Joe Weatherly: NASCAR's First Triple Champion...Almost—Pt. 1
Joe Weatherly won the Cup Championship in 1962 and, after a near heroic effort, again in 1963 and was leading the points as the fifth race of the 1964 season began at Riverside California.
Mechanical problems forced Weatherly into the pits early, and he lost laps while repairs were being made. He was back on the track trying to gather as many points as possible when, on his 85th lap of the 185-lap race, he crashed in the "esses" on the twisting road course.
More than just a hell-raising buddy of Curtis Turner, or the Clown Prince of Racing, Weatherly won his two Cup Championships after winning three championships on motorcycles, and out of 230 Cup races he ran from 1952-64, he took 25 wins, 28 seconds, and 19 thirds, with 19 poles.
Joe Herbert "Little Joe" Weatherly Jr. was born on May 29, 1922 in Norfolk Virginia. The nickname “Little Joe” likely came from the fact that he was Joe Jr., but also from the fact that, as an adult, he was no more than five feet four inches tall.
Weatherly was well known for his playful disposition. During his racing days he was usually seen smiling with his distinctive scar running down the left side of his face.
As a kid, I couldn’t believe my eyes when Joe Weatherly appeared on the TV show What’s My Line? The show consisted of a panel of four celebrities who would ask a series of questions to find out the guest's “line of work.”
One of the panelists asked Joe if he got his scar from his line of work, but Joe told them that he received the scar in an accident.
There is a lot of misinformation around about the source of Joe’s scar. There have been comments that Joe got his scar from a racing accident.
Most Internet information about Weatherly report something like: “Weatherly was wounded while serving for the United States armed forces in North Africa during World War II. A German sniper's bullet struck him in the face.”
Joe himself has been reported to have told the sniper story on occasion.
The actual story of Joe’s scar was reported in The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, VA) by Earl Swift on Oct. 2, 2007. I will give a brief account of that incident.
As the night of Wednesday, Oct. 2, 1946 approached midnight, two officers were reporting to duty on the traffic bureau of the Norfolk (VA) Police Department, when they got the report of an accident on 26th Street at Leo Street with multiple injuries.
Fortunately for Joe Weatherly, a pair of off-duty officers hitched a ride on the stretcher-equipped van that answered the call. The off-duty officers were hoping to simply catch a ride home.
The single car accident involved a 1942 Buick with six passengers. Of the two couples in the back, the two girls were just shaken up. One of the men was slightly injured, but the other man was found with his head wedged between the front seat and the door post. The officers said, “he was in bad shape.”
In the front seat, things were very dramatic. The face of the driver, Joe Weatherly, was badly cut by the windshield with blood spurting from his neck. Joe’s girlfriend, who Joe would marry in October 1948, suffered two broken legs.
One of the off-duty officers put both hands over Weatherly’s neck to stop the loss of blood from his jugular vein, and then he went with Weatherly in the ambulance to DePaul Hospital, the officer’s action saving Weatherly’s life.
The back seat passenger was extricated from between the seat and door post and was transported to Norfolk General Hospital with “a forehead laceration and internal injuries.”
Weatherly was charged with reckless driving and driving with a revoked permit. When the passenger died on Oct. 6, Weatherly was charged with homicide. Two months after the accident, the homicide charge was dropped.
Weatherly’s girlfriend later testified that Joe had stopped just a block before the accident scene to talk to some friends. Speeding was not the cause, she said, but a steering link broken after striking a curb was, with the car then hitting a tree.
Weatherly was convicted of the lesser charges after appeal in January 1947 and fined $400 and two suspended 30-day sentences. Later Weatherly lost a case brought by the dead man’s family, and the victim’s family was awarded $15,000.
Weatherly was even sued by his fiancée and her mother, and in June 1947, a jury awarded $10,000 to his fiancée and $4,000 to his fiancée’s mother.
The accident occurred just a few months before Weatherly began to professionally race motorcycles.
Weatherly had become interested in motorcycling during high school and had even taken a job as a pharmacy motorcycle deliveryman.
Weatherly had served in the Army in World War II and was readying to resume his motorcycle racing career, but on a professional level, when his face-scarring accident occurred.
Within two years of the accident, Weatherly would be a national motorcycle champion.
The young Joe Weatherly is shown with his Harley-Davidson motorcycle during his motorcycle championship days. (Motorcycle Hall of Fame)
The first sign of racing excellence to come was first seen in Weatherly’s motorcycle career, which only lasted about five years, when he took a sixth place in the prestigious Laconia (New Hampshire) Classic 100-Mile road race in 1947.
Weatherly went on to win the Laconia race in 1948 by a margin of almost a minute. Weatherly proved he wasn’t just a one-race wonder by winning Laconia again in 1949.
Weatherly’s third National win was in Richmond (Virginia) in 1950. After these three American Motorcycle Association Class C championships on his Harley-Davidson, he began to switch his racing efforts to stock cars in 1951.
Although Weatherly raced a few more times through 1954 in the Daytona 200 motorcycle event, he had begun racing full-time in stock cars by 1952. (Joe Weatherly was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1998.)
Weatherly started racing stock cars in 1950 and reportedly won the first race he entered. In 1952, Weatherly competed in NASCAR and won 49 of the 83 races that year and won the NASCAR Modified Championship.
In 1953, Weatherly won 52 races, again winning NASCAR’s Modified National Championship.
Joe Weatherly was also interested in the business side of the sport, being involved in a race track on the corner of Witchduck Road and Virginia Beach Boulevard in Virginia Beach (VA). This three-eighth mile sand/dirt track was built in 1948 and was used until 1960.
The track was sometimes known as Virginia Beach Speedway or Joe Weatherly Speedway, but was perhaps best known as Chinese Corner Speedway.
I remember the time my father took me to Chinese Corner for a race. I was pretty young, and I remember he said that Joe Weatherly was running there.
But the only thing I remember of the trip was that it was my first time taking the ferry across the Hampton Roads (the name the Jamestown settlers gave the harbor) from Hampton to Norfolk. The ferry was replaced by the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel in 1957.
In 1955, partnering with Paul Sawyer (his partner at Chinese Corner), Weatherly became owner of the Richmond (VA) race track. That track was known at the time as the “Atlantic Rural Fairgrounds.” About a year later, Sawyer bought out Weatherly and continued for many years as owner of the Richmond track.
Joe Weatherly in the “M-4" modified owned by John Robert (Bob) Fish Jr. The car numbers were inspired by the model of Fish Carburetor used. However, I have only found evidence of model numbers M-1, M-2, and M-3.
Joe Weatherly’s first Grand National (Cup) race was the 1952 Southern 500 driving a ’52 Hudson for fellow Virginian Junie Donlavey. This event was only the second race as a Cup car owner in Donlavey’s 45-year career as an owner at the Cup level. Weatherly started 38th and finished in 16th that day.
Weatherly’s next GN start was in 1954, finishing seventh in the 11th race of the season at Wilson NC in a 1953 Oldsmobile.
Weatherly got his big break in 1955 when he got a ride with the Ford factory team, and it was all because of the advertising of Chevrolet’s advertising agency.
Chevrolet introduced their new V8 in 1955, its first V8 since the post-World War I era. For decades before 1955, Chevrolet had been using six-cylinder engines, and their advertising agency was looking for a way to promote the new engine.
Qualifying for the February races at Daytona was unique even prior to the Daytona Speedway opening in 1959.
Racers were timed in the flying mile down the beach to determine starting positions in the race. These straight line efforts no doubt prevented the turns on the beach-road course from being torn up before the races began.
During "Speedweeks" at Daytona, flying mile times were also open to average people grouped into various classes.
A Florida Highway Patrolman drove his 1955 Chevy V8 to a speed of 112.113 MPH, an unheard-of speed for a low-priced car.
The advertising agency for Chevrolet wasted no time running ads about “The Hot One,” as they dubbed the new engine. The fact that the Chevy was only second quickest in class was not mentioned.
On March 15 a Chevy won at Fayetteville NC, in a non-Grand National (Cup) race, and a Chevy won the Grand National race at Columbia SC on March 26. Newspaper and radio ads followed each win, and Ford dealers complained loudly to the company headquarters in Dearborn.
The Ford dealers had been unhappy for years, but when their direct competitor was advertising wins (and getting sales on Monday after the wins on Sunday), it was too much to tolerate.
Chevrolet’s advertising made it seem (at least to the Ford dealers) that they were constantly winning. The fact that Chevy had only won one Grand National race prior to the Southern 500 during the 1955 season didn’t matter.
In fact, Chryslers won 27 races (18 wins by Tim Flock in the Kiekhaefer Chrysler) and Oldsmobile won 10 in what would be a 45-race season in 1955.
To give you an idea of the variety of nameplates competing, both Buick and Chevrolet got their first two wins in the series in 1955. Dodge and Hudson each got one win.
Interestingly, Herb Thomas was responsible for the last-ever win for Hudson and the first-ever two wins for Buick before switching to Chevrolet.
Meanwhile, Ford dealers felt they had the V8 market (at least in the low-price field) to themselves, what with Ford introducing its V8 in 1932.
The fact that with the introduction of Strictly Stock (Grand National) series, the racers had at first gone to Cadillac or Oldsmobile was bad enough, but at least those two brands were not considered direct competitors to Ford.
The Kiekhaefer Chrysler team that dominated the 1955 season was not supported by the manufacturer, and the crusty Carl Kiekhaefer would likely not have put up with anyone from Chrysler telling him what to do anyway.
Despite Ford introducing their new overhead valve “Y-block” engine in 1954, an engine that was slightly more powerful that the new Chevy engine, they had had no success.
More expensive brands were winning races in NASCAR. Up to early in 1955, Ford cars had just one NASCAR Grand National victory since the series began in 1949.
Ford knew they had to enter NASCAR racing, but they were not sure if they should wait until the races in Daytona in February 1956 or go right away.
The leaders of Ford actually asked a field service manager from Ford’s Charlotte (NC) District, who had been helping Ford racers, "unofficially," since 1951, about how they should respond to the Chevrolet threat.
Bill Benton was that man, and he had gone to Dearborn to tell Ford’s leaders about what needed to be done to go stock car racing.
When the top people asked Benton if they should wait for the start of the 1956 season, or go to Darlington in 1955, Benton said, “We’ll go.” Benton felt that any sort of effort in 1955 would be better than waiting.
And so a man, who had no power to make a corporate decision, committed Ford Motor Company to enter NASCAR racing in mid-1955, and the circumstances of how Ford would later get two of the best drivers on the circuit was just as remarkable.
Two cars were built in Ford’s experimental garage in Dearborn and received their final preparation in the service area of Schwam Motors, a Ford dealer in Charlotte, NC that would be the sponsor for the cars.
Charlie Schwam was a showman and had the cars painted a vivid purple, with caricatures of snorting wild boars on the front fenders. The cars were nicknamed “Schwam’s Wild Hogs.”
A salesman for Schwam who was a racing fan and friend of Joe Weatherly asked Joe if he would be interested in driving one of the cars, and Joe talked to his friend Curtis Turner, and so Ford had two of the best drivers around driving the two new cars. Things were much simpler in those days!
The two cars arrived a few weeks before the race, with Ford engineers along to supervise the preparation. Despite long hours of work and early morning three-hour trips to the track for secret sunrise testing, the preparation was not going well.
Buddy Shuman, a Charlotte car builder and driver, was called in to get the cars ready. After a week of sleepless nights for Shuman and the Schwam mechanics, the race cars were at the track for the event.
Weatherly qualified his Ford at 109.006 MPH, while Shuman tested the second car at 109.054 MPH, embarrassing Turner, who, for some reason, couldn’t get the car over 106.
Fireball Roberts’ Fish Carburetor-sponsored Buick was on the pole at 110.682 MPH, while second-day qualifier Tim Flock’s Chrysler set a new record of 112.041.
Soon after the 75-car field took the green flag, Turner charged to the lead, after starting in 15th. The two Fords were putting on a show, with Turner leading laps 110 through 123 of the 366-lap event, until a tie-rod in the front suspension failed, ending his day on lap 133.
Weatherly soon took the lead of the 364-lap race. Joe led from lap 180 to lap 278 until he pitted for gas and tires, putting Herb Thomas’ Chevrolet in the lead.
Thomas, who had won Darlington in 1951 and 1954, could do nothing to prevent Weatherly from regaining the lead with his Purple Hog on lap 307.
But this story would not have a happy ending for Ford, as Weatherly’s front suspension failed on lap 317. After starting seventh in the 69-car field and leading for 140 laps, he finished 33rd.
A privately entered Ford finished fifth, while Thomas went on win the race in his Chevrolet, with more bow-ties following in positions 2-4-7-8-9-10. Chevrolet’s ad agency went to work proclaiming the performance.
After the initial disappointment, Ford officials knew they had done the right thing, as they felt the Fords had given fans excitement they had not had before.
Ford continued to race the cars on a limited basis in 1955 with Weatherly in six races and Turner with five starts for the team. But despite the fact the factory had two of the best drivers, Ford only got two wins in 1955.
Speedy Thompson and Buck Baker each got a win in October 1955, which, when added to a win in 1950, gave the Ford nameplate just three NASCAR wins from 1949 to 1955.
While this compared well with Chevrolet’s two wins during the same period in NASCAR, Ford was now out for more.
Things would change in Ford’s favor in the Chevy vs. Ford conflict in 1956, and Joe Weatherly was along for the ride.
*END OF PART ONE*
Coming next: The Clown Prince and Pops; Baby Dolls and the Gold Dust Twins.
Joe Weatherly: NASCAR's First Triple Champion...Almost—Pt. 2
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