Donlavey endures at Dover


- Contributor
Friday, Jun. 01, 2012

It ranks high among the strangest sights ever in NASCAR Cup Series racing.

There, listed as the leader in the Mason-Dixon 500 at Dover Downs on May 17, 1981, was Cale Yarorough.

However, Yarborough’s Buick, fielded by the M.C. Anderson team, was sitting in the garage area, blowing smoke and dripping oil. The car’s engine had failed with 20 laps to go on the one-mile track in Delaware while Yarborough held a five-lap lead.

For lap-after-lap Yarborough’s No. 27 remained in first place on the scoreboard.

“Remember this boys!” Bob Latford shouted in the press box. “You may never witness anything like it again!”

Latford, now deceased, was a public relations representative for various NASCAR enterprises and a widely-respected stock car racing historian. He was helping the speedway’s staff with its duties to the media that day 31 years ago.

Finally, after five laps that seemed an eternity, Yarborough’s car number “was up,” you might say, overtaken and replaced in the lead spot by No. 90.

That number was painted on a Ford owned and fielded by a venerable Virginian, W.C. “Junie” Donlavey. The car was driven by quiet, unassuming Jody Ridley, who was a folk hero in his native Georgia, where he had won hundreds of weekly races through the years on the state’s short tracks.

Recollection of that bizarre event at the speedway now nicknamed “The Monster Mile” returns to mind as the Cup Series teams gather there again in Delaware to race on Sunday.

Donlavey never had triumphed on NASCAR’s major tour, which he joined in 1950, just a year after the sanctioning body staged its very first race on a dirt track in Charlotte.

Neither had Ridley, a Cup Series rookie at age 38, considered ancient for a driver at that time among most involved in the sport.

As Dover’s 500 rolled toward its conclusion, Donlavey, a little guy with the twinkle of a Leprechaun in his eyes, was near collapse with anxiety and excitement on pit road.

Someone suggested that smelling salts might be needed, and maybe even a doctor.

However, Donlavey endured, and so did Ridley. Jody drove the team’s blue Ford to the checkered flag 22 seconds ahead of runnerup Bobby Allison’s Buick.

A joyous celebration erupted among the members of Donlavey’s team, one of the smallest operations in NASCAR. Junie was pounded on the back and his hand pumped exuberantly. Ridley was cheered just as lustily, like a conquering hero, upon crawling from the car.

But wait!

Allison’s team owner, Harry Ranier, had filed a protest against the outcome. NASCAR officials had admitted to “scoring communications difficulty” for 50 laps during the race.

Ranier contended that Allison actually was in a lap by himself ahead of Ridley, not behind him.

Through 20 minutes of mental torture Donlavey, Ridley and their crew awaited a recheck of scoring cards (NASCAR had no computer scoring in those days). Finally, the Donlavey/Ridley triumph was upheld.

By now, Junie and all the rest were too emotionally drained to do much further celebrating.

In Victory Lane, Donlavey barely could speak. “Well, when it’s your first time in over 30 years, you tend to get a little excited and carried away,” he later explained when teased about his loss for words.

The ecstasy of victory remained for the team from Richmond when it arrived at Charlotte Motor Speedway a few days later for the race then known as the World 600.

Donlavey, especially, seemed to beam constantly.

In that era, Dover’s spring race followed Charlotte on the schedule, not vice versa.

“You couldn’t get that smile off Junie’s face with a mortician’s wax,” cracked Will Lind, a crewman for Dale Earnhardt on the Richard Childress-owned team.

I stood by Donlavey, a gentleman of courtly manner, in the garage area at the Charlotte track as his crew unloaded the No. 90 Ford to begin practice for qualifying. What amounted to a parade of other competitors ignored a steady, cold rain and formed a line to shake his hand and offer congratulations.

Those dropping by ranged from the biggest driving stars like Richard Petty and Buddy Baker and David Pearson to volunteer “gofers.”

Ridley was congratulated, too.

Donlavey shook his head.

“It’s even better, sweeter, that I ever imagined,” he said in a soft drawl that is associated with the Virginia Tidewater. “And I am ever so grateful.”

Donlavey shouldn’t have been surprised.

Among those populating NASCAR’s garage areas and pit road, he ranked among the very best-liked figures.

“It is hard to believe we won,” he continued. “At one point in the race at Dover, we were seven laps behind!”

That’s true.

Neil Bonnett was dominating the race in the Wood Brothers’ Ford, leading 403 laps.

Starting on Lap 196 Bonnett had been ahead for a stretch of 263 laps--and was two laps in front--when his engine blew. Yarborough then inherited the lead, a whopping five laps ahead of the second place Ridley.

It seemed all over.

But on the 480th laps an engine bugaboo unbelievably sent Yarborough to the sideline, too.

This led to that beyond-bizarre development of Cale remaining the leader until Ridley made up the five miles he was in arrears.

“Crazy is all I can think of to describe it,” Ridley said after arriving at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “But we’ll take it.”

Ridley took some ribbing as well. In Dover’s Victory Lane the teetotaler Ridley had taken a swig of champagne. “It was just a little taste,” he said with a smile. “But it gave me about the biggest headache I’ve ever had.”

Not surprisingly, some detractors groused that Donlavey and Ridley had “backed into the win” because of the Bonnett and Yarborough engine problems.

“Sure, we rather would have won by outrunning everybody,” said Ridley. “But cars failing while in the lead is an ever-present fact of life in this sport. It happens all the time. We’ve lost some that way, too, remember.”

Driver Jack Ingram, a champion in what is now the Nationwide Series, backed Ridley’s contention.

“If it had been a superstar who won like Junie and Jody did, why, the same people belittling their win would be talking about how smart that star was to lay back,” stated Ingram.

Destiny never held another Cup Series victory for either Donlavey or Ridley.

However, driver Ken Schrader did give Donlavey an upset win in 1987 in a 125-mile qualifying race leading to the Daytona 500.

Donlavey fielded cars in 863 races in what is now the Cup Series over a 45 year span. Ridley had 140 big-time starts in 11 years before returning to the short tracks where he was a winner an estimated 500 times.

Ridley, now 69, resides in his native Chatsworth, Ga.

Donlavey, 88, lives at a retirement home in Richmond and he would like to hear from you. The address is Heritage Oaks Retirement Residence, 1100 German School Road, Richmond, Va., 23225.

He enjoys receiving cards and letters, especially those that mention the Mason-Dixon 500 of 1981 at Dover Downs.

More racing news, blogs, photos and more at