Story By: BUFFY SWANSON / NORTHEAST DIRT MODIFIED HALL OF FAME – WEEDSPORT, NY – The late Joe Donahue, a pioneer driver on the rough-and-tumble Southern Tier tracks in the 1950s and ’60s, will be honored as a 2020 inductee into the Northeast Dirt Modified Hall of Fame.
Driver inductions and special award ceremonies are scheduled for Thursday, July 23, at the Northeast Dirt Modified Museum and Hall of Fame on the grounds of Weedsport Speedway in New York.
A proficient motorcycle racer prior to his U.S. Navy stint during WWII, Donahue continued to race bikes when he returned from the war — until he discovered he could make a few more bucks driving stock cars at the local speedways. Joe put together a ’36 Chevy sedan in 1948, and won his first feature at Doty Hill, outside Wellsburg, NY, the following year.
Driving on dusty backwoods tracks like Doty Hill and Brookfield, Donahue was scrappy enough, and successful enough, to attract some attention: In 1952, he picked up a ride in Harold Whitbeck’s sharp #23 Chevy Master coupe.
Throughout the 1950s and well into the ’60s, “Irish Joe” drove for a long list of car owners — Reuben Neild, A.L. George, Dick Cole and Norval Conklin, Floyd Allen, John Manny, Jerry Dunham, Jim Beavans and Evey Gathany, Wes German, Marty Kennerup, Ted Wrench, Bert Lewis, in addition to Whitbeck, who knows how many others, and cars he built himself.
In conversation with historian Jeff Ackerman, Donahue’s friend and machinist Sam Lewis made this observation: “Remember that old saying about getting a new driver? And he wants the seat changed, and the wheel, and then the pedals, and by the time you’re done with the list of changes, it’s just easier to change drivers?” Lewis said to Ackerman. “Well, Joe was just the opposite. He could get in anything and drive it. Guys like him were true pioneers of the sport, back when ‘cut and try’ was the norm.”
Donahue’s single-minded determination to “get it done,” driving anything and everything, did not go unnoticed by fans of the era. To Joe Donahue Jr., it was a source of pride.
“One time, when I was about 10 years old, my dad’s car broke in the heat at Shangri-La. He got a ride in a competitor’s car and when they announced the driver change, a man sitting behind us said, ‘Good! Now, we’ll see what that car’s got!’” Joe Jr. remembered. “I never forgot that, to this day. Dad always had a ride. The minute he ever broke down they came running to have him drive.”
Despite his popularity, Donahue — to put it mildly — was a polarizing figure on the Southern Tier scene. Oh, he got the job done. But he pissed off just about everyone in the process.
“Fans Flock to Stocks, Most Are Foes of Joe’s” was the inflammatory subtitle of an article featured in the Binghamton Press in mid-1959, wherein sportswriter John Lake illustrated the bloodthirst Donahue’s no-consequences driving style unleashed.
“There sat ‘unholy Joe’ in the seat of his disabled #47Jr., glumly awaiting the wrecker, when a wrecker in skirts showed up instead and whopped him in the kisser,” wrote Lake, of an incident at Glen Aubrey involving the irate sister of another racer. “She was the envy of every driver who watched her pull it off.”
Indeed, Donahue wasn’t a favorite of his fellow competitors. “I’ve seen Joe Donahue drive a lot of clean races. But then he’ll get on a rough streak where he doesn’t care if he completely destroys your car,” Lake quoted one veteran of the Glen Aubrey-Five Mile Point circuit. “He’ll get behind you and work you over so you end up in the wall. With all that centrifugal force when you’re on the outside, all it takes is a little tap. Joe’ll tap you, all right.”
Donahue shrugged off the charges. “As far as I’m concerned, I’d just as soon have it wide open. Everything goes. But I don’t drive rough,” Joe insisted. “I never put my front end where I don’t think the back end is gonna go. A lot of these drivers, when they see an opening, will stop to think about it. By the time they make up their minds to go through it, it isn’t there anymore.”
Yet Donahue relished the role of villain, and loved to throw fuel on the fire to ignite a riot. Tired of hearing the trackside whining, Joe attached a baby bottle to the roof of John Manny’s #49, to provoke all the pitside “crybabies.” When he drove Wes German’s coupe, the words “Hello Walls” were lettered on the door.
The character from Kirkwood, NY, also sparred with the spectators, as related by John Lake in the Binghamton Press.
Greeted by boos as he took a triumphal lap around the track waving the checkered flag, Donahue was met in the winner’s circle by a fan screaming profanities. “Look, buddy,” Joe rasped, “you paid your buck and a quarter and that’s fine. Now I’m taking it home with me. You can just stand there and jaw all night if you want to.”
He was the man everyone loved to hate, as evidenced by a presentation at the Five Mile Point awards banquet in 1954. At the same time as starter Perry Preston jokingly handed Donahue a black flag, as a token of his season-long accomplishments, Joe also received the trophy for Most Popular Driver.
On the Southern Tier tracks, Donahue’s body of work still stands right up there. In 1957, Donahue won every race but one at Glen Aubrey and the points title; he pretty much did the same at Five Mile Point. He backed that up with repeat championships at both places in ’58. During a career that spanned five decades, Joe won four titles at the Point; a pair each at Susquehanna (now Penn Can) and Glen Aubrey; a single title at Midstate in 1967; and two Southern Tier championship events, including the Triple Crown in 1957. He placed a close second in points at Weedsport to Hall of Famer John McArdell in 1968.
Never without controversy: In 1953, the Southern Tier Stock Car Club, which sanctioned both Five Mile Point and Susquehanna, disqualified Donahue and car owner Harold Whitbeck from competition for racing at nearby Shangri-La. While many drivers of the day would compete at unsanctioned tracks under fictitious names to avoid retribution, Donahue was high-profile and up front about it and paid the price. Calling the organization “a bunch of jealous guys who want all or nothing,” Harold and Joe took the car to Chemung.
Writing about Donahue’s colorful career in the magazine Southern Tier Sports World in 1975, racing historian Mike Monnat summed it up as so: “Joe Donahue will go down in the annals of Five Mile Point history as the one single driver to put the people in the stands. Love him or hate him, you had to give him credit. He always put on a show.”
“Irish Joe” Donahue passed away in April 2007, at the age of 80.