about the sport became bigger (if not necessarily better), and virtually everyone in the sport saw their energy and time sapped. But Junie was always a port in the storm.
Crew members, other drivers, officials, reporters -- all stopped by Junie’s hauler for a story. And he had many -- all told with a twinkle in his eye.
“Racing to me has been a sport that needed to be enjoyed,” Junie said in a 1998 interview. “If you're going to kick the car when you run second instead of winning -- I couldn’t handle that. I made a living rebuilding wrecked automobiles and doing repair work in a garage and raced on the side. All the spare time we had, we were racing. We finally got the house and everything all paid for, and so I said, ‘Let’s go racing. What we’ve been doing at night and on the weekends, let’s just do it all the time.’
“It has been so much fun. The only problem I have with it now is that it kind of hurts me that it takes so much money to be part of it.”
He remained tied to his Virginia roots.
“I had a group that wanted to buy the team,” he said. “We were talking about it. Only toward the end of the negotiations did it come up that they wanted to move it to Charlotte. That’s when I backed out. I didn’t feel it was right for all the people down through the years that had helped keep us going in Richmond. They all felt like part of the team. They wanted us to move to Charlotte like nobody had ever existed. That wasn’t going to happen.”
Junie remembered a December in Richmond when the family awoke Christmas morning to find that the electricity in the house was out.
“We loaded up the presents and everything in the house and drove down to the shop and had Christmas dinner there,” he said. “We probably had 20 people in there, with kids all running around having their pictures made inside the race cars. They said they would remember that Christmas for a long time.”
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Former Ford owner Junie Donlavey, a Spirit of Ford Award Winner for his contributions to motorsports, passed away Monday. Donlavey fielded Ford vehicles from 1961 until his retirement in 2004 and during that time gave many drivers and crewmen an opportunity to compete on NASCAR’s biggest stage.
Edsel B. Ford, member of the Board of Directors at Ford Motor Company, made the following statement about Donlavey: “All of us at Ford Motor Company mourn the passing of Junie Donlavey and we send our thoughts and prayers to his family and friends. Junie was a true gentleman whose legacy won't be measured in wins on the track. His legacy will be the hundreds of drivers and crew members who he helped that went on to great careers. All of us will miss his friendly smile and engaging stories in the garage.”
In addition, Ford Racing spoke with Jason Hedlesky, who filled a variety of roles with Donlavey from 1998-2004, which included driving, spotting and serving as team manager on the No. 90 Sprint Cup Ford. Hedlesky currently serves as spotter for Carl Edwards on the No. 99 Fastenal Ford Fusion or Roush Fenway Racing.
JASON HEDLESKY, Former Team Manager for Junie Donlavey
WHAT COMES TO MIND WHEN YOU THINK OF JUNIE DONLAVEY? “Anytime I think about Mr. Donlavey the first thing that comes to my mind is what a tremendous human being he was and if it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t have the career that I have now. I was a 24-year-old kid that came from Michigan to Richmond, Virginia and he gave me a chance to not only work on his cars and to drive his cars, but to learn from him. When you learn from a guy like him, who has been in the sport since the very beginning, he’s been around and seen everything. He was in the first Southern 500. He raced on the beach and he had tremendous race car drivers that not only drove his race cars, but worked with him. Through those doors in Richmond there were so many talented crew members and people that were all under his tutelage.
“He didn’t just teach you about racing, he taught you about life and how to treat people and how to respect people. There were so many times when people like myself, who were young and aggressive, wanted to go and talk with a sponsor or a person that we thought might be good to work at the shop, but Junie would never have anything to do with them if they were associated with somebody else. He would never go after somebody else’s sponsor. He would never go after somebody else’s employees. He just didn’t do business that way. He just had so much respect for his fellow man and that’s just the way he was. He was just a tremendous person and a great human being. We’re all going to miss him.
“He’d give you enough rope to kind of feel your own way, but if you got too far out of line he’d pull you back and put you back in check real quick. He had so much experience to lean on and he was always with Ford. He was so loyal, not only to Ford, but to anybody that helped him through the years. They don’t make them like him anymore, that’s for sure.”
IS GIVING PEOPLE AN OPPORTUNITY, WHETHER THEY WERE A MECHANIC OR DRIVER, HIS REAL LEGACY? “Absolutely. I’ve read a few things this morning and they talk about all of his starts and how many of the 50 greatest drivers drove for him through the years, and then they mention how his Cup cars won only one race. There was not a bigger race fan on this planet than Mr. Donlavey. We’d go to Daytona and whether it was the ARCA race or a Dash Series race, it wouldn’t matter, he was up on the truck watching intently. He loved to watch automobile races and getting the opportunity to work for him and get started was an unbelievable opportunity because he taught you how to treat people. He could get grumpy, too. He was stubborn, but I think that’s why he lasted almost 60 years in the sport.”
HOW COMPETITIVE WAS HE? “There was nobody that cared more about running good than Junie, but for a majority of his career the team didn’t have the resources that the multi-car teams had, so he made the best out of what he had. He never once complained about it and just kept trucking along and kept people employed and the company running until he retired in 2004. You can’t say much more than that. He was all-in.”
WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE JUNIE DONLAVEY STORY? “My office was right next to his and I couldn’t wait until we were done with work so I could go in there and hear him tell more stories. I heard some of those stories 100 times and they never got old.
“My favorite one involves his former truck driver, Jack McDonald, who passed away a couple of years ago. They were driving to Atlanta after working all day at the shop and it’s about a 10-hour trip. There were about three or four of them in the van and they stopped at a rest area just south of the Virginia-North Carolina state line on I-85 in the middle of the night to use the rest room. Junie had been asleep in the back and got out after the others had gone inside. When they got back, they still thought he was sleeping in the back and Jack left.
“One of the guys said he wasn’t in there, but Jack thought he was sleeping and drove off. When Junie came out, he thought they were playing a joke on him, but after about 30 minutes he realized they were really gone. When the van was almost to Atlanta, Jack told one of the guys to wake up the chief and that’s when they told him that Junie wasn’t in there. Jack started panicking, but the rule was no matter what happened the priority was to get to the race track and get the car unloaded, so Jack went to the race track.
“Junie said he was walking around trying to find a ride and finally found a truck driver that he shared something in common with, so he got a ride with him to Charlotte where Junie called Elmo Langley, who picked him up on his way to Atlanta.
“Jack thought he was gonna get fired, but that was the rule. Elmo told the entire garage what happened, so that night before the garage closed Dick Beatty made an announcement over the loud speaker for the 90 team to ‘don’t forget Donlavey when you leave tonight.’”