Not your average Joe

Before Richard Petty won the first of his seven championships, Joe Weatherly won two – back to back in 1962 and '63 – outdueling Petty, the yet-to-be-crowned King of NASCAR, both times.

Going into the 1964 season, Weatherly was favored to win his third straight title, something no driver had accomplished in the history of the still fledgling stock car series.

After four races, Weatherly and Petty were neck and neck heading to the road course in Riverside, Calif.


Joe Weatherly died in a crash at Riverside International Raceway on Jan. 20, 1964.

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About halfway through the Motor Trend 500, the brakes on Weatherly's Mercury failed, causing him to slam driver's side into a retaining wall.

Back in those days, drivers, fearing being trapped inside a burning car, didn't wear shoulder harnesses. There were also no safety nets on the driver's side windows either.

With only a lap belt strapping him down, the impact caused Weatherly's head to jerk to the left and out of the driver's side window where it hit the retaining wall and killed him instantly. He was 41.

"It hit the community pretty hard," remembers Jim Hunter, who first met Weatherly while covering stock car racing in the late 1950s as a reporter. "He was everybody's favorite."


Since then, seven drivers have won back-to-back Cup titles. But only one, Cale Yarborough, has managed to complete the three-peat.

Now, with only three races remaining in this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup and with a seemingly insurmountable lead in the standings, Jimmie Johnson is on the verge of becoming the second.

But what if Joe Weatherly's brakes hadn't failed?

Hard drivin', hard livin'

In an era when cars were beasts that you either learned how to tame or they tamed you, Weatherly, a hard-driving Virginia native, was the talk of stock car racing.

Known as the "Clown Prince of NASCAR," Weatherly sported a scar that ran from above his left eye, through his eyelid, down his cheek straight into his mouth.


There were many stories as to how he received the scar, including one in which he was injured while fighting in World War II – a melodramatic tale that even Weatherly himself liked to tell.

The reality was far more mundane. It was a reminder of a tragic night as a teenager when the car he was driving slammed into a tree, killing one of the passengers and leaving Weatherly and others in the car severely injured.

Those who knew him said that Weatherly was a kind, yet aggressive young man and when he figured out how to channel his energy, he turned that aggression into success.

Before racing on four wheels, he had a successful career in motorcycle racing where he won the American Motorcycle Association (AMA) national championship three times.


In the early 1950s Weatherly made the switch to stock cars.

"I like having something between my head and the ground when I crash," he allegedly told a good friend at the time.

Success on four wheels came quickly for Weatherly. He won the NASCAR Modified title in 1953 after finishing runner-up the previous year, all the while winning a remarkable 102 races during that two-year period.

It was also in 1952 when Weatherly made his first Grand National (what NASCAR's premier series was known at the time) start driving for legendary team owner Junie Donleavy. It began a career of racing in NASCAR's top division, where over the next 12 years Weatherly scored 25 wins and 153 top-10 finishes in only 230 races.


Had it not been for his aggressive "wreckers or checkers" driving style, Weatherly might have won more races during those years.

"He would move you out of the way," said Hunter, recalling Weatherly's battles with the greats of the day.

Weatherly was easily spotted at the race track. He was the guy walking through the garage wearing the scuffed up black and white saddle oxford shoes, the same ones he wore when he was driving, sporting a huge smile on his face, hence the nickname.

He always had a story to tell and if you could parse what he was saying through his thick Virginia accent – "You'd often find yourself asking him to repeat himself and he'd look at you funny and think there was something wrong with you," said Hunter – it was usually a pretty good one.


Friends called him "Little Joe" and he was as well-known for his fast driving as he was for his fast lifestyle.

His Speedweek parties with teammate and close friend Curtis Turner, another one of NASCAR's greats of the era, are legendary.

"Joe and Turner used to rent a house in Daytona for Speedweeks," remembers Hunter, now NASCAR's vice president of corporate communications. "And it was the party pad. For writers and crew guys. Everybody came by. There were quite a few beers being drunk. Some hard whiskey, too."

Talent on loan

Weatherly's battles against Turner when the two were driving in the now defunct NASCAR convertible series in the mid-1950s are legendary. Their races often ended up with the two of them fender to fender on the final lap and had you not known they were such good friends, you might think they were the bitterest of enemies.


Often he would show up at the track on a Friday without a ride for that Sunday's race. But team owners knew all too well about his ability to put just about any car in the winner's circle, so Weatherly rarely went without racing.

It was, however, while driving for Bud Moore in the No. 8 Pontiac that Weatherly had his best years. From 1961 to '63, he started 109 races, earning 20 of his 25 wins and 16 poles.

Those were also the only two years of his career that Weatherly raced a full NASCAR schedule. Not coincidentally, that's when he won those back-to-back championships.

Stories and recollections about Weatherly from those who knew him have become a staple of NASCAR folklore.


He was known for his superstitious streak and a deathly fear of snakes.

"While the competition never scared him, his fear of snakes led him to always carry a caged mongoose around with him," said Dale Inman, who competed against Weatherly as the crew chief for Petty.

"One time at Charlotte, Lee (Petty) brought a two-foot long snake to scare Joe and we had him running all over the garage area with it," Inman remembered with a laugh.

"That mongoose would have its tail sticking out of the cage, which was covered with a cloth so that you couldn't really tell what was inside of it," said Hunter. "He (Weatherly) would have fun warning people to stay away from it, then pull back the cloth and that thing inside would jump right at you."


While most remember Weatherly for his jovial personality, hard-driving and hard-living style and his saddle shoes, others remember him being at the forefront of many of the things now taken for granted in NASCAR racing.

In the early days of stock car racing, there were no sponsors to help offset costs and pay the purse. Those funds came from ticket sales, and Weatherly recognized early on that the more people who came to the race, the more money there would be to split up at the end of the day.

"He was smart and he was always aware that the responsibility of the driver was to sell tickets," said Hunter. "Drivers today don't see their responsibility to sell tickets.

"Joe was one of the originals when it came to having a track bring in a driver to help sell tickets.

Weatherly was as smart in business as he was good behind the wheel. In the mid 1950s, he partnered with Paul Sawyer, the original owner of Richmond International Raceway, and together they promoted races on several short tracks throughout Virginia.

Although he won NASCAR's Most Popular Driver Award in 1961, Weatherly was more than just popular. He befriended everyone, including his fellow competitors.

"He was so well liked. Everybody knew him," said Hunter. "Little Joe. He couldn't walk through this garage without being stopped a thousand times, even by crew members. He was just so well liked."

His death also had an impact on NASCAR. Following his accident, NASCAR began mandating the use of the nets to help prevent such a tragedy from ever happening again.

Despite his name being adorned on a grandstand at Daytona International Speedway, ironically a track where he saw little success, very few people remember Weatherly and how good he was. His championships occupy a largely forgotten part of NASCAR's history.

There are, however, the dozens of stories about Weatherly that recall a different time in the world and a different time in NASCAR.

"Everybody who knew him has a few stories to tell," said Hunter.

"What can you say about him?" said Inman. "He won a lot of races and two championships. And he was just a great guy. That's a tough combination to find in a driver or any person."