Now-days when you think of “Independent driver” you think of Robby Gordon, or Michael Waltrip, but those drivers don’t even compare to somebody such as J.D McDuffie who went his whole career in his own car; J.D didn’t have a good career in a high-dollar team and then leave to go on to make his own team just for the fun of it. J.D was a true owner-driver and paved a way for the ones that are racing now.
John Delphus McDuffie was born on December 5th of 1938 in Sanford, N.C.
At the young age of only ten years old J.D went to see his first ever race. It was practically the opposite of one that would go on today; it was in Winston-Salem N.C at what is now the Bowman Gray Stadium. McDuffie went with his Uncle Reuben and his brother Glenn. They saw the legends of Curtis Turner, Glenn Wood, and Billy Myers fly around the track. Sadly J.D had to leave early due to sickness but that ignited his spark for racing.
J.D won all over the Carolina’s before going on to win the 1962 championship at a small dirt track near Rockingham, N.C.
McDuffie made his NASCAR Winston (Sprint) Cup debut in 1963 at the Rambi Speedway near Myrtle Beach S.C driving Curtis Turner’s old 1961 Ford, he started 14th and finished 12th out of 18 drivers with Ned Jarrett winning that race; he raced 11 more races that year.
Even though J.D was a master of dirt tracks his racing skill never really clicked with asphalt. His best finish in his NASCAR career was a third place at the Albany-Sarasota Speedway in upstate New York in 1971.
In 1978 J.D won the pole for the Delaware 500 at the then Dover Downs International Speedway which then let him be in the inaugural Busch Clash at Daytona the next February. That was one of his many tiny successes’s that went on throughout his career.
The 1988 Daytona 500 qualifying race was a major down-point of J.D’s career. That morning someone had stolen his fireproof racing gloves, but of course with J.D being the man he was he raced anyway. Mid-way through the 125-mile race his car made contact with another and he flew into the wall, that impact ruptured the oil cooler. That ignited an eruption of flames out of his car which melted his steering wheel. Thankfully McDuffie was able to get out of the car, but with second and third degree burns especially to his hands. Someone somewhere will never forget that day even as it fades through everyone else’s minds.
The day before the Winston (Sprint) Cup race, J.D won a celebrity race in Owego, New York at the Shangri-La Speedway which is located near Watkins Glen. Going off of the momentum of his win J.D went into the 1991 Bud at the Glen at Watkins Glen International Raceway ready to go in his #70 L.C. Whitford Company Pontiac. Early in the race McDuffie slammed into the turn 5 wall due to a broken ball joint making the right front tire fly off and making J.D lose control; unable to slow the car at all, and with an absence of a gravel trap, McDuffie skid across the grass and slammed with tremendous velocity into the tire barrier outside the high speed right-hander. The force of the impact flipped the car and kept it airborne as Jimmy Means crashed underneath him. Means was able to slow his car substantially before crashing and avoid injury, but the sheer violence of J.D.'s impact with the tires is what rolled the car in the air. J.D died instantly due to brain injuries; due to that wreck along with a couple other ones, there was a bus stop chicane installed in what is now turn 9.
The L.C. Whitford Company of Wellsville, N.Y., sponsored J.D.’s ride for the Watkins Glen race. It was the company’s first and only venture into Winston (Sprint) Cup racing, a one-time deal made at the request of a Whitford employee who had previously worked on McDuffie’s pit crew. Company president Brad Whitford never had the chance to meet McDuffie and wasn’t even at the race. But, in a chilling quirk of fate, he turned on the television just in time to see a replay that he said, “Made me sick to my stomach.”
McDuffie's widow, Ima Jean, unsuccessfully sued Watkins Glen for $4.25 million, claiming the barrier McDuffie hit was unsafe. The judge in the case ruled that McDuffie was familiar enough with the track to be aware of the dangers and that mechanical failure caused the accident. She is still very hurt and unhappy.
Nobody drove the #70 car at Watkins Glen in the NASCAR’s top Series again until August of 2007 when Johnny Sauter drove in his Haas Automation Chevy in the Centurion Boats at the Glen.
J.D had many friends in NASCAR such as Benny Parsons, and Dale Earnhardt. There were also many people that respected McDuffie throughout the garage for his determination to do well in NASCAR with his own team. J.D was really the icon for owner-driver racing which has all but left the sport today. Many fans would reach out and help McDuffie any time he was in need. He wouldn’t even have to ask they would have a hat passed around just he could get a new motor to make the race.
J.D. McDuffie is still the record holder for most starts in NASCAR's top touring series without recording a win. His 653 starts rank him 17th in all-time starts. After his death Racing Champions made die cast cars of McDuffie’s #70 as a tribute to his life; they can still be found in novelty stores today.
One thing most people loved about J.D is how he fielded his own cars most of his career. Most of the time you could catch J.D out smoking a cigar in the pits before the race in the infield while working on his car, and then jump into his car wearing an open-face helmet with that old cigar still in his mouth.
Out of 27 years of racing he only raced 7 full seasons. He has 653 starts under his belt, with 12 top fives, 106 top tens, 1 pole, and $1,419,715 in total winnings. He also raced 11 races in the Busch (Nationwide) Series with one top ten in the record books.