The Frontstretch: Ain't No Joke: Joe Weatherly by Vito Pugliese -- Wednesday October 10, 2007

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Ain't No Joke: Joe Weatherly

Driven to the Past : A Look Back At The Legends Of NASCAR · Vito Pugliese · Wednesday October 10, 2007


Name: Joe Weatherly
Birthdate: May 29th, 1922
Hometown: Norfolk, VA
Nextel Cup Debut: 1952 Southern 500 at Darlington, SC (Grand National Division)
Races: 230
Wins: 25
Poles: 18
Top Fives: 105
Top Tens: 153
Championships: 2 (1962, 1963)

Career highlights: One of the first legitimate big stars in NASCAR, Weatherly was the winner of back-to-back Championships in both 1962 and 1963. Before becoming one of the most storied figures in NASCAR's golden era, he was also a 3-time AMA Motorcycle Champion. Nicknamed, "The Clown Prince of Auto Racing,” he won the Most Popular Driver Award in 1961. Sadly, he died in an accident during the 1964 Riverside 500 before he could fully realize his potential.

Joe Weatherly's driving career almost ended before it even began. He nearly died while out with a group of friends one night, lost control while driving through an S – curve; he had bumped into a curb and broke a tie rod. With no steering or time to react, he ran headlong into a tree. Weatherly was nearly ejected from the vehicle, his head and neck breaking through the windshield. As Weatherly was trapped and bleeding to death, one passenger was dead, and others badly injured. Weatherly recovered then, but in other instances, he wasn’t so lucky. He was left badly scarred about the face; rumors arose that it was the result of a Nazi sniper in WWII. Unfortunately, it would not be the last time he had an encounter with a parts failure in the middle of an S-curve turn.

Throughout his golden years in the sport, Joe Weatherly was nicknamed "The Clown Prince of Racing.” It was a moniker he enjoyed – he also loved playing practical jokes, partying, and engaging in behavior that would put most rock bands to shame. His antics have become the legend of NASCAR's early days, some of which have been immortalized on the big screen. The rental car chase scene from Days of Thunder? Joe Weatherly and Curtis Turner. Driving a stock car into a motel swimming pool in Cannonball Run? Joe Weatherly and Curtis Turner.

Whether riding a donkey through a hotel and then a parade, bringing a purple pig to a racetrack, or showing up to practice dressed as Peter Pan, he more than made a name for himself with his pal and teammate Curtis Turner. Weatherly and Turner were known to stage the kind of parties in Daytona Beach during Speedweeks that would make Caligula blush. This is a family site, and their antics cannot be detailed here. To put it in a nutshell; there were parties, there were girls – lots of them, and a chalkboard. He was beyond superstitious; deathly afraid of the color green and peanuts as were most drivers. Another superstition that many drivers have today is carrying $50 bills.

Joe began racing cars in earnest in 1950. He entered his first NASCAR modified event that year, and won. 48 more victories would follow that year in an 83-race season. In 1952, he would win the Modified Championship, again winning 49 races; 1953 would see him do it one more time, while giving a 52-race win season.

In 1952 he made his first start in the big time in the 1952 Southern 500, finishing 16th in a car owned by legendary Ford campaigner and fellow Virginian Junie Donleavy. His first win came in 1958 at Nashville Motor Speedway, a ½ mile paved short track. His biggest wins came in 1961 at the year old Charlotte Motor Speedway, a track conceived, financed, and built by his long time friend Curtis Turner. A pair of victories in the spring at Darlington's Rebel 300 in 1960 and 1963 would be among his crowning achievements. Although he never did win a Daytona 500, he did have a runner-up finish in 1961, and in the first July Firecracker 400 race at Daytona, he finished 2nd to another legend of the era, Fireball Roberts.

Joe won back-to-back Championships in 1962 and 1963, making famous a red car with a white No. 8 on it long before a certain someone else did. The most interesting thing about these championships was who he drove for. Joe was famous for bumming rides, as in those days, most owners couldn't afford to run the entire season. In 1962, he drove a Bud Moore Pontiac in all but one event, winning 9 times. In 1963, he drove for 8 different owners in 5 different makes of cars.

They don't even have 5 makes of cars today in the series.

Scoring three wins, he battled a young driver from Randleman, North Carolina named Richard Petty for the Championship. They staged a back and forth battle over the final five races, finishing 2nd to Petty at Randleman's Tar Heel Speedway, but winning the penultimate race at Hillsboro. His 7th place finish at the series finale at Riverside would prove to be enough to fend off the young second-generation driver.

Sadly, the series’ next visit to Riverside would end in tragedy for everyone involved.

Riverside was the fifth race on the schedule in 1964, one of the most famous and challenging road courses in the United States. Weatherly was running 20 laps down to the leaders – an eternity for a road course – when the engine in his Mercury let go. As a piece of the internals vacated the block, shrapnel from it is thought to have sliced through a brake line. As he was sliding through his own oil and unable to stop, Weatherly’s car slammed broadside into the wall in an uphill section through turn 6. There were no window nets in the cars in those days, and his head is believed to have slapped the concrete retaining wall; Weatherly did not even have a shoulder harness in the car. As such, he was killed instantly at the age of 41 years old. It’s been said that before the race, a friend of his had settled a debt with him of $100. He was paid with two $50 bills; they were on him when he was pulled from his racecar. Today, many drivers refuse to accept $50 bills.

Joe Weatherly was one of the first big name drivers to have died while competing in NASCAR. Fireball Roberts followed soon after, succumbing to complications resulting from 1st and 2nd degree burns suffered during the World 600 at Charlotte that same year. It actually wasn't until half of Richard Petty's body was hanging out of his Plymouth Roadrunner at Darlington in 1970 until window nets of any consequence were mandated. However, Weatherly’s death in 1964 began what was a pivotal year for NASCAR safety and drivers, period. In many respects, it was a changing of the guard, an end of the innocence of sorts for the series. Two of its biggest stars were killed in a very graphic and violent on-track accidents, while a fresh-faced 27-year-old in a Hemi-powered Plymouth Fury went on to win his first of 7 Daytona 500s and 7 Championships. It is a shame that drivers like Joe Weatherly were not able to survive long enough to help ride the wave of popularity that they helped to create.

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©2000 - 2008 Vito Pugliese and Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!

10/11/2007 01:26 PM

These sagas of the “older” drivers is the highlight of FrontStretch to me! Since I have been around to see all of them to date, I really enjoy the memories of when racin was racin and not this mess it has become! Thanks and PLEASE keep them coming!

10/11/2007 05:11 PM

Vito, very good and informative article, as always.

I haven’t heard of the $50 bill superstition. Is that always carry them? Or never?

10/13/2007 12:12 PM

I never got to watch Joe race. I was only a year old when he died. He was the penultimate racer and partier. I have seen footage of his crash at Riverside. With today’s technology, he probably would have gotten out and waved at the crowd. I don’t think we give these guys from the Golden Era enough credit for what they did, and what they sacrificed. Everybody drove their race car off the lot, made a few modifications, and brought it to the track. How would you like to race your new Ford Fusion with the headlights taken out, and a small roll cage welded in?

Most of the racers we have today would be too scared to do what Weatherly, Turner, the Pettys, the Flocks, and countless others did.

My hat is off to you.

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