They have gone very quietly over the past two weeks, four departures from this motor, er, mortal coil lost among the noise of the modern-day NASCAR machine as it motors on from city to city.
Combined, they didn't win many races. In fact, they visited Victory Lane only a combined six times in the series now known as Sprint Cup. But they fielded cars hundreds of times, mostly driven by others, but sometimes with themselves behind the wheel. The kind of racers who rarely stole the spotlight from the Richard Pettys and Hendrick Motorsports of the world, but also the kind of racers upon which the backbone of stock car racing was built.
Before we take the next green flag this weekend at Michigan, let's throw out the yellow for just a moment and remember a quartet of racers whom today's race fans likely know nothing about, though they should.
Ray DeWitt died May 29. He was 63 and suffered a heart attack at his home in Sunset Beach, North Carolina. He was born in Michigan, worked in the family food business and eventually caught the racing bug. After fielding cars in the rough-and-tumble Midwest-based ASA series, he joined forces with another bread-and-butter racer, D.K. Ulrich, to form RaDiUs Racing. The team ran 79 Winston Cup races and entered another, using six different drivers, including the launching of Ted Musgrave's nearly two-decade NASCAR career. Eventually he concentrated on the Busch (now Nationwide Series), where in 1995 he grabbed his only big league NASCAR win with driver Tim Fedewa at the now-defunct Nazareth Speedway. By the next season, he'd moved on.
"I'm not going to say it was better back then because I don't want to sound like that guy who always says stuff was better back then. But it kind of was!" DeWitt laughed out loud as he said that to me two summers ago. My family has always vacationed at Sunset Beach, and I'd recognized him at a local pancake house (which impressed him because, "Son, no one knows who I am"). "I knew I was going to lose money on the racing deal. We all did. I just wanted racing to be fun. And you know what? It was."
Hoss Ellington died May 31. He was 79 and lived just up the road from DeWitt, a half-hour up U.S. Highway 17 in Wilmington, North Carolina. From 1968 to 1970, he made 21 starts during the final years of NASCAR's Grand National Series before Winston moved in. Two years later he fielded cars for just-elected NASCAR Hall of Famer Fred Lorenzen's brief comeback bid. As a driver, he'd been a short-track guy. As an owner, he loved superspeedways, picking his spots where the purses were the biggest and signing big-name hired guns, from Cale Yarborough to Gordon Johncock to A.J. Foyt.
But it was with Donnie Allison that the red No. 1 Hawaiian Tropic car became iconic. The pair won four races and five poles but were most famous for a race they lost, when Allison and Yarborough wrecked out of the 1979 Daytona 500 running 1-2. Ellington would add one more win with David Pearson and two more poles, one each from Foyt and Buddy Baker. But all of his celebrating took place over a quick, six-year span. After Baker won the pole at Darlington in the UNO Buick, Ellington fielded part-time rides for 10 more drivers, including youngsters Kyle Petty and Davey Allison, before hanging up his owner's cap in 1988.
No one enjoyed the gamesmanship of bending the NASCAR rulebook more than Hoss. It was Ellington's car that A.J. Foyt was driving when it won the pole for the 1976 Daytona 500, but was disallowed because it was found to have a nitrous oxide bottle hidden in the car. "Yeah," he explained to me during a conversation at the Rockingham garage, grinning, "when we were two miles an hour faster on the second lap, that was a little too obvious."
He once stashed a hunk of dry ice behind the dash, using a small hose to feed its coolness to the carburetor. And one time he invented what became known as Glotzbach's Gizmo, a mini Erector set-looking device that was connected to Charging Charlie Glotzbach's carburetor and triggered below the steering wheel by a piano wire running directly to the Gizmo.
"Aw, man, that wasn't cheating," Ellington said in The Rock garage, where he admitted to a few more not-so-legal riggings. "To me, that was racing. We were racing to the next little ideas, too."
Ed Negre died June 4. He was 86 and died in a hospice care in Longview, Washington. A Washington native, he served in World War II as a ship engineer. In 1955 he made his NASCAR Grand National debut, finishing ninth out of 34 cars in a 250-lap dogfight on the 1-mile dirt oval of the Bay Meadows Race Track in San Mateo, California. It was a top-10 that also included three future NASCAR Hall of Famers, led by winner Tim Flock. Negre was hooked. A decade later he moved to North Carolina to be in the heart of stock car racing. Negre ended his driving career in 1979 with 338 Cup Series starts, zero wins and 26 top-10s, racing as a poor-but-proud "independent" against the factory-backed likes of Petty and Pearson.
Along the way, he also registered 294 entries as a car owner, including cars for 10 drivers other than himself. Among those was a kid from Kannapolis, North Carolina, who was desperate to reach NASCAR's top series and made his debut in an Ed Negre-built Dodge in the 1975 World 600 at Charlotte.
His name was Dale Earnhardt.
It was a decade ago when I chatted with Negre, doing research for the documentary film "Dale." When I asked him about Earnhardt's debut, in which Negre finished 32nd and the kid finished 22nd, he immediately started laughing.
"Halfway through the race, I saw him on pit road. I radioed in to Norman [Negre's son and Earnhardt's crew chief] to see what was wrong. No one answered. Later on they finally told me that he'd gotten thirsty and came in for some water. Thirsty?! Years later I saw him out here on the West Coast for a race. He was a big deal by then. I asked him where he wanted me to sit in his pits during the race with the water bucket."
Junie Donlavey died June 9. He was 90, the same as his longtime car number, and suffering from Alzheimer's at his home in Richmond, Virginia. The famously kindhearted Virginian never started a single race behind the wheel, but he fielded 863 cars as a team owner. His first was at the Martinsville Speedway on Oct. 15, 1950. Runt Harris, a fellow Virginia native, finished 19th out of 21 cars in his '49 Oldsmobile. Donlavey's final race was almost exactly 52 years later, with Jason Hedlesky finishing last at Charlotte on Oct. 13, 2002.
Over that half-century, Donlavey's drivers celebrated three Rookie of the Year awards but won only one race, and it was one of the most unlikely victories in NASCAR history. With 41 laps remaining in the 1981 Mason-Dixon 500 at Dover, Neil Bonnett led by a full two laps over second-place Cale Yarborough, but he blew an engine and fell out of the race. When Yarborough inherited the lead, he held a five-lap advantage over now-second-place Jody Ridley, driving Donlavey's Ford. But with 20 laps to go, Yarborough's Buick also blew up. Ridley took the checkers.
"This has got to be a bigger thrill for Junie than it is for me because he's been doing this for almost 30 years and I'm just a rookie," Ridley said that day. "I can't imagine what he's feeling because this is the biggest thrill of my life!"
Nearly 20 years later, I interviewed Donlavey and read Ridley's quote back to him. He ended up speaking for all four men we've lost over the last two weeks.
"It was exciting," he said, quietly. "But I was happy not just for us, but for all the independent guys who are out here trying to make this work every week. We know we aren't going to win like the big teams do. We just do it because we love it."