Joe Weatherly: NASCAR's First Triple Champion...Almost—Pt. 2
As the 1956 NASCAR season approached, Joe Weatherly for the first time in his budding career had a full-time ride in a national touring NASCAR series.
In 1955 when Ford Motor Co. decided to enter stock car racing, they set up an outside corporation to run the effort. Pete DePaolo, winner of the 1925 Indianapolis 500, agreed to head the organization.
(Photo above: Pete DePaolo stands beside a 1956 Ford Sedan with Joe Weatherly in the driver's seat. Despite the plain-Jane appearance, notice the "Thunderbird engine" logo on the front fender above the front bumper tip. No plain vanilla two door, this car had a 312 under the hood.)
DePaolo Engineering Inc. was the organization set up to run the racing efforts. However, there were several flaws in the effort.
While Chevrolet had leaders and engineers who liked racing and put changes of the cars into production line vehicles in the interest of improving their racing, Ford was not doing this.
Ford leaders and engineers did not know about the strange world of stock car racing, and changes to the production line products would not be put into effect until years into the future.
In the planning of the racing efforts and the work of liaison between Ford and the racers, the new DePaolo organization was less than the best as well.
The area that the Ford teams were ahead of everyone else was in the team of drivers. In those days, a good driver could make a lesser car run up front and even take wins.
Shortly after the DePaolo team was formed, Ford factory-built cars dropped out of races with minor problems that could have been corrected by the experienced racers if DePaolo had let them, instead of listening to the Ford engineers.
Part of the problem was that DePaolo’s headquarters was in California, near the Bill Stroppe team that had prepared the Lincolns in the Mexican road race and built stock car racers for Mercury.
DePaolo needed someone to run the Eastern operations and Red Vogt was brought in to help. After two sedans and two convertibles were built for 1956, the team was short a driver.
Joe Weatherly shown in his 1956 Ford Sunliner convertible on the beach at Daytona. The debut race of the new Convertible Division was Feb. 25, 1956. Weatherly started on the pole in his No. 12 and led the first five laps before dropping out on lap 20 with water pump failure.
Joe Weatherly, Curtis Turner and Fireball Roberts were left as drivers after Speedy Thompson quit. Vogt knew that a former midget racer, Ralph Moody, was available.
When Vogt offered Moody $500 a month to drive, plus 40 percent of the winnings plus expenses, and an additional $500 if he also worked on the cars, the driver shortage was quickly solved.
Soon after the season began, John Holman was hired by DePaolo. Holman, a former employee of Bill Stroppe was a man who would soon prove he had his own ideas on how the new organization should be operating.
Red Vogt quit shortly after, but Holman eventually got the team on the right track.
Carl Kiekhaefer hired Red Vogt the day after Vogt had quit the Ford team. Vogt wanted to know how Kiekhaefer knew that he had quit.
“I have my ways and means,” replied Kiekhaefer.
For Ford, the debut race for the new Convertible Series in February 1956 on the Daytona beach-road course was better than expected. Weatherly started on the pole in his No. 12 and led the first five laps before dropping out on lap 20 with water pump failure.
Turner started in 14th place in his No. 26 and led the final 34 laps of the 39 lap race to take the win in the Saturday event. Roberts started 15th in his No. 22 and finished in second place one lap down to Turner, with Herb Thomas, also one lap down, finishing third in a Chevrolet in the 28-car field.
The drivers’ skill made up for any deficiencies of the Ford cars. Turner’s broad-sliding style was spectacular and a big crowd pleaser.
The inaugural 1956 season for the Convertible Division had 47 races with races in such locations as Daytona; Soldier Field in Chicago; Old Bridge, N.J.; Canadian Exposition Stadium (Toronto), Flat Rock, Mich.; and Taft Stadium (Oklahoma City)
Weatherly and Turner were the big stars of the Convertible Division. Weatherly ran in 38 races with 11 poles, four wins, 24 top fives, and 27 top tens, finishing fourth in the championship.
As Weatherly’s Ford teammate, Turner won the first three races of the season, taking a total of 22 wins in 42 races run, with 16 poles, 28 top fives, and 29 top tens, finishing second in the championship.
However, Bob Welborn won the championship in his Chevrolet with 45 starts, taking two poles, three wins, 32 top fives, and 39 top tens.
The Grand National race at Daytona was the sixth race of that series’ 1956 season. Ford and Chevrolet each had one win and Chrysler three as the teams readied for the Sunday event.
Ralph Moody rolls his No. 12 Ford to miss Lee Petty in his No. 42 Dodge on the beach at Daytona, during the February 1956 NASCAR Grand National race. Petty’s windshield was coated with sand and Moody went on to finish third in the race.
On Sunday, Moody started 22nd in the 76-car field and finished third after challenging the eventual winner Tim Flock’s Chrysler. Moody was running on Flock’s bumper at one point, and had even rolled his car while trying to avoid Lee Petty who was returning from a splash in the ocean to clean his windshield.
Flock, in the Kiekhaefer Chrysler, led 34 of the 37 laps on the 4.1-mile Daytona beach-road course. Jim Paschal who started eighth in a 1956 Mercury was the only other leader, leading three laps and finally finishing 33rd.
Joe Weatherly finished 16th in the 1956 Grand National season, only running 17 races for the Ford team in the GN season, with no wins, 6 top fives, 12 top tens, and one pole.
Curtis Turner was the Most Popular driver for the 1956 Grand National season, despite running in only 13 races. Turner won the Southern 500, also taking four Top Fives, and 10 Top Tens and no poles for the season.
Weatherly and Turner had dedicated themselves to win the 1956 Southern 500 in memory of Buddy Shuman, the man who made the Fords competitive in their debut at that race in 1955.
Buddy Shuman was the racer who had worried over the cars for a week of near-sleeplessness before the 1955 Southern 500.
Weatherly, in fact, had apologized to Shuman for his race-ending accident, even though it was due to parts failure and not his fault.
In November, just weeks after the 1955 Southern 500, Buddy Shuman died from asphyxiation due to smoking in bed. Shuman was no doubt unable to sleep, worrying about the next move to get the new Fords competitive.
The fact that these two gruff, hard-partying drivers would show such sentimentality in the mid-1950’s was remarkable. The effort to win the 1956 race showed the respect that Joe and Curtis had for Shuman.
Curtis Turner wins 1956 Southern 500 in the Wild Hog No. 99 Schwam Motors Ford; No. 26 is Jim Paschal in a Bill Stroppe built Mercury who finished 6th, six laps down.
Turner started 11th and won the race, leading 225 laps of the 364 lap race. Teammate Joe Weatherly started 16th and finished eighth, 12 laps behind in his No. 9 Purple Hog.
Joe Weatherly was known as the ‘Clown Prince of Racing’ due to his many off-track practical jokes and superstitions that were a part of his popularity.
One of Weatherly’s favorite jokes was a rubber snake. He would throw the ‘snake’ at known snake-fearing drivers and mechanics.
Perhaps the most laughter from Weatherly was generated when a driver-victim had to escape from a race car when the ‘snake’ landed in his lap.
Weatherly’s victims would try to get back at Joe with tricks involving the color green or peanut shells. Green has long been considered unlucky by racers.
Peanuts were a bad luck item in racing after a fatal accident. The fatal car was found to have peanut shells inside after the car was returned to the pits following the wreck.
The peanut shells were attributed to a hanger-on who left a trail of peanut shells behind as he munched and walked through the pits.
The legend of the fatal peanut shells has been told for so many years that no one knows if the story is true or not. For a superstitious person, that legend does not have to be documented as true to be believed.
One year at Darlington after a rain shower, Joe’s rain-soaked socks bled color until they were a shade of green. Weatherly hurriedly shed the socks and was sock-less for the rest of the day.
Darlington Raceway "Rebel 300" winners received a special Rebel 300 shirt, which Joe [the 1960 winner of the "Rebel 300"] wore while he drove on many occasions.
Weatherly was known for his love of wearing wild clothes and partying late into the night. Weatherly was the guy wearing the scuffed-up, black-and-white saddle oxford shoes, the same ones he wore when he was driving. He once drove his practice laps wearing a Peter Pan suit.
Turner was known as “Pops” because he called everyone, including Weatherly, “Pops.” But Turner was also known as Pops from the ‘pops’ he administered to drivers’ bumpers when they were too slow to get out of the way.
Daytona was the site of one of the most infamous incidents involving ‘Little Joe’ and ‘Pops.’ This incident is so outrageous that even Hollywood movie makers have chosen not to depict the entire episode.
One year while at Daytona, Joe and Curtis decided that the trip back to their motel in their rental cars would be more interesting if the first man back would receive their favorite beverage, a bottle of Canadian Club, as the prize.
Off they went, down the narrow two-lane ribbon of asphalt that was Route A1A in those days. “POP” went the cars as the boys laughed as they raced side-by-side slamming into each other, racing for the coveted bottle of “CC.”
The scene above (minus the bottle of “CC”) will be familiar to anyone who has seen the movie “Days of Thunder.”
As they approached the motel, Weatherly was determined not to lose this race to Turner. Joe left his braking as late as he dared.
Weatherly mis-judged the stopping distance, and his rental car slid into the motel’s pool. Joe stood in wet triumph next to the pool taking a victory drink from his newly-won bottle of “CC.”
The scene above (minus the bottle of “CC”) will be familiar to anyone who has seen the movie “Cannonball Run.”
The rental car company, whose cars had been trashed while the boys had fun, later sent photos of the two drivers to all their locations, instructing them to never rent a car to Weatherly or Turner.
While driving the Schwam “Purple Hog” in the Grand National Series, Joe once brought a live purple pig into the race track.
Joe reportedly gave the pig a ride around the track but it has never been reported who, after the pig’s ride, cleaned up the mess made by the pig in the race car.
Ford officials attending the Rebel 300 at Darlington were horrified to see teammates Weatherly and Turner race side-by-side “popping” each other, with bits of car trim showering to the track and the two buddies laughing all the time.
This incident no doubt contributed to NASCAR eventually making a rule that made teams remove the chrome trim off the side of the race cars.
Weatherly and Turner enjoyed talking the officials of the Darlington pre-race beauty pageant into allowing them to be judges. The pair no doubt enjoyed the bathing beauty display and the contest also supplied them with many “Baby Dolls” that lost the contest, to console.
Godwin Kelly, in his book Fireball, called Joe and Curtis “NASCAR’s designated crazy men.” Kelly went on to write: “Turner and Weatherly won plenty of stock car races and never lost a party.”
Turner was well known for often saying ‘If you don’t like this party, another will be starting in fifteen minutes!’ Weatherly and Turner competed off the track as well; sometimes using a chalk board to keep score of the number of “Baby Dolls” each had been with.
Weatherly and Turner weren’t the only drivers who were partying with the ladies we today might call “groupies.” One thing the rock and roll bands and their “groupies” did not have to contend with was the fact that when the stars performed they didn’t have to worry about dying during the performance!
The partying and joking around were one way for the drivers to vent some of the tension involved in a sport that was much more dangerous than it is today.
The various jokes and parties for Weatherly and Turner happened over the many years that the two raced against each other.
Bob Pronger, driving the No. 99 Ford, runs just ahead of rim-riding Fireball Roberts in the inaugural NASCAR Convertible race on Feb. 25 1956. Pronger, from Blue Island, Ill., drove sparingly in NASCAR's Grand Nationals and Convertibles in the 1950s.
The 1956 convertible season made stars out of Weatherly and Turner. The two were dubbed “The Gold Dust Twins” by the press because of the rooster-tails of dirt to two would throw up as they raced each other around the dirt tracks.
When the two would get out front, unchallenged by the other racers the real show began. Weatherly and Turner would slide through the turns almost side-by-side at times, swapping the lead every few laps.
The lead changes and the broad-sliding thrilled the crowd and amused the two while they controlled the lead. The convertibles allowing the crowds to see the drivers twist the steering wheels of their cars to control the slides.
As the last few laps began, the showmanship gave way to real racing with the fans screaming to the checkered flag.
Turner’s Most Popular award for the Grand National series in 1956 was undoubtedly from the popularity generated by Turner’s spectacular driving in the convertibles. Turner won just once in 13 Grand National starts, while he won 22 times in 42 starts in the convertibles.
As the 1956 Grand National season moved ahead the Ford team forgot about their Chevrolet rivals as a much tougher team, the Kiekhaefer bunch became the big challenge.
On top of the strength of the Kiekhaefer cars, Carl Kiekhaefer constantly protested the Fords over such things as gas tanks and engine parts. The Ford team would at times file protests against the Kiekhaefer Chryslers and Dodges.
In late September 1956 with races just a day or two apart, and no time to perform the tear-downs, there were eight cars between the two teams to inspect! The two teams, at that point, agreed to drop the protests.
Kiekhaefer was not satisfied however, and protested the next two races even though one of races was won by his car. Kiekhaefer’s cars won the final five races of the 1956 Grand National season with the team being disbanded in December.
NASCAR must have been relieved when Kiekhaefer quit, as his cars were ‘stinking up the show.’
Kiekhaefer was tired of having his team booed by the fans. Booing fans were not the kind of advertising the Kiekhaefer wanted for his Mercury Outboard motors. Kiekhaefer was also tired of having to deal the officials who he felt weren’t preventing the other teams cheating.
For Weatherly and his Ford team-mates the upcoming season would be better, with much-improved cars on the way for 1957.
*End of Part 2*
Next: Superchargers and the Chevrolet secret weapon: Henry Ford II.
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