In the days that I was a young girl working in the upper reaches of stock car racing, I had the joyous pleasure of knowing a true, courtly Southern gentleman named Junie Donlavey.
He was a Southern original. The kind of solid, ethical man who helped build post-war America.
Mr. Donlavey was near 70 when I met him. He always wore navy work pants, a red twill shirt, old belt, worn out black leather tie-up shoes and a billed cap which he tipped constantly.
Whenever he saw me, or one of other rare women in the sport, he tipped and raise the hat from his head then with a slight gallant nod would say, “How-da-do, ma’am?” His cheeks pushed his eyes into little blue squints but you could always see the twinkle.
“Hello, Mr. Donlavey!” I’d reply, always laughing. He came from Richmond so he spoke with the lilting, British-influenced drawl of those who grew up near the James River.
We didn’t have much talk but this was because Mr. Donlavey was a conversational minimalist. He owned the No. 90 race car which, more often than not, ran in the back. Mr. Donlavey, having grown up in the challenging times of the Great Depression, did not cotton to spending money on fancy race engines when a used one — with some new parts here and there — could do just fine.
Now, let’s get our timeframe set here and remember that I knew Mr. Donlavey when NASCAR was just beginning to make millionaires of common mountain people thanks, in large part, to a man named Ralph Seagraves who was buddies with Junior Johnson.
Mr. Seagraves decided that stock car racing might be just the place to put a goodly portion of his advertising budget for the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. Thus, the boom thundered.
Mr. Donlavey was a holdover from the time when used parts and decent, used tires were sold between teams. It was real hard for Mr. Donlavey to accept the concept of buying anything new.
Once, I happened by Mr. Donlavey’s red car after having just come from Earnhardt’s car. In the garage, the cars were assigned garage spaces due to points position. Earnhardt was in the first stall while Mr. Donlavey was on the other side of the garage stalls, down in the last spot.
I stopped to talk to my friend, Mike, who was working under the hood of the car. I started laughing.
“Why you laughin’?” Mike asked.
“Look at how rusty those parts are,” I replied. “Over at the 3 car, everything is so new and shiny that you could eat off it.”
Mike waved my words off with the wrench in his hand. “Aw, we don’t care about eatin’ on it. We’re racin’. Man, these parts are broke in and ready to go!”
Kenny Schrader, a terrifically funny person, drove Mr. Donlavey’s Red Baron Pizza Ford, making it a joyous team of people. How can you not love a man who would shake your hand, look you in the eye and say, “It’s a deal.” And it was. It was never broken.
When Schrader got the opportunity to race for Rick Hendrick — a man who always used brand new parts — Mr. Donlavey, despite a new contract, didn’t bat an eye. “It’s a good opportunity. He needs to go.”
Whenever I think of Mr. Donlavey, I smile. Just like I did when I used to see him at the garage, dressed in that well-worn uniform with a smidgen of silver hair sticking out from under his hat. I doubt if Mr. Donlavey ever said a cuss word in his life and if he did, it was a soft one.
Mr. Donlavey died a few years ago at 90, opining that since his car number was always 90, that’d be a good age to die.
I wish we had more courtly Southern gentlemen like he was.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of Let Me Tell You Something. Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her free weekly newsletter.