While the rest of the NASCAR world is celebrating the sport’s most popular driver’s fourth win in 10 years, another stock car icon has passed away. It’s true that today’s youth doesn’t understand the history of the sport, but that’s not unusual. Many don’t understand the history and geography of our nation either.
Junie Donlavey fielded cars for a lot of years, last in 2002. The list of those who drove his cars reads like a Who’s Who of motorsports. The list starts with legend Sonny Hutchins and continues on through Daytona 500 champ Lee Roy Yarbrough, Bill Dennis, former Sprint Cup champ Bobby Isaac, Harry Gant, Indy 500 champ Johnny Rutherford, NASCAR Hall of Fame member Buck Baker, Kenny Schrader, Buddy Baker, and even Hermie Sadler of TV fame. That’s quite a resume.
Donlavey competed in NASCAR’s premier series for 45 years and was always underfunded. He worked with an all volunteer crew until 1986 when he was 62 years old. He finally realized that he was unable to continue at age 78, in 2002. He tried again to make the Daytona 500 field two years later but was unsuccessful. His comment was honest, and stated like only Donlavey could do. Never having a big ego, Junie was just glad to be a part of the show.
“You have to have $8 million to compete here and we are far from that. We go home knowing we held our head high,” he said.”
Donlavey only had a car to win one race in what is now known as the Sprint Cup Series. It was a race at Dover International Speedway in 1981. Jody Ridley was the driver and the celebration after the win was legendary for Ridley in the No. 90 Ford. Not to be forgotten are the many victories in what would become the Nationwide Series. Bill Dennis was part of that, but lack of money always kept Donlavey in the series in the “also ran” category. His cars had many top-five and top-10 finishes, but only once did he reach victory lane in NASCAR’s top series. Yes, he had limited sponsorship from Richmond’s Truxmore Industries trash truck business and later on, when Schrader was driving, with Schwan’s Red Baron Pizza. After that he had a car with the sponsorship of a West Virginia candidate for governor and other minor sponsorships.
Never was there a greater gentleman. Back in 2001 while walking through the pits at North Carolina Speedway, I stopped with my colleague Ed Turner and snapped a picture of Donlavey while he was talking with a group of fans. He stopped and thanked me. I was shocked. Later on, I had the chance to talk with him and found that this gentle soul was a true hero of the sport. I will miss him.
Only the Wood Brothers and Jack Roush can hold up to Donlavey’s record of being loyal to a manufacturer. Junie fielded Fords his entire career. That’s exemplary considering the lack of loyalty we see these days. For Junie, it was always being there and fighting for the win rather than gaining an advantage and dominating the field.
He gave many drivers the ride which would propel rookies to recognition and former reigning stars to regain their status, and he did it with the aplomb of a Virginia gentleman. I’ll always miss seeing that No. 90 on the track. If there was ever a hero for the common man, it was Junie Donlavey.