Name: Joe Weatherly
Birthdate: May 29, 1922
Hometown: Norfolk, Va.
Cup Debut: 1952 Southern 500 at Darlington, S.C. (Grand National Division)
Top Fives: 105
Top 10s: 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 three-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, losing 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, 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 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, with 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 Donlavey. His first win came in 1958 at Nashville Motor Speedway, a half-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 longtime friend 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 second 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 nine times. In 1963, he drove for eight different owners in five different makes of cars.
They don’t even have five makes of cars today in the series.
Scoring three wins, he battled a young driver from Randleman, N.C. named Richard Petty for the championship. They staged a back and forth battle over the final five races, finishing second to Petty at Randleman’s Tar Heel Speedway, but winning the penultimate race at Hillsboro. His seventh-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. Roberts followed soon after, succumbing to complications resulting from first and second-degree burns suffered during the World 600 at Charlotte that same year. It actually wasn’t until half of 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 seven Daytona 500s and seven championships. It is a shame that drivers like Weatherly were not able to survive long enough to help ride the wave of popularity that they helped to create.
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About the author
Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.
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