"Sometimes you hold on too long -- to a racehorse, a love affair, an automobile that belongs in the garage. Refusin' to face the fact that it's not going anywhere."
-- Veteran race car crew chief Harry Hyde, in a 1987 interview with The Charlotte Observer. A few years ago, Jean McDuffie, trying to explain why her
husband, J.D., was still racing on a shoestring after entering more than 600 NASCAR Winston Cup races and never winning one, talked of a scene a few months earlier in Bristol, Tenn.
J.D. had parked his tired old racer in the garage area next to Darrell Waltrip, the all-time leading money-winner in motorsports.
"I could see them looking at us," she said, "thinking, 'You poor fool, why don't you just go home?'
"But he can't go home for the same reason they can't. He loves it. If he didn't live another day, he'd be happy because he loves it, and he's done what he wants to do."
Yesterday, J.D. McDuffie's car slid at high speed into heavy steel posts supporting a fence at the road course in Watkins Glen, N.Y., flipped and landed on its top, killing him. He was 52 years old and he had raced for most of his life.
We always try to ease the pain of death when we can by assuring each other that the one we lost died happy. It must be true in this case. Why else but for the love of it would McDuffie have persisted as he did when he could have, say, opened a garage at home in Sanford, N.C., and saved himself a world of trouble and frustration?
His operation was always so poorly financed, he was never sure when he showed up at a track that he would get to race. More often than not in recent times, his car hadn't been fast enough to qualify. But, as someone said in the infield at Watkins Glen yesterday, "If there was a race, J.D. was there, just like the air."
Why else but for love would he have kept racing when he had owned only two or three new racers in all those years and had torn them up in wrecks that weren't his fault? And when he had only his own two hands with black fingernails and his son -- not the small armies of men the top teams had -- to help him knock out the dents and work on the engines and all the rest, and only volunteers to work his pits?
As NASCAR vice president Jim Hunter told The Charlotte Observer's JoAnn Grose for her story on McDuffie a few years ago, "There's always got to be somebody to beat."
That was McDuffie, somebody to beat. Yesterday's was his 653rd Winston Cup start, and the best he ever did was a third place, in Malta, N.Y., back in 1971. He had only a dozen finishes in the top five. He did win a pole at Dover, Del., in 1977 but ran only 80 laps of the race before his engine blew.
LTC Racing hurt him several times, once burning his face and hands when a fuel line erupted during a wreck at Daytona. That was in 1988. Jean asked him in the hospital if he didn't think that was enough, and he said no. She asked him not to build another race car and he said, "I got to."
McDuffie was a fine-looking man, strong and handsome. There was always a stub of a cigar sticking out of the side of his mouth as he poked around his car in the garage area.
People in racing liked him. Loved him. He wasn't a star but he was dependable out there.
There has been speculation that McDuffie's brakes malfunctioned yesterday at a point where the cars go fastest. Whatever the reason, McDuffie didn't cause the crash. He was too cautious. He couldn't afford to take chances like the top drivers do, racing hard in the corners, sticking their noses into places where danger lies in wait. But he still died.
Richard Petty said it once: "It's how the accident happens. It's not the speed. It's the circumstances."
One more reason to think McDuffie died happy -- on Saturday night, he had won a little celebrity race in Owego, N.Y. He had taken the checkered flag, at last.