NASCAR Will Never Find Another Leprechaun

 

Junie Donlavey (left) with Bill Dennis after a Permatex 300 victory at Daytona. (Getty Images for NASCAR)
Junie Donlavey (left) with Bill Dennis after a Permatex 300 victory at Daytona. (Getty Images for NASCAR)

Clinton, S.C., Tuesday, June 10, 2014, 9:51 a.m.

In many years of watching NASCAR and writing about it, I knew saints and sinners, workaholics and con artists, contenders and pretenders, but I only knew one leprechaun.

I never saw Junie Donlavey dance, and I doubt he thought Lucky Charms were “magically delicious,” but he was a leprechaun, all right. His eyes twinkled. He never saw a sunrise he didn’t love. I bet he even enjoyed the sunset because it gave him rest from the blessings of hard work.

Junie Donlavey in 2012. (Getty Images for NASCAR)
Junie Donlavey in 2012. (Getty Images for NASCAR)

Junie and I weren’t close friends. I never saw him anywhere that wasn’t near a race track. We never had dinner – well, come to think of it, a Martinsville hot dog once – and I couldn’t tell you where he lived other than it was somewhere in Richmond, Va. I wrote few articles about Junie, yet I talked to him often back when he was running history’s longest-running team that never did much but struggle.

Yet I will never think of the number 90 without thinking of the leprechaun Junie Donlavey, always chuckling, never depressed or angry, everything in its proper perspective.

Once we were lodged in the Dover Downs Hotel next to each other, and it seemed as if, from Thursday through Monday, neither of us either entered or exited our rooms without the other doing the same thing. Apparently the elevator wouldn’t run without both of us on it. We laughed, told stories, commiserated losses, celebrated wins – surely Junie’s luck was better in the casino than it was on the track – and all somewhere between the slots and our rooms.

I think that was the weekend I hit a slot machine for big money, thus adding even more evidence to my theory that Junie Donlavey was a leprechaun, one who somehow managed to send part of his pot of gold my way.

Junie Donlavey (right) with Richard Petty in 1974. (Getty Images for NASCAR)
Junie Donlavey (right) with Richard Petty in 1974. (Getty Images for NASCAR)

Donlavey’s birthday and mine were the same date, 34 years apart. He lived to be 90 (imagine that). His health had been failing for at least a decade. I often had conversations with Richmond acquaintances that began with them saying, “I went to see Junie last week,” the look on their faces and dampness in their eyes letting me know there was no need to ask how he was doing.

Runt Harris drove Donlavey’s first Cup entry (officially, the series had just gone from Strictly Stock to Grand National) on October 15, 1950, at Martinsville. Donlavey’s cars ran 863 times, and the only time one of those Fords won was the only time Jody Ridley ever won, at Dover, on May 17, 1981.

IMG_0217In between Runt and Hermie were Joe Weatherly, Lee Roy Yarbrough, Bobby Isaac, Fred Lorenzen, David Pearson, Johnny Rutherford, and Harry Gant, but also Johnny Roberts, Eddie Pettyjohn, Max Berrier, Ed Berrier, the Englishman Jackie Oliver, Gene Felton, Christine Beckers, Lance Hooper, and Yvon DuHamel, who finished 10th at North Wilkesboro in 1973. On March 4, 1990, at Rockingham, J.T. Hayes started and placed 38th at Rockingham. Hayes is now known as Terri O’Connell and wrote a book called Dangerous Curves. I never asked Junie about Mr. Hayes/Ms. O’Connell, but I bet he would have chuckled and his eyes would have twinkled because that’s what happened with everything else I ever asked him.

When I heard Junie passed away, I wasn’t the slightest bit sad. I’ve never seen the need for undue sorrow over the end of lives long and happily lived. I’m happy, at sunset, that Junie Donlavey is getting some rest.

Ken Schrader (right) was one of three drivers to be named Rookie of the Year while driving for Junie Donlavey. (Getty Images for NASCAR)
Ken Schrader (right) was one of three drivers to be named Rookie of the Year while driving for Junie Donlavey. (Getty Images for NASCAR)
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