From Hawkinsville To Darlington, McDuffie Was A Master

Brandon Reed

Brandon Reed

By Brandon Reed
Posted in Columns 10/2/09

Last week I found myself out at Gresham Motorsports Park in Jefferson, Georgia,  formerly Peach State Speedway, watching a few drivers make laps as part of a tire test for November’s World Crown 300.

Among those taking laps was the defending World Crown champ, Russell Fleeman.  Fleeman had been taking laps, and was talking to the Hoosier tire guys about how the car handled.  A few minutes later, everyone walked over to Fleeman’s number 98 late model while his crew made changes and adjustments.

That’s when I got a feeling of déjà vu.  I recognized one of the men working on Fleeman’s ride as engine tuner Sonny McDuffie, son of famed Georgia racing mechanic Paul McDuffie.

Master mechanic and Georgia Racing Hall of Fame member Paul McDuffie smiles in victory lane at Martinsville with driver Fireball Roberts.  Photo courtesy GRHOF

Master mechanic and Georgia Racing Hall of Fame member Paul McDuffie smiles in victory lane at Martinsville with driver Fireball Roberts. Photo courtesy GRHOF

Flashback to Atlanta’s Lakewood Speedway, 1960.  Georgia mechanic Paul McDuffie had been tabbed by GM to lead Chevrolet back into stock car racing.  He was fresh off of two fantastic years turning wrenches for Frank Strickland’s cars, with Florida hot shoe Fireball Roberts driving, out of McDuffie’s Atlanta Tune-Up Service shop.

Now it was McDuffie’s own team, with Chattanooga driver Joe Lee Johnson behind the wheel.  The team was testing at Lakewood, trying to work out the kinks and get their Chevy ready for the next NASCAR event.

As Johnson took laps around the venerable old speedway, a young mechanic named Robert Marlow was watching from the bottom of the grandstands.  He wanted to be in and around racing so bad he couldn’t stand it, and, hearing that McDuffie would be tuning up his racer today, had snuck down to the track to see if he could get a word with McDuffie.

When Johnson brought his car in, Marlow yelled over to the pits that he thought he could help them out.  McDuffie waved the young man over, and the two began to talk.

Not that McDuffie needed any advice on tuning a Chevy, mind you.  The Hawkinsville, Georgia native had gotten his first taste of racing in the late 1940s, when he worked with several people to convert the old Hawkinsville horse track into a dirt track for race cars.

He began working as a mechanic in the early 1950’s, and worked at Southern Engineering and Design Company (SEDCO) in Atlanta, building Chevy’s famed “skunk works” racers, which were ordered for competition in both NASCAR and drag racing.

In 1957, McDuffie and future Georgia Racing Hall of Fame member Roz Howard teamed up and won the 1957 Southern Racing Enterprises championship.

While working for SEDCO, McDuffie became friends with Bradley Dennis, and when the SEDCO deal ended, the two opened the Atlanta Tune-Up Service.

Larry Frank and Paul McDuffie (wearing his familiar straw hat) at Darlington, S.C.  Photo courtesy GRHOF

Larry Frank and Paul McDuffie (wearing his familiar straw hat) at Darlington, S.C. Photo courtesy GRHOF

Over the next few years, drivers including Larry Frank, Speedy Thompson and Bob Welborn would pilot cars out of the famed Atlanta shop.

But it was with Fireball Roberts that McDuffie had the most success, coming in 1958.

With Roberts at the wheel of a Frank Strickland owned 1957 Chevy, McDuffie’s fine tuned car won six of eight Grand National (now Sprint Cup) events during the season.  That included Roberts’ first win in the famed Southern 500 at Darlington, South Carolina.  Roberts started second, and led 196 of 364, challenged only by Curtis Turner all day.  When Turner’s engine broke, there was nobody who could touch the McDuffie machine.

McDuffie also wrenched Chevys for Roberts on the NASCAR Convertible Series, where they picked up two victories, at Atlanta’s Lakewood Speedway in May of 1958 and at Martinsville, Virginia one month later.

The 1959 season also had highlights for McDuffie.  He wrenched the 1959 Chevy that Bob Welborn would pilot to a win at record speed in one of the Daytona 500 qualifying races at the newly opened Daytona International Speedway.  Welborn led 33 of 40 laps, turning in an average speed of 143.198 mph.  Welborn would lead nine laps in that first race before falling out with engine woes.

Fireball Roberts piloted his Paul McDuffie prepared '57 Chevy to victory lane at the 1958 Southern 500.

Fireball Roberts piloted his Paul McDuffie prepared '57 Chevy to victory lane at the 1958 Southern 500.

Fast work in the pits by the McDuffie led crew at Darlington in 1959’s Rebel 300 Convertible series event gave Roberts the lead after the first round of pit stops.  While Curtis Turner and Buck Baker beat and banged behind him, Roberts piloted McDuffie’s ’59 Chevy to his second Rebel 300 win in three starts.

Meanwhile, McDuffie continued doing research and development for Chevrolet.  He also built winning engines for Jack Smith and Bud Lundsford, among others.

1960 was to be a banner year for Paul McDuffie.  Chevrolet had decided to try to start another race team, and McDuffie was called upon to head up the effort out of Atlanta.  Joe Lee Johnson, the 1959 NASCAR Convertible series champ, was tabbed as the driver.

The duo won in their first time out, in the inaugural World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.  With the track coming apart and tires blowing left and right, McDuffie and Johnson stayed cool and outlasted the competition to pick up the win.

In their next five events, the McDuffie led team would record two top five finishes, including a fourth at Nashville.  They went into the Labor Day event at Darlington, a track that McDuffie had seen much success at, with high hopes.

But those high hopes ended in the worst possible way.

At that point, there was no retaining wall separating pit road and the race track.  McDuffie and his crew had just finished making a pit stop on Johnson’s car.  He had just left the pits when the cars of Roy Tyner and Bobby Johns tangled.  Johns’ car spun, becoming airborne and flying backwards, upside down, towards the pits.  Johns’ car slid, upside down, into the pit wall, smashing it to pieces.  Chunks of debris flew into the McDuffie team’s pits, mowing down five people.

Paul McDuffie is still remembered and revered today for his skill of getting the most out of a racecar.  Photo courtesy GRHOF

Paul McDuffie is still remembered and revered today for his skills in getting the most out of a racecar. Photo courtesy GRHOF

When the smoke cleared, Paul McDuffie was dead, along with team mechanic Charles Sweatland and NASCAR inspector Joe Taylor.  Three other McDuffie team members were seriously injured, but survived.

That’s where Robert Marlow comes back into our story.  The young Atlanta mechanic had talked to McDuffie several times about working on his new race team, and had even pitched in on his own time to help out at the shop.

Days before the Southern 500, McDuffie asked Marlow to go with the team to Darlington.  But when Marlow’s wife said no, he chose his family over his chance to work in racing, and instead listened to the radio coverage of the race that day.  He was listening intently when news came across that Paul McDuffie was dead.

Marlow hung up his dreams of being a racing mechanic that day.  Over the next 30 years, he would not touch a race car again.

Robert Marlow, who is my grandfather, would likely not be here today if he had gone to work that weekend for Paul McDuffie.

McDuffie, who was 32 when he died, is still revered in Georgia racing circles.  He was voted NASCAR Mechanic of the Year three times.  He is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame.

In October of 2007, McDuffie was inducted into the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame in Dawsonville, Georgia.

But for those who knew him, and those who know of his talent and skill, it’s what they say about him now that truly is his legacy.

“He was the best mechanic to ever turn a wrench.”

Brandon Reed is the webmaster and editor for Georgia Racing History.com.


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