The Day Jody And Junie Beat The Monster Mile

Brandon Reed

Brandon Reed

By Brandon Reed
Posted in Columns 5/13/11

It was one of the most improbable finishes to any NASCAR event in history, and it just happened to unfold around one of Georgia’s most legendary racers.

It occurred on May 17, 1981, at Dover Downs International Speedway, now known Dover International Speedway in Dover, Delaware.  The Mason-Dixon 500 started out much as any other race you might expect to see on a Sunday afternoon.  David Pearson, piloting an Oldsmobile for Kennie Childers, started on the pole, with Morgan Shepherd outside in Cliff Stewart’s Pontiac.

The first 20 laps were pretty bumpy, with two cautions in the first 24 laps seeing an end of the day for Benny Parsons, Davie Marcis and Ron Bouchard, among others.

From that point on, however, it was clean and green the rest of the way.  For 476 laps.  At a track known to be one of the toughest on equipment.  Pearson would fall out with a blown engine, as would Kyle Petty, Mike Alexander, Richard Childress, and Harry Gant.  By the time the race was over, only 13 of the 32 starters would still be rolling.

Chatsworth, Georgia's Jody Ridley was piloting Junie Donlavey's Ford in the 1981 Mason-Dixon 500 at Dover, Delaware.

It looked like it was going to be Neil Bonnett’s day.  The Alabama speedster had dominated, leading for 403 laps in the Wood Brothers’ Ford.  He had a two lap advantage over second place Cale Yarborough, when suddenly the engine in the #21 went south, ending Bonnett’s bid for the victory just 41 laps short of the finish.

That handed the lead to Yarborough, who found himself with a five lap advantage over second place Jody Ridley.

Ridley, the long time short track ace from Chastworth, Georgia, was driving for long time car owner Junie Donlavey.  Donlavey had been a car owner on the Cup circuit for years, with just about every driver piloting the famed #90 Ford for him at one time or another.  While Junie’s cars had some close on occasion, he had never visited victory lane.

With just 20 laps left to go, Yarborough slowed, himself the victim of engine failure.  Ridley would come around the track five times as Yarborough’s disabled car sat in the garage before finally being credited as the leader.

Ridley would hang on to the lead, and pick up the victory, his first and the first for Donlavey.

Ridley celebrates the win in Victory Lane. Photo courtesy the Ray Lamm collection

But as Ridley and his crew celebrated in victory lane, the drama wasn’t quite over.

Bobby Allison had been credited with second place, 22 seconds behind Ridley.  But Allison’s car owner, Harry Ranier, filed a protest.  He claimed his car was a full lap ahead of Ridley.

Scoring issues had plagued the event.  NASCAR claimed to have had “scoring communication difficulty” for nearly 50 laps.  With 14 laps to go, D.K. Ulrich had been shown as being 10 laps down.  But when the checkered flag fell, he was scored nine laps down.

After going over the scoring cars for some 20 minutes (remember, this was in the day before electronic timing and scoring), NASCAR officials ruled that Ridley was indeed the Mason-Dixon 500 champion.

“I just can’t believe it,” Ridley said in victory lane.  “This is the biggest thrill of my life.”

It would prove to be the only victory for Ridley and for Donlavey in NASCAR’s top tier series.

In 2007, Ridley was inducted in the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame.  That night, after the ceremony, a video of his win was played in the museum’s theater room.

You couldn’t move for the folks that stayed late to watch Jody’s big moment just one more time.

Now, some 30 years later, its still as thrilling a race as the day Jody and Junie survived the “Monster Mile”.

Brandon Reed is the editor and publisher of Georgia Racing History.com.


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