A Living At Racing
Winning is nice, but it isn't everything. If it were, he'd have been out of NASCAR years ago. "Absolutely, we go to every race and put in all the effort that we can to win. But you've got to be smart enough to know that you can't beat a speedboat with an outboard motor. Yet you like to participate, and if that speedboat runs aground, you're going to whip it.
A spry 72, Donlavey has enjoyed racing — and made a living at it, as well — since 1950, when he first entered a car in what has become the Winston Cup Series. As his team prepares for its 39th Daytona 500 on Sunday, Donlavey's record shows 738 entries in 715 races with one victory and five runner-up finishes. "Everybody can't be an Earnhardt. Everybody can't be a Rick Hendrick. But that doesn't make you look down on the sport and not enjoy it. I kind of made up my mind that I didn't know how long I was going to be here, but I was going to enjoy the time I was here. I feel very fortunate that I've been able to stay in this game this long and enjoy it as much as I have."
What's made Donlavey's 47 years so much fun is the people with whom he's been able to work. A true pioneer of the sport, Donlavey has memories of all the greats. But he takes the most pride in the fact that he's helped countless drivers get a start in the sport when no one else would give them the chance. Many of them never made it, but others have. Joe Weatherly and Tiny Lund both drove Donlavey cars in the early days, and Dick Brooks showed considerable potential in the '70s. Ricky Rudd, a fellow Virginian who's been quite successful, drove for Donlavey in '79. Jody Ridley, who gave Donlavey his only victory in 1980 (Mason-Dixon 500 at Dover, Delaware), and Ken Schrader, who went on to win four races for Hendrick, won rookie of the year honors while driving Donlavey's No. 90 cars (1985). Dick Trickle, the Wisconsin veteran who's still looking for his first NASCAR victory, currently holds the wheel of Donlavey's Fords. "I always feel sorry for a guy that's a drivers driver in another division and has absolutely no chance to come over here. That breaks my heart, because I know that the way we've stayed in this game is through people helping us."
The same generosity has been extended to mechanics. Because Donlavey's team is headquartered in his hometown of Richmond, Va., away from the hub of NASCAR in Charlotte, N.C., he is in position neither to lure help from other teams nor hold onto his own top performers when bigger teams call. But that's OK, too. "Junie's a great guy to work for to get your start," said Michael Cluka, a shock absorber specialist and tire changer from Menomonee Falls, Wis., who worked two seasons for Donlavey before leaving last fall. "He knows it's a stepping stone. It's not like you leave on bad terms, it's like, 'drivers luck, Bubba.' " Donlavey figures that if he had kept a list of all the people who've worked for him, it would contain thousands of names.
For most of the first 35 years, Donlavey survived with only nominal financial backing, one full-time employee and all the volunteers he could use. But as the sport has evolved, Donlavey has adjusted. He can get quite comfortable in the lounge of his trailer, an amenity provided by his multimillion-dollar sponsors, and he's learned about aerodynamics. Once in a while, though, he longs for the drivers old days. "I remember in 1963, a writer in Richmond wrote an article about our team and racing in general, and the theme of the story was it was like a family get-together every week. For lots and lots of years, it was like a big family. It's gotten so competitive now that the guys do not have time to relax."
The boss still finds time to kick back. When he's not on the roof of his hauler, watching his car, Donlavey often can be found sitting in a high-backed director's chair, "meetin' and greetin' " with anyone who stops by while leaving the hands-on work to his crew. He'll be around as long as he can, too, hoping to get his car back in victory lane. But if Donlavey never wins again, he'll have made the most of trying. "I think that's all you need in life, if you just get the opportunity."
Many Winston Cup drivers trace the roots of their careers to team owner Junie Donlavey. And it's no wonder. With a succession of Fords marked #90 going back almost 50 years, Donlavey has seen his share of drivers. Sixty-eight men have driven for the Donlavey team and their names are part of NASCAR's illustrious history. Fred Lorenzen, Lee Roy Yarbrough, Cale Yarborough, David Pearson, Bobby Isaac, Harry Gant, Buddy Baker and Benny Parsons all spent time with Donlavey. In recent years, Ernie Irvan, Bobby Hillin, Chad Little, Pancho Carter, Hut Stricklin, Jimmy Hensley, Jimmy Means and Mike Wallace have driven a Donlavey owned car.
Donlavey was a driver for less than a year, but he prefers running a team to driving. NASCAR ran its first race at Daytona in 1948 and it didn't take long for 24-year-old Wesley Donlavey Jr. to get involved. Donlavey who came to be known as Junie because he was a Junior, had a brief stint behind the wheel in 1949 before turning the driving chores over to others. Through the years, the Donlavey team earned a reputation as excellent trainers for young drivers. NASCAR awarded Rookie of the Year honors to several Donlavey drivers. Bill Dennis earned the title in 1970 and Jody Ridley in 1980. The major reason that the checkered flag eluded Donlavey was his team's shoestring budget. Donlavey raced as an independent without major sponsorship or an in-house engine program. Yet he was known for getting the most from minimal resources.
The Donlavey ride became available to drivers who could bring sponsorships with them. This attracted the attention of Ford which needed a team to nurture and develop future driving stars. Ken Schrader broke into NASCAR with Donlavey and finished 10th in Winston Cup points in 1987. Similar deals were struck with a number of drivers, one of which almost brought Jeff Gordon to the team. At various times, it looked as though Donlavey would have to hang it up as a team owner, particularly when seven-figure corporate sponsorships began to flood the sport. Yet with the help of his pit crew, a string of one-race deals and volunteer team members, the team survived. Looking back, Donlavey characteristically put it all in proper perspective: "Even though we haven't won a bunch of races or money, it's been fun and that's why I'm still around. When racing gets to be a job, I'll think about retiring.
Through the years, Donlavey has always been regarded as a gentleman and remains one of the most respected figures in the sport. No one in auto racing is more respected and more liked than Junie Donlavey. You would never find anyone who would say a harsh word against him. No one is more considerate of his fellow man. While some fans might remember more dominate teams, insiders are aware of the indelible mark left by Donlavey. No other owner has had a hand in the lives of so many drivers. Junie on racing
Wesley Christian "Junie" Donlavey's Career Highlights
The Gentleman Racer
If driverswill and straight talk were keys to success in Winston Cup, Junie Donlavey would have claimed multiple titles
He's a true Southern gentleman. He doesn't change with the setting, but rather wraps the scenery into his life. Eyes twinkling when he laughs, grin waiting to deliver a story's punch line, Junie Donlavey nestles snugly into his chair and prepares another story.
More than 50 years of racing, combined with a stint in World War II, left him with plenty of those. Many drivers from his early days have died, many owners from those times have sold out, but Donlavey remains a fixture in the sport he only partly inhabits these days.
Entertaining and charming, Donlavey's always been a bit more of a character than a challenger in Winston Cup racing. Ambling through the garage on a weekly basis, he jokes with old friends. He's never met a stranger, welcoming reporters, fans and drivers with open arms into his shop, his transporter and his life. Tough times may have trailed his team for years, but one would never know it listening to Donlavey talk.
Tinkering with cars since childhood, Donlavey always hankered to keep his hands on engines. He could repair an engine when he was 6 years old, and he rebuilt a wrecked car when he was 12. That was the beginning. All these years later, Donlavey still sits in his shop, tinkering with parts.
Racing life has gently aged the lifelong Richmond, Va., native. At 78, he struggles, to relate his story. Sometimes, he can't believe he made it this far. Other times he wonders if he can ever let racing go. Soon, he may have to. Donlavey spends his days hosting tours and greeting friends that visit. He's attempted only a handful of races this season and may just sit out the coming seasons. But he won't officially retire. He doesn't plan to sell his shop or close the doors. He just doesn't have it in him. Not after he's been through so much. Spectators remember deaths of favorite drivers, still mourn the loss of some of the sport's favorites. Donlavey was there for each accident, each death, and felt the blow personally. But racing wasn't the first place he spotted tragedy.
Life showed him sorrow early. Donlavey grew up with two brothers, Charles and Richard. He didn't have Charles for long - the youngster died of an abscessed tooth when he was only 9. Later, Junie and Richard enlisted and headed to foreign shores in World War II.
Richard got there first. A gunner on B-29s, Richard was the envy of Junie. While Richard was preparing to deploy, Junie sweated through defense maneuvers as a Naval man in Key West, Fla. Some days, he wondered why he was on this American shore. "It took a lot of time to figure out that this keeps the enemy from coming into the States," he says. "When you go in the service, you do what they tell you to do. None of us knew anything."
He was later put on a repair ship heading to Guam, preparing part of the American push into Japan. Before he left, Richard visited him in Florida. Junie's mother was visiting at Key West, so the pair borrowed a car and headed to Miami for a sort of family reunion. It was the last time he'd see Richard alive.
Richard was shot down after an air raid on Japan. "The government sent a telegram that said the whole crew went down," Donlavey says. Less than a year ago, he found out that information wasn't correct; some of the crew had surrvived the mishap. A man visited Richmond looking for a Donlavey and ended up finding Junie's cousin. When Donlavey called, he discovered the man was the pilot on Richard's plane and had written a book about the experience.
Years later, Junie had another reminder of his brother. Not that he needed one. After losing his brothers, Junie and his wife Phyllis memorialized them by naming their son Charles Richard Donlavey. "Both were a lot nicer than I ever thought of being," Donlavey says. Meanwhile, Donlavey had served his two-year war stint and returned to the States, aching to get back into the auto business.
Honorably discharged in December, 1945, Donlavey was anxious to find his place in the career world. Attracted to cars and speed, he was primed and ready for the introduction of NASCAR. He'd already decided he didn't belong behind the wheel of a car, but he wanted to be involved with one somehow. "I drove in the modifieds a little bit," he says. "I found out I wasn't cut out to be a driver."
He won a couple of races, but he learned from those he watched. Donlavey didn't sense things behind the wheel the way he felt other drivers did. He listened to them talk about seeing the competitor coming on the side or feeling another driver's move. If only he could feel that way. "I didn't know where I was," he said, chuckling in admiration of his competitors. "I did understand that if I didn't know where I was, I could get hurt. I'm thinking when I'm out there driving, I don't see anything. Looking around, seeing guys driving strictly on instinct and noticing stuff like that, that's when I said, `Whoa.'"
So he started hiring drivers. Donlavey estimates more than 160 have sat behind the wheel of his modified and stock cars. Many turned out to be stars in the modern era of NASCAR, but when they ran with Donlavey, they were just guys trying to catch a break.
His first driver, Hank Staley, died in Donlavey's car. Donlavey could only watch, horrified, on that February afternoon in 1950. Competing at the old Charlotte, N.C., three-quarter-mile dirt track, Staley's car caught fire. Many call him a hero for his reaction.
Instead of pitting and risking spreading the fire, Staley stayed out. His car flipped, then slipped in the mud. He managed to climb from the car but burned to death before he could be rescued. It wasn't the last tragedy Donlavey would experience in racing. But he never gave up, never lost his positive attitude. Not even when his own son was injured in a crash heading to a race.
Richard worked with his dad in the shop. "The year was 1988 and Richard was heading to Bristol Motor Speedway to see Benny Parsons compete with the team. At about 5:30 a.m., his van was hit by a man who had fallen asleep driving home from work. Richard's back was broken, his ability to work in the shop ended. "I sometimes look at it as the worst thing, then I realize he could have been paralyzed," Donlavey says.
He continued, albeit with his own style. Although he represents the tradition and roots of the Southern sport, Donlavey strays from the pack when it comes to operating his team. He doesn't believe in driver contracts, doesn't fight sponsors when they want to move on to other opportunities. Young talent like Jody Ridley, Ricky Rudd, Ken Schrader and Wally Dallenbach logged hours discussing strategy in Donlavey's small shop.
None had contracts. All were encouraged to move on when the time came. "He's one of the most respected guys out here, for sure," Schrader says. "I never had a contract. It was just real simple. He knew what he was supposed to pay me and stuff. And that way if I wanted to quit it would be real simple, and if he wanted to fire me it would be real simple."
Schrader was one of the more successful in Donlavey's car. He finished 10th in points in 1987, a banner year for the team. When he decided to move on, instead of having to fight his owner for the right to leave, Schrader was helped by Donlavey, who was the one who contacted team owner Rick Hendrick. "He told Rick I was ready, that I needed something else to drive and I was ready to go," Schrader says.
Years later, the driver still speaks fondly of his time driving for Donlavey. Like most who've logged hours in the Donlavey shop, he competed without sponsorship from time to time. But he learned lessons he still carries today. "You just didn't let stuff aggravate you," Schrader says. "He did everything he could do with what he had to work with. But, and I guess I picked up on this when I was up there, stuff you can't control, just load your stuff up and go home and get ready for the next week. Don't be miserable all week because of it."
It's a philosophy Donlavey still holds close. Through the years, he's developed a love for working with rookies. Donlavey likes to find raw talent and watch it develop, likes to give a chance to a guy who might not find one anywhere else. "That's where I had my fun," he says. "I always loved to run rookies or a guy that was beat up a little bit. It was just a lot of fun fooling with them. You never knew what to expect and it made life exciting."
He still carries that philosophy. He still puts guys hungry for a break - like Hermie Sadler, Lance Hooper and Gary Bradberry - in his cars. He's still doing this for love, not money.
Some question his methods, but no one doubts his sincerity. Donlavey is today what he was all those years ago when he started cutting his teeth in the sport. Feisty and outspoken, he remains a guy willing to take a risk on someone. Even if it doesn't pay off.
Left behind by a smaller budget and constant search for sponsor dollars, Donlavey fell off the technological edge in recent years. Making races became a struggle and some of the joy went out of the sport. Racing has become a business, a business Donlavey doesn't really want to be a part of. Not if it can't be fun anymore. "I always just wanted to have fun," he says. "I never even gave a thought to a championship. The only thing I gave a thought to was I just had fun going to the races."
As he roams the garage, he's greeted like a long-lost relative. Hugs and greetings follow Donlavey as autograph seekers line up. If it could always be this way, he'd try to stay forever. But he knows that isn't real. Looking over his 52-year career, Donlavey highlights a seemingly endless list of top moments. He can't pick a favorite driver or a top competitor in his car - "It was an honor to know most of those guys" - but remembers the names of wives and children and sometimes grandchildren of everyone who sat in his car.
Looking over his life, he sees tragedy and setbacks. But he chooses not to focus on those moments. He keeps his positive attitude intact, focusing on a clear future. It's how he built his career and his life. And, in many ways, it's how he'll be remembered. "It's funny how little things happen to you during your life," Donlavey says, thinking of the difficulties he's faced. "That's how racing has been, a lot of little things have made it fun. To have gotten in it almost when it started, and to have known all those guys, that's worth more to me than any championship."
Running Wide-Open At 205
I was blown away by the number of people who were in the garage area when I first came to Daytona International Speedway. Back here in 1990 there must have been 5,000 people in the garage area. There was barely room to walk between all the people.
It has changed so much since my early days here. NASCAR still does an awesome job at the fan experience and allowing them to get close and touch racecars. America has changed so much since then. People have gotten lawsuit-happy. One little incident and they want to sue you because you ran them over.
It was very dangerous having all those people in the garage all those years. We were pretty lucky that nobody was really injured. I've had some really neat experiences down here at Daytona. I've won a 125-mile qualifying race and now I know I can drive a restrictor-plate race.
Yeah, I had a confrontation with Tony Stewart in the garage area after a Daytona 500 practice in 2000. But, you know, that's just racing. That's just the adrenaline that happens around motorsports. The funniest moment I had in the old garage area was the time I came down here for testing in a car owned by Junie Donlavey and Harry Ranier.
Junie Donlavey's story
Back in 1991 while testing at Daytona, Gordon turned a few laps and was practically yawning when he came back to the pits. "He said, 'Man, this ain't nothing. You can drive these things and read a book coming down the backstretch,'" remembers Donlavey.
That irritated Donlavey and a few crew members, so when preparing a second car that day for Gordon, Donlavey had his mechanic install the carburetor without the speed-sapping restrictor plate. He wanted the cocky young driver to feel what it was like to really have to drive around this once-hairy track. "When he went down pit road ... man, you couldn't believe it," says Donlavey. First lap: 205 mph; second lap: 207. "He made one lap like he was on a half-mile dirt track, because you know, it wasn't set up to run no 200 miles an hour," says Donlavey. "But he never backed her down." "It got a little sideways; it was fun," says Gordon.
NASCAR wasn't amused. Donlavey was fined $5,000 for allowing a car on the track without a plate. During the next day's test session, Gordon had turned numerous laps before the typical boredom of single-car testing got the best of him. "He comes by me and says, 'Have we got an extra $5,000?'"
Junie Donlavey, the first NASCAR car owner to put Robby Gordon in a Winston Cup car back in 1991 has nothing bad to say about the polarizing driver. "I tell you, I always really liked Robby," says Donlavey. But then again, doesn't Junie like everybody? "Not if they're not drivers people," says Donlavey. By Dave Kallmann, Feb. 14, 1997; Journal Sentinel staff
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