J. D. McDuffie

5 Dec 1938
11 Aug 1991
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John Delphus “J.D.” McDuffie, Jr. (December 5, 1938 – August 11, 1991) was an American racing driver. He competed in the NASCAR Winston Cup from 1963 to 1991, and collected 106 top-tens during his career and holds the record for most starts in NASCAR’s top level without a win. He died in a racing accident at Watkins Glen International in 1991.

After attending his first race in Bowman Gray Stadium at the age of ten, McDuffie was inspired by racers Curtis Turner, Glenn Wood, Billy Myers, and others to become a race car driver.

McDuffie won several small races throughout the Carolinas including a track championship at a small dirt track near Rockingham, North Carolina.

McDuffie made his NASCAR Winston Cup Series (now Sprint Cup Series) debut in 1963 at the Rambi Speedway near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina driving Curtis Turner’s old 1961 Ford.

Though McDuffie was an expert dirt track racer, he never had similar success on asphalt tracks. His best NASCAR finish came at Albany-Saratoga Speedway, in 1971, where he managed to finish third. Meanwhile, his first last-place finish came at the 1963 Pickens 200.

In 1978, McDuffie won the pole position for the Delaware 500. In the 1988 Daytona 500 qualifying race, McDuffie received second- and third-degree burns in an accident after he raced without fireproof gloves because they were stolen before the race.

One day before his fatal accident at Watkins Glen International Speedway, McDuffie won a celebrity race in Owego, New York, at the Shangri-La Speedway, not far from Watkins Glen.

McDuffie is still the record holder for the most starts in NASCAR’s top touring series without recording a win. His 653 starts rank him 21st in all-time starts (as of September 2014). McDuffie held the series record for the most last-place finishes with 32 until Joe Nemechek surpassed him in 2014. McDuffie also never finished a race on the lead lap.

McDuffie was involved in an accident on the fifth lap of the 1991 Budweiser at The Glen race at Watkins Glen International. On the straight between the esses and the loop-chute, at 170 mph, McDuffie collided with Jimmy Means after suffering a mechanical failure. McDuffie’s left front wheel spindle broke off of the car, causing him to lose brakes and hit Means in the right front.

This left him no way of stopping the car or steering it, and to further complicate matters, there was no gravel trap in the corner that McDuffie was headed toward. As a result, McDuffie skidded across the grass and hit the outside retaining wall and tire barrier with such force that the car shot into the air, rotated, and then came to rest upside-down. Means also crashed into the same corner but was able to slow his vehicle down before the impact; his car went under McDuffie’s as it was in mid-air.

Means, a fellow independent racer, suffered only minor cuts and bruises in the accident, and got out of his car to check on J.D. After peering into McDuffie’s car, he began frantically signaling for assistance, and a host of medical personnel and track workers rushed to the scene. The race was delayed for two hours as McDuffie was removed from his car and his Pontiac was removed from the infield.

Also, the wall that McDuffie and Means struck had to be repaired. As the cars got back on the track and cruised under yellow flag conditions, the media attention turned to Chip Williams, NASCAR’s PR director, who disclosed that McDuffie had lost his life in the accident.

He had died instantly from head and brain injuries. The direct cause of death was a basilar skull fracture caused by rapid head movement to the right. The 52-year-old was survived by wife Ima Jean, son, Jeff (who himself drove in five Winston Cup events), and daughter, Linda. Williams, in the live interview where McDuffie’s death was confirmed, erroneously reported that McDuffie was 53; he would not have been 53 until December 5 of that year.

McDuffie’s death led to changes at Watkins Glen. Six weeks earlier, Camel GT prototype driver Tommy Kendall had a hard crash in the same section during the Camel Continental VIII, when a wheel failed on his Pratt & Miller Intrepid RM-1-Chevrolet prototype, sliding into the barrier, breaking both legs and sidelining him for the rest of the 1991 season, including the Winston Cup race, where he was set to substitute for Kyle Petty, injured at Talladega in May (Kendall had substituted for Petty at Sears Point earlier in the year).

The track was then given a bus stop chicane placed slightly before the entrance of turn five, the section of track in question, and a gravel trap, for the 1992 season.

McDuffie’s widow, Ima Jean, unsuccessfully sued Watkins Glen for $4.25 million, claiming the barrier McDuffie hit was unsafe. The judge in that case ruled that McDuffie was familiar enough with the track to be aware of the dangers and that mechanical failure caused the accident.

The cause of the mechanical failure was never explained as NASCAR did a very brief investigation and the wheel that broke off disappeared before it could be returned to the McDuffie family.

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