Wesley Christian Donlavey Jr. was a larger-than-life fixture within the NASCAR Cup Series community, more so for what he didn’t accomplish than what he did.
No record book could have ever housed the amount of admiration Donlavey held among drivers, crew members and fans. Nothing could measure the amount of respect he received after he died seven years ago following a lengthy illness.
Nicknamed “Junie,” the ever-smiling Virginia gentleman with the distinct Richmond dialect was known for helping to springboard numerous promising drivers to stock car racing greatness.
Born in Richmond on April 8, 1924, Donlavey loved working for his father at Swansboro Motor Co., where they repaired and sold used cars. His uncle Frank gave him a job running parts and sweeping floors with his small local race team.
“My uncle had a sprint car when I was a kid,” Donlavey said in the September 1995 issue of Winston Cup Illustrated. “I would go with them when I was 13 or 14 years old and it got to a point where I really enjoyed racing and I got interested in it. I started a new racing club in Richmond and a year or two later, I started hauling the car and started working on it.”
At age 18, in January 1943, Donlavey began working on airplanes for the U.S. Navy during World War II. After the war, he and a friend bought their first race car, racking up victories at small dirt tracks with the pair sharing driving duties.
Donlavey was part of the first Southern 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway on Sept. 4, 1950. He fielded Cup Series cars for more than 50 years with Jason Hedlesky entering the 863rd and final race on Oct. 13, 2002, at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
More than 60 drivers wheeled Donlavey’s familiar No. 90 cars through the years, including Joe Weatherly, David Pearson, Fred Lorenzen, Lee Roy Yarbrough, Johnny Rutherford, Harry Gant, Tiny Lund, Benny Parsons, Buck Baker. Bill Dennis, Sonny Hutchins, Emanuel Zervakis, Ray Hendrick, Lennie Pond, Runt Harris, Jimmy Hensley, Ricky Rudd, Dick Brooks, Jody Ridley, Ken Schrader and Rick Mast.
Dennis, Ridley and Schrader all claimed rookie-of-the-year honors in the Cup Series driving for Donlavey.
“I’m mighty proud of having three rookies of the year,” Donlavey said. “I’m glad I gave a lot of drivers the chance to try racing. A lot of them found out it wasn’t what they wanted. It was just a dream. They found out it wasn’t as easy as it looked. I feel good about the ones we’ve given a chance to as I look over the garage area today. That’s Ricky Rudd, Ernie Irvan, Ken Schrader and a lot of guys that had given their all for us but drivers we’ve had a lot of fun with. I feel real good about that more than anything else.”
Donlavey Racing won a few races along the way. Schrader topped a qualifying race prior to the 1987 Daytona 500 at Daytona Int’l Speedway and contended for victory in The Great American Race.
Donlavey’s only Cup Series victory came on May 17, 1981, at Dover (Del.) Int’l Speedway with Ridley behind the wheel.
“Winning that race at Dover with Junie was the biggest day of my life,” Ridley said. “Junie had been trying to win one for so long and of course, I enjoyed winning it as well. Late in the race, Neil (Bonnett) was ahead by a couple of laps over Cale (Yarborough) and then he fell out. Cale was in the lead and he fell out, and then there was us. We were in the lead at the end (for the final 20 laps). Junie didn’t say anything on the radio.
“I think he was afraid to say anything. I saw my car number at the top of the big scoring pylon in the infield, but Junie didn’t even tell me I was leading the race,” Ridley added. “I was happy because we were going to have a good day anyway. It turned out great.
“Junie would normally change (rear end) gears after qualifying and go with a taller gear and knock the timing back. For some reason he didn’t do all that that day. He left the qualifying gear in the car,” Ridley explained. “It was also a day where there weren’t many cautions (two) and they couldn’t put fresh tires on every little bit. We had a pretty good car but not a winning car. Still, the guy that gets there first is the guy that wins.”
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