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VA-ROOM! VA-ROOM! Pow, Pow, Pop! VA-ROOM! VA-ROOM! The flat-head engines of the 1936 Fords were sounding off as they warmed up for the race. In the late 1940s, a group of men got together and converted the famous horse racing track in Hawkinsville to a dirt track for stock car racing. It was a forerunner to what is known today as NASCAR, a billion dollar industry. In today’s version of NASCAR, names such as Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Bobby LaBonte, and Dale Ernhardt, Junior are some of the darlings of racing fans around the country.
Long before them came names like Jessie James Taylor, Nero Stepto, Wild Bill Bennett, Ross Howard, and the twin package from Hawkinsville, Billy “Buzz” Sawyer and one of the best racing mechanics to ever turn a wrench, Paul McDuffie shown below.
The night when stock car racing began in Hawkinsville at the old harness racing track, it attracted a near capacity crowd. According to the records, there were fifteen drivers participating in the races that night with a total of sixty laps around the half-mile dirt track.
The competition was fierce in every race, yet there were no injuries. One car, driven by Ed Tyndell of Unadilla, blew a front tire causing his vehicle to veer out of control. Momentarily, he was shaken up, but returned shortly to finish the race. Sawyer, a gritty and determined competitor took first place in one race and except for a poor start, could have taken another victory later on into the evening.
According to Billy “Judge” Sloan, a mechanic who got his start assisting McDuffie, shown here with his brother, Bobby,(right) “Most drivers used Ford with the flat-head engine in those days. Drivers and their crew were known to go after their rivals with wrenches in hand if they thought they were purposely trying to run their car off the track,” Sloan said. “Pretty much, it was, ‘mess with my car, buddy, and you’re messing with me.”
McDuffie raised a lot of eyebrows when he introduced the Chevy V-6 engine that quickly caught the attention of many of the people in the sport, as well as the fans. With a Chevy that was built by McDuffie, Buzz Sawyer recorded the fastest unofficial time of thirty seconds around the half-mile dirt track at a south Georgia location. People began to sit up and take notice of the dynamic duo from Pulaski County. The quicker McDuffie could build a race car, the harder his brother-in-law, Sawyer, would drive it. It was all about speed—pushing the envelope. With a total purse for the night of $500, drivers took chances around the oval race track, slowing only slightly going into the curves, before opening up again on the straight-a-way.
In those days, young men spent a great deal of their time working on car engines. “We used to drive around the countryside looking for old cars which were no longer in use by the owners,” Sloan said. “We could buy them for very little cash, haul them back to the garage, and begin the overhaul process to convert them into stock car racers. Back then, we purchased parts from auto parts stores or dealerships, unlike today when small town drivers and car owners have to go through specialized businesses to get the necessary parts to build an engine.”
Other drivers and mechanics from this area that followed Sawyer and McDuffie were
Woody Moore, shown with granddaughter who is still racing and winning races at the ripe old age of 75, Claude and Howard King, Joe Johnston, Larry Hood and his brother, Sammy. During those early days of the 40s and 50s when Billy Sawyer was driving the dirt tracks in cars which he and McDuffie built, he worked a full-time job with the Coca Cola Company. It has been said that a funeral didn’t take place without cokes being iced down for the family by Sawyer. Fiery on the track, he had a soft spot for those in mourning. He continued to work for the soft drink manufacturer for years. His brother-in-law, however, had a certain genius for building race cars and with him, it was a passion unmatched by many.
Paul McDuffie left the city by the muddy river for a larger city by the Ocmulgee River—Macon. There he teamed up with an old racing rival, Ross Howard. They continued to build race cars while competing anywhere they found a race to be run. Seemingly never satisfied and always looking for the bigger mountain of race tracks to dominate, McDuffie moved to Atlanta, this time seeking to run with the big boys. He set up a garage and tune-up shop on Howell Mill Road in Atlanta and began to build race cars to compete with the best drivers and mechanics in the country. According to legend, many of those drivers began by running moonshine whiskey through the mountains, outrunning the legal authorities, before turning to stock cars. McDuffie was quoted as saying he got “a tremendous thrill from watching cars, which were built by him, race around the track.”
And build cars he could, as indicated not only by the sportswriters covering the action, but in addition to that, was the frequency his team entered the winner’s circle which his vehicles occupied on many occasions.
During 1958, he teamed up with, and built cars for, Glenn “Fireball” Roberts, a legend during his own time of racing. That year with Roberts driving, the McDuffie-built cars swept to thirteen victories while winning over $40,000 in prize money. The following year, the racing industry was shocked when it was announced that Roberts and McDuffie were splitting up their winning team. At first there was much criticism toward Roberts for leaving the McDuffie team. Later, it came out that Roberts was informed by McDuffie that he did not think his 1957 cars could compete in the races of 1959, therefore he informed Roberts he would be able to do better with newer cars. As it turned out, McDuffie was able to find someone later to sponsor him and buy two cars for him to race. There seemed to be a rift between the old racing partners, but they both sat down in Daytona, and McDuffie explained what had happened. Later on, the two got together again when Fireball dropped Pontiac to drive McDuffie's Chevrolet.
In 1960, the mechanical genius, Paul McDuffie experienced his greatest feat by winning the very first “World 600” race in Charlotte, North Carolina, a victory that garnered him a purse of $28,000. The Hawkinsville native was becoming recognized as the best racing mechanic in the sport with a tremendous future in front of him. Sadly, it all came to an end later that year in Darlington, South Carolina when two cars tangled in front of the pit, one crashing over the retaining wall killing McDuffie and two others. Hawkinsville and the entire racing world mourned the loss of the mechanical genius from middle Georgia.