Some Things Never Change

When it comes to the Daytona 500, Winston Cup Series team owner Junie Donlavey has become as much a part of the tradition at "The Great American Race" as the event itself.

In 1950, with NASCAR in its infancy, there was Donlavey showing up at the old Daytona Beach-Road course in which part of the racing surface was on the beach and the other portion of track was on the adjacent highway.

Now, 50 years later, some things haven't changed. Donlavey and his Richmond, Va.-based team will head south in February with hopes to compete in yet another Daytona 500.

And really, it wouldn't be the same at Daytona without the 76-year-old car owner who has provided rides to some of the top names in the business through the years.

"I'm hoping that we'll be there," Donlavey says. "It would be strange for me to not be there."

It would be out of the norm not to see Donlavey at Daytona, especially when you consider some of the great drivers - Joe Weatherly, Tiny Lund, LeeRoy Yarbrough, David Pearson, Bobby Isaac, Harry Gant, Buck Baker, Ken Schrader, and Ernie Irvan - to have driven his cars.

Despite the many years of trying, Donlavey has never been to victory lane at Daytona, though he's been close on countless occasions while watching the Daytona International Speedway rise from humble beginnings to the home base of one of the hottest sports in America.

"We started going to Daytona in 1950 when they used to race on the beach, and we've gone right on through all those years," Donlavey says. "If I went just in 1950, and not gone again until the year 2000, I wouldn't have been able to really comprehend what was going on. When you go each year and see the changes each year, like moving the track from the beach to where it is now, it's just been a lot of fun.

"Racing has made my life very enjoyable."

Donlavey may be best known for having provided countless young drivers the chance to drive his cars and prove their talents against the best in the NASCAR.

"I've tried to help as many people as I could though the years," Donlavey says. "But the only way I've been able to stay in business was through the help of other people. When I had the chance to sell my team a couple of years ago, I almost did… But when they talked about moving the team from Richmond to Charlotte, I told them I didn't want anything to do with that because this team was started right here in Richmond.

“There have been a lot of people who spent a lot of long nights keeping this team going, so I'd never move my team from here. I'd rather lock the gate and donate the equipment to charity than have my team moved somewhere else."

So from Richmond to Daytona his team will go, hoping to catch a bit of the magic Donlavey has felt many times, especially in 1987.

In 1987 at Daytona, it looked as if a young Ken Schrader would finally give Donlavey his long awaited victory as a car owner in the Daytona 500. That is until late problems dropped them from contention.

"In 1987 with Kenny, we had it won until we made a rookie mistake on the last pit stop and had trouble getting up to speed. All of the races at Daytona have been good, and I've got good memories of each and every one of them," Donlavey says. "We've had so many different drivers down at Daytona, and even though we didn't always run as well as I would have liked, I still enjoyed the races."

Schrader says, looking back on his career, he might never have gotten to the Winston Cup level if he hadn't have been one of the young drivers Donlavey took a chance on.

"I wanted to race in NASCAR for a living and I called Junie in the winter of 1984 to ask him for the opportunity to run for Rookie of the Year," says Schrader, who drove three full seasons for Donlavey. "He decided to take a chance on me. I can't tell you how thrilled I was to be driving for Junie.

"Junie really took a chance on me in 1985, but when the season was over we were both proud of what we accomplished. For a rookie driver and an unsponsored team to make every race, much less win the rookie title, was a huge accomplishment for all of us. The sport, and I, have come a long way since 1985."

As to which driver will be behind the wheel of Donlavey's No. 90 in February at Daytona, he says that's a subject that’s not yet etched in stone.

"I think (sponsor) Hills Brothers should let us know by the end of this week," Donlavey says. "We're letting them decide who it's going to be because we want our driver to be a big part of what they're doing also. Of all the names we gave them to pick from, all those guys can drive a car."

Donlavey wouldn't rule out a return to the driver's seat by Hut Stricklin, who drove for his team in 2000.

For Donlavey, being at Daytona each February is as much about tradition as it is about racing.

"You get to see all your friends that you haven't got to see since November," Donlavey says. "It's kind of like a big family reunion because it's a lot of fun. Plus we get to go to Daytona where it's always a lot warmer, so everything works out good."

Because he's been around this racing game for so many years, Donlavey doesn't need a reminder his team has slipped a bit while multicar teams are now dominating the sport.

"The past couple of years we've kind of struggled along a little bit," Donlavey says. "It's almost like we're starting over and trying to rebuild. This is a tough deal. The personnel is where you run into problems because you need such good people. And when you get low on good people, your performance is going to go down. But we're going to be in good shape for now.

"We just want to get everything back like we used to have it. So things are moving along real good with a first-class pit crew and good people in the shop. We're looking to have a lot of fun in 2001."

And like always, the short winter break is one in which Donlavey has his focus on the task at hand… making yet another Daytona 500.

"Oh yeah, I'm excited," Donlavey says. "But then again, I'm always excited about going to that race."

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