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Fans mourning loss of lovable Flintstone F1yer

September 12, 2017, 12:36 pm
By Todd Turner
DirtonDirt.com managing editor
Mike Duvall after his World 100 win. (Dean Malone)
Mike Duvall after his World 100 win. (Dean Malone)

Mike Duvall, a World 100 winner and National Dirt Racing Association champion whose iconic Flintstone F1yer caught the eye of every kid in the grandstands at racetracks in the Carolinas and beyond, died early Tuesday morning. The first ballot National Dirt Late Model Hall of Famer from Cowpens, S.C., was 68. | Appreciation | Slideshow

The likable driver with the wiry goatee and ever-present black hat won more than 700 races over a racing career of 43 years that was highlighted by a stellar 1982 season with a national touring title and a victory in the sport’s most prestigious race at Ohio’s Eldora Speedway.

“John 3:16 is daddy's favorite Bible verse and always has been,” his daughter Bonnie Duvall posted early Tuesday on Facebook. “At 3:16 this morning daddy went home to be with the Lord. He didn't leave on our time but on God's time.”

Duvall had battled with dementia and other health issues and had been under hospital and medical care through much of 2017.

The bear of a man who could be ferociously aggressive on the track was conversely cuddly in the pits, greeting youngsters who were drawn to the car with the Fred Flintstone graphics scheme.

“When I was a kid, if a driver would take one minute and speak to me, I was tickled to death, but not many of them did that back then,” the always-smiling Duvall said in a 2004 interview. “I made up my mind that if I got the chance, I'd talk to anyone and everyone who wanted to talk to me.”

Duvall's eye-catching car, personality and presence made a mark on the Dirt Late Model scene as he began winning the sport’s biggest races in the early 1980s, racing historian Bob Markos said.

“When Mike first came into the national ranks, the sport as we knew it was basically plain — just black and white,” Markos said. “His mountain man image and Flintstone Flyer package became quickly recognized as one of Dirt Late Model racing’s premier products. As a whole it did so much for the sport’s marketing scene.

“There was a period in the early 80s when Mike Duvall was the man, pure and simple. He dominated, winning everywhere, while whipping the very best in the business — bar no one. During that time he took to Eldora like so very few outsiders had done in the past. Back in the day, that was how greatness was considered.”

Born July 6, 1949, in Gaffney, S.C., Ralph Mitchell "Mike" Duvall began racing his racing career as a teenager in the 1960s, driving a 1952 Ford he co-owned with Bobby Inman. In two years of racing in the rookie division, Duvall won 17 features. He moved up to the six-cylinder hobby division, posting a 38-victory season, then later up to sportsman and finally the elite Late Model division.

With his Flintstone F1yer car coming along later, Duvall’s early cars carried the No. 5, including a 1963 Chevy Nova that was solid gold. He moved to a yellow car, then a blue ’68 Chevy Camaro before shifting to a red and gold No. 5 for the 1979 season.

After the death of his father, Dick, Mike Duvall contracted with famed car owner Dick Murphy to run five NDRA races, and the Murphy-Duvall connection soon became a fixture on the national touring series with the popular No. F1 car with Fred Flintstone as part of the graphics scheme. The Flintstone F1yer captured 1981 NDRA victories at Lavonia (Ga.) Speedway, Pennsylvania Motor Speedway in Pittsburgh, Wythe Raceway in Rural Retreat, Va., and Hagerstown (Md.) Speedway.

"He had (Fred Flintstone) on the car when I drove it at the end of the 1979 season,” Duvall said in a 2004 interview. "We talked about it and decided to go with his color and my number and put Flintstone F1yer on the door. That's how it all started."

Duvall made the first of 16 World 100 starts in 1981, rallying from a consolation race victory to a runner-up finish behind Larry Moore at the Earl Baltes-owned Eldora oval. The next season, Duvall reached the zenith of his career with a championship on the Robert Smawley-led NDRA circuit and a victory in the 12th running of the World 100.

At Eldora, Duvall overtook Charlie Swartz with six laps remaining for a $15,000 victory while on the NDRA circuit he captured races at Paducah (Ky.) International Raceway, Muskogee (Okla.) Speedway and Atomic Speedway near Knoxville, Tenn., en route to the series crown.

Overall Duvall had 14 career NDRA victories, including a career-high five in 1984, to rank fourth on the all-time list of Dirt Late Model racing’s first national tour that operated during the prime of Duvall’s career from 1978-’85. His three straight NDRA victories in 1984 — at I-70 Speedway in Odessa, Mo., Kingsport (Tenn.) Speedway and Hartsville-Darlington (S.C.) Speedway — paid a $50,000 bonus from Lunati Cams.

Duvall was also a four-time winner in Hav-A-Tampa Dirt Racing Series/UDTRA action, including three victories during the tour’s second season in 1991, one at Cherokee and all coming in the Carolinas.

Duvall posted three career Florida Speedweeks victories, winning in 1979 and 2000 at Barberville’s Volusia Speedway Park and in 2002 at Okeechobee’s Thunder Cross Motorsports Park.

While Duvall won scores of special events at Cherokee Speedway, his long-time home track, he never won the oval’s signature Blue-Gray 100. His best Blue-Gray finish was second to Scott Bloomquist in 1992.

Duvall was also a prolific winner in Shrine Races, regional special events where a portion of the proceeds went to Shriners Hospitals for Children. More than 20 times at several tracks in the Carolinas — Cherokee, Carolina, Laurens, Spartanburg, Riverside and East Lincoln among them — Duvall was a Shrine Race winner.

Duvall captured touring events through the 2005 season as he continued competing despite a frightening October 2001 accident at his hometown Cherokee Speedway that snapped his safety belts in two and nearly killed him.

“The first five or six laps (after) coming back, it was real tough. It’s like you’re searching for something. And then it was like, ‘Oh, man. I remember this!' That old familiar seat-of-the-pants feeling comes back,” Duvall said at the beginning of the 2002 season. “That’s really how you drive these cars, anyway. Your hands just point ‘em in the direction you wanna go, but you actually drive ‘em with your right foot and the seat of your pants.”

In the latter stages of his career, Duvall was also quick to share his Christian conviction that developed with his third marriage in 1997 and was cemented when he sought healing through prayer for his newborn daughter Bonnie, who was being treated for a heart condition.

“I started racing in the early ‘60s and that was the only important thing in my life, nothing else mattered to me,” Duvall wrote in a testimonial that formerly appeared on his website. “My goal in life was to be the best dirt track driver in history. I didn't even care about family or salvation or anything else in life.”

But even though Duvall freely admitted to struggling with a Christian attitude when it came to rubbing fenders, he seldom failed to mention his religion during victory lane interviews in the final decade of his career.

“It took me 47 years to realize how important it was to me, and I’ve had a wonderful life since,” Duvall said in a 2002 interview with National Dirt Digest. “A lot of people think about religion, but they’ve really not accepted the Lord into their life. I thought I did, but I didn’t.”

Along with his dirt racing, Duvall competed in occasional asphalt events, including running on the NASCAR Modified Series at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway three times and Martinsville (Va.) Speedway twice.

NASCAR’s Gaffney, S.C.-based JD Motorsports recently paid tribute to Duvall’s graphics scheme from those events with a lookalike car as part of a recent throwback weekend at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway.

"Mike was one super race car driver,” team owner Johnny Davis said of the car he fielded for Ross Chastain. "My uncle owned a gas station and would support Mike's dirt racing career by giving him a free tank of gas every now and then, so that's how I first met him as a teenager. I'm very proud to be able to use the Darlington Throwback weekend to honor some of the great racers to come from my hometown in Gaffney.”

Duvall also operated a driving school beginning in 1993, tutoring hundreds of dirt racers with the tricks of the trade for more than a dozen years.

“We’re serious about it, and a guy can probably learn more in two days with us than he could in five years of going to the track alone,” Duvall told NDD. “We can shorten his learning curve, but the school also helps me as a driver. I learn from them, too. And usually I can help them with driving problems they’re having because I’ve probably had the same kind of troubles at some point.”

Survivors include his wife Pam, three sons, two daughters, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to: Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children, 950 West Faris Road, Greenville SC 29605; or Silica Springs Baptist Church, 2032 Pacolet Highway, Gaffney SC 29340.

Visitation is 6-8 p.m. Wednesday at Blakely Funeral Home in Gaffney, S.C. The funeral is 2 p.m. Thursday at Silica Springs Baptist Church followed by burial at Fredrick Memorial Gardens. Find complete obituary at blakelyfuneralhome.com.

Editor's note: Adds full name, Bob Markos quote, more obituary details and length of racing career to 43 years.