NMPA
c/o Bridget Holloman, Exec. Secretary
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Darlington, SC 29540
Phone: (843) 395-8811

Columns
Fourth Place
Thomas Pope, Fayetteville Observer

 

McDuffie Comes To Mind 20 Years Later
            A glance through the truck’s windows was to peer into the time capsule of a man’s life.
            On the seat lay a copy of a NASCAR racing paper dated Aug. 9, 1991, its pages yellowed in the four years and two months since it came off the press. Its companion was a road atlas whose page corners showed signs of heavy use. Surely the stale smell of smoke from J.D. McDuffie’s beloved Hav-A-Tampa Nugget cigars permeated Ol’ Blue’s upholstery.
            Twenty years ago this week, McDuffie winched his No. 70 race car onto the truck’s ramp, climbed into Ol’ Blue’s cockpit and made the long haul from his meager shop below Sanford to Watkins Glen, N.Y.
            Days later, he came home by jet in a coffin’s embrace, the victim of a crash early in the Budweiser at the Glen race. Ol’ Blue wouldn’t return home for more than a year.
            Today’s race at Watkins Glen marks the 20th year since the death of one of NASCAR’s blue-collar heroes.
            McDuffie, 52, made the starting lineup 653 times in his career, including a pole position at Dover, Del., in 1978. He never brought more than third-place money home to Ima Jean and their two children. He made do with hand-me-down parts, volunteer help, small sponsors with whom his only contract was a handshake, and his many years of experience under the hood and behind the wheel.
            Life could have been different. It wasn’t.
            The day McDuffie died – Aug. 11, 1991 – Humpy Wheeler, the president of Charlotte Motor Speedway remembered McDuffie as a driver with considerable short-track racing savvy. But it takes more than that to become a star on the big stage, and McDuffie never got the break he needed to transform his career into something special.
            “I think if he had gotten the right breaks in the late ’60s, he could’ve won a lot of races,” Wheeler said. “He didn’t get those breaks, and he had to settle for the life of a guy on the road trying to make a living driving a race car.”
            Asked why he didn’t shelve his driving aspirations and put his knowledge to work as a crew chief, McDuffie couldn’t seem to grasp that concept. He answered, “I ain’t got nothing else going. Racing is my life. If I don’t run, I don’t eat. This ain’t a weekend hobby to me.”
            His passion for racing came at a cost.
            In 1975, a nine-car pile-up cracked his breastbone and left him with heart and chest bruises that warranted a 15-day hospital stay. In 1988, a fire at Daytona left him with burns on his hands that required extensive plastic surgery.
            At Watkins Glen in ’91, the weekend began on an up note.
            He had only been able to coax enough speed out of the No. 70 Pontiac to make the starting grid four time in 14 tries to that point.
            But he made the cut at the Glen, qualifying 35th out of 40 cars, and on Saturday night he won a Late Model race in nearby Owego, N.Y. He wouldn’t live to see another sunset.
            On lap 5 at the Glen, McDuffie braked for a hard right-hand corner, but the left-front wheel snapped off and sent the car careening off-track and through the grass. The black-and-gold Pontiac slammed into a pile of tires that was supposed to be a cushion against the guard rail, but by the time the car landed on its roof, J.D. McDuffie was dead of a skull fracture. His wife, watching the crash on TV at home, screamed and collapsed.
            Four years would pass before McDuffie’s widow could bear to part with his belongings. Bins of used spark plugs, race cars crashed and freshly repaired, the 8-track tapes, even Ol’ Blue – all of it was auctioned off one crisp October morning.
            There’s nothing more to say except that NASCAR returns to Watkins Glen every August. And every time, poor ol’ J.D. McDuffie comes to mind.

They Built It, But No One Came
            If you build it, they will come.
            Yeah, right.
            Ask the folks at Dover Motorsports Inc. how operating race tracks has worked out for them.
            This week, Dover announced it doesn’t want NASCAR Nationwide or Camping World Truck series races at Nashville Superspeedway in 2012. Last year, Dover shuttered its track near St. Louis. The year before that, Dover sayno masto NASCAR racing at Memphis Motorsports Park.
            Those annual events bring several questions to mind:
            1. Was track management at those facilities that horrible, or was Dover’s profit margin simply too steep for those three tracks to continue?
            2. Has big-league racing really lost that much of the allure that sparked the construction of those tracks in the first place?
            3. Is NASCAR’s piece of the pie to sanction a race a backbreaker for a track, especially those not owned by its parent company, International Speedway Corporation?
            Add to the conversation the half-full, if that, grandstands in mid-May at the company’s cornerstone facility, Dover International Speedway, and you have to wonder what in the wide, wide world of sports is a-goin’ on here.
            Kevin Harvick addressed Nashville specifically and racing in general during his weekly media briefing at Pocono Raceway on Friday morning.
            “The grandstands at Nashville haven’t been full since the first day that we went there (2001), and I’ve preached for a long time that the race tracks need to be responsible for something in the whole matter here,” Harvick said. “They have the responsibility of filling up the grandstands. It’s the same show that goes every week and the crowds have been terrible. It’s just one of those deals where they couldn’t make it work for whatever reason, and we need to be at places that can fill up the grandstands” – places such as The Milwaukee Mile and the always-overflow Iowa Speedway.
            “There’s places to go that can put 30,000 or 40,000 people in the grandstands, I promise you,” he said.
            But Harvick, who owns Nationwide and Truck teams, said he’d just as soon Nashville’s dates disappear rather than move elsewhere: “There’s too many races” on the Nationwide schedule. The Truck itinerary, he opined, “needs more short tracks. I think it needs to go to some of those bullrings that it used to go to back in the day.”
            Agreed, on both counts, especially the latter.
            The Truck circuit was launched to race on tracks a mile and under as a way of keeping costs down while allowing NASCAR to get into markets it wasn’t serving any other way: metro Denver, Washington state, Bakersfield, etc. It’s strayed so far away from that concept it’s ridiculous.
            (Remember, too, that NASCAR has bailed on Mexico City, the largest city on earth, after four years of Nationwide competition south of the border, and rumors are plentiful that the same may happen with Montreal after the race there Aug. 20.)
            And if you think people aren’t noticing that running a race track takes more than simply opening the gates and stacking the Benjamins, be reminded of one track with a high-profile spokesman that’s never even gotten off the ground.
            Alabama Motorsports Park was – or will be, one of the days – to be centered around a 70,000-seat, 7/10ths-mile asphalt oval. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the big name involved with the project when it was announced, but you go to the track’s website now and there’s no mention of NASCAR’s most popular driver.
            What’s that tell you?
            When a guy Junior’s appeal and war chest doesn’t think he can make a go of it, there’s no getting around the face that NASCAR’s got a mess on its hands – and no easy answers at its fingertips.

Harvick Can Afford To Gamble
            CONCORD It’s pretty obvious now that Kevin Harvick, Gil Martin and their team plan to spend the summer months playing mad scientist with their race cars.
            And why not?
            Harvick, his crew chief and their No. 29 team are second in the standings nearly halfway to the cut-off point to NASCAR’s version of the postseason. More significantly, they have pulled off three victories, and that’s an even larger factor in their ability to push the performance envelope from now until the Chase for the Sprint Cup kicks off in Joliet, Ill., on Sept. 18.
            The past few years, the Chase field was limited to the top 12 drivers in the standings following the Indian summer race at Richmond, Va. In the offseason, NASCAR made a slight tweak, altering the field to the top 10 in points and the two winningest drivers between positions 11 and 20.
            “Three wins should put you in Chase,” team owner Richard Childress said Sunday night after Harvick won the Coca-Cola 600 here. “If it don’t, something’s wrong. We talked about it before the race, it’s time to take some chances – that’s what it’s going to take to win.”
            With Sunday night’s triumph at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Harvick is among the few who can honestly say they have a leg up on the competition. The three victories – at Martinsville, Va., Fontana, Calif., and Charlotte – are Harvick’s free pass to be as aggressive as he chooses behind the wheel. If he crashes going for the trophy, hey, it’s no big deal.
            Ditto for Martin’s mindset going forward. He can roll the dice with some quirky chassis set-ups and see how they pan out. He can afford to be as gutsy as he wishes with his decision of no tires, two tires or four tires on a pit stop. He can afford to run Harvick out of fuel gunning for a return visit to Victory Lane.
            It’s clearly a win-win situation. Seemingly, the only drawback to shooting for the moon is that in experimenting, they break their momentum for the Chase.
            For now, though, they aren’t pondering that downside. Right now, it’s all good for the best of Childress’ four teams.
            “You look at pit strategy at Darlington and at Dover, you’ve got to be aggressive because if you don’t, somebody else will,” Harvick said after his 17th career win. “Gil is very aggressive, but he took it to another level tonight. Staying on track, taking on two – you’ve got to be more aggressive, take more chances.”
            Add to that the propensity Harvick and Martin have displayed for late-race greatness this season. They’ve led a total of nine laps in their three wins – “That’s about three laps per win,” Harvick correctly ciphered – but it perfectly fits the cliché that to finish first, one must first finish.
            Harvick, who occasionally has a hair-trigger temper, has been remarkably composed late in races when victory is still within the realm of possibility.
            “It’s just one of those deals where you get to end of race and you can take to another level,” he said. “We always have car left, we always have brakes left. I guess that’s just the way I was taught to race: Save everything you can, be there at the end and make something happen.”
            It’s a philosophy that’s paying handsome dividends. And now, if Harvick can break himself of racing conservatively – an oxymoron if there ever was one – he can throw caution to the wind and drive like a bat out of hell.
            For the rest of the guys, that ought to be a frightening scenario come Chase time.

Harvick's Maturity Making Him A Contender
            MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Thank you, Kevin Harvick.
            I’ve long held the theory that most racers, based on their behavior, suffer from oxygen deprivation once they strap on their helmets and lose – and I’m being conservative – 50 I.Q. points. The condition appears to be temporary, because they seem to regain their senses within five minutes after said headgear’s removal.
            Harvick, whose many personality traits include candor, confirmed my theory Sunday in his post-race winner’s interview.
            “I’m a high-strung person and, I don’t know, I turn into this lunatic when I get in the car,” he said after winning at Martinsville Speedway. “Then I wind up apologizing more than I do anything else.
            “I just get in this mind frame that I just can’t get out of while I’m in that car. All I want to do is do good for our sponsors and for our team – that’s really what it’s all about. You just turn into this crazed animal.”
            That Harvick can recognize his condition is a sign of how far he’s come since he was thrust into the most unenviable position in racing history.
            Ten years ago, Harvick was given a promotion he never sought; team owner Richard Childress’ choice to succeed Dale Earnhardt just days after the seven-time NASCAR champion was killed at Daytona. And while he won just three weeks later, Harvick frequently showed he wasn’t ready for all that the job entailed as a prime-time player.
            One year later, after a series of rough driving incidents had raised NASCAR’s ire, Harvick had a meltdown in Martinsville’s truck race. The following morning, NASCAR announced that Harvick had been suspended for the Sprint Cup main event.
            It’s taken a long time – and a lot of flare-ups, verbal and behind the wheel – for Harvick to mature into a legit championship contender. Even after winning the Daytona 500 in 2007, Harvick still seemed unsure of how and where he fit in. That landmark victory was followed by a three-year drought, and he entertained offers to break with Childress when their contract expired after the ’09 season.
            The Harvick of a decade ago would have probably bolted petulantly. Instead, sensing that the Childress team was about to turn a corner, he re-signed with Childress, for whom Earnhardt won six of his titles. In hindsight, it was clearly the right move, because he finished third in the points and won three times.
            This year, even after suffering engine failure in finishing 42nd at Daytona, Harvick looked misfortune in the face with a surprising reaction.
            “Honestly, when we left Daytona, I was laughing because it had been 156 races since we had had an engine problem. It’s hard to get down on anybody for 1-for-156 in this sport,” he said of his team’s engine department.
            “There’s no reason to get down on those guys,” he added, “because all that’s going to do is cause more harm than good.”
            That’s Kevin Harvick?
            Yeah, it is. Ten years older. Ten years wiser, too.