Joe Weatherly: NASCAR's First Triple Champion… Almost. (Part 4a)
Joe Weatherly competed in fourteen of the fifteen races in the 1959 Convertible Series with two wins, five top fives, seven top tens, three poles and finished seventh in points.
“The Gold Dust Twins” of Curtis Turner and Joe Weatherly, were not the factor in the Convertible Series in 1959 as they were the previous seasons.
Turner took part of the season off, not only resting his bad back, but struggling to get his dream track at Charlotte constructed.
In the first three races of the 1959 Grand National (Cup) season Weatherly drove Chevrolets and was involved in one of the most famous race finishes of the era.
In 1959, the new Daytona Speedway was the biggest, most steeply banked track the NASCAR racers had ever run on.
Ground breaking for the Daytona International Speedway didn't take place until November 25, 1957 with the first Daytona 500 being run on February 22, 1959.
Big Bill France insisted on a track 2.5 miles in length (same as Indianapolis) and after getting a pie-shaped piece of land from the dog track next door, France was able to bend the front straight and get his 2.5 mile racetrack.
The engineers working for Bill France stacked the fill material for the banking as high as it would allow resulting in 31-degree banked turns.
The lake in the Daytona infield, that exists to this day, was a result of the fill material removal to make the banked turns.
A 1959 Oldsmobile street car is used in a test run on the still unfinished Daytona Speedway. The 31-degree banking at Daytona International Speedway was the steepest in the country and it awed many drivers.
Modified driver Jimmy Thompson perhaps summed it up best when he said, "There have been other tracks that separated the men from the boys. This is the track that will separate the brave from the weak after the boys are gone."
The field for the first Daytona 500 was filled by two qualifying races, one each for the convertibles and the Grand National cars; the mixed car starting field making something called a ‘Sweepstakes’ race by NASCAR.
Amazingly the race had run caution-free and as Lee Petty in his Oldsmobile and Johnny Beauchamp in a Holman-Moody built 1959 Thunderbird caught Weatherly as they approached the front stretch.
Weatherly had led six laps during the “1959 First Annual 500 Mile NASCAR International Sweepstakes at Daytona” and Joe thought he was racing for the win as he approached the flag stand.
Joe was in fact on the verge of being put a second lap down as the checkered flag waved.
Despite the fact that Tim Flock had used a radio when he raced on the Daytona beach-road course in 1954, teams were still relying on the traditional chalk board to communicate with the drivers, which is why Weatherly didn’t really know his position in the race.
Big Bill France was standing at the base of the flag stand to see who would cross the finish line first, but Weatherly’s car blocked a clear view of Beauchamp and Petty as the three cars crossed the finish line.
Three days after the race ended Bill France announced that Beauchamp, who was originally declared the winner, had actually been beaten to the finish line by Petty. Weatherly finished fifth, one lap down.
This is the photo that decided the winner of the first Daytona '500'.
(From bottom to top) Johnny Beauchamp in No. 73 Holman-Moody built 1959 Thunderbird, Lee Petty in his No. 42 Oldsmobile, and Joe Weatherly in the E. C. Wilson-owned 1959 Chevrolet No. 48 who was actually almost two laps down, but thought he was racing for the win. (Photo by T. Taylor Warren.)
The 59 car starting field included a wide variety of makes and models: Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Chevrolet, Dodge, Ford, Thunderbird (which NASCAR called a separate make) and Mercury, as well as now-defunct models like Studebaker, DeSoto and even a 1958 Edsel.
The fleet of Thunderbirds convinced many racers that Ford was back in racing.
But in fact, John Holman had gone to the assembly plant in Wixom Michigan and had been the highest bidder for “scrap” bodies, engines and other damaged parts the were to be discarded by the plant.
The Thunderbirds actually ran 430-inch engines that were allowed to be used as NASCAR (Big Bill France) wanted as many cars as possible to run in the debut of his new racetrack.
After three races in Chevrolets, Weatherly drove Fords in the last 14 Grand National events he raced in for the1959 season.
In the 44 race 1959 Grand National series Weatherly ran in 17 races, finished 18th in the point standings with no wins, six top fives, ten top tens, and no poles.
In the 1959 Convertible Series, Weatherly ran ten of the 15 races, taking two wins, five Top Fives, seven Top Tens, and three poles, finishing seventh in the final season points. 1959 was the last season for the Convertible Series.
Weatherly was back in Holman-Moody cars for most of his 1960 starts. Weatherly made 24 starts (three in a Valiant!) in the 44 race season.
Weatherly got three wins, seven top fives, eleven top tens and no poles in 1960. Joe led a total of 246 laps and finished 20th in the point standings.
Weatherly won the Hickory 250 on April 16, leading 78 laps of the 250 lap race in his familiar No. 12 Holman-Moody Ford. Weatherly’s second win was on April 17 at Wilson NC where Weatherly led the last lap of the 200 lap event.
Weatherly’s biggest (and last) win in 1960 was at Darlington in the Rebel 300 on May 14, which was part of the Grand National series (although Darlington raced convertibles through 1963). Weatherly led 107 laps of the 219 lap race.
Joe as the winner of the race was awarded, along with the usual trophy, a Rebel 300 print shirt with the race logo as part of the pattern design. The Rebel 300 shirt was presented to the race winners during those years.
Darlington, with its beauty contest and parade, was always a location for partying for Weatherly and the other drivers. Weatherly once brought a donkey to his hotel.
After paying a local farmer $100 for the donkey, Weatherly and some friends managed to get it up to the second floor balcony of their hotel.
The donkey paced back and forth on that balcony all night. No doubt Joe enjoyed the startled reaction of folks trying to sleep on the second floor when they saw the donkey.
The next day, Little Joe slapped some race stickers on the donkey and rode it in the Darlington parade.
This photo shows Joe Weatherly riding the infamous donkey in the Darlington 500 parade. Note the Rebel 300 shirt and saddle shoes that Joe undoubtedly wore later while driving in the race. The donkey was apparently ‘sponsored’ by Grey-Rock brake linings on the rear ‘fender’ and Autolite Spark Plugs on the front ‘fender.’
Weatherly won the first race of the 1961 season at the Charlotte Fairgrounds in a Ford owned by Doc White, who was the owner of the Thunderbird Joe drove in the 1959 Grand National season.
Joe then drove Pontiacs for the rest of the season, with 23 of his 24 Pontiac runs at the wheel of the No. 8 Bud Moore car.
Weatherly’s second win in 1961 was the in the fourth race of the season.
That race was the second qualifying race for the Daytona 500 (the qualifying races were awarded points for many years) and Joe drove the soon-to-be-familiar No 8 Bud Moore Pontiac.
The 1961 season consisted of 52 races, Weatherly finished fourth in the points, in 25 starts he got 9 wins (the most by any driver),14 top fives,18 top tens and 3 poles.
Typical of the now-Cup series in that era, 207 drivers drove during the 1961 season!
(It is interesting to note that one of the 207 drivers competing in 1961 was Bobby Allison who raced four times, but did not race in the series again until 1965.)
Weatherly won NASCAR's Most Popular Driver Award in 1961.
Joe ended the 1961 season on a strong note winning five of the last nine races, with four of those wins coming in the last six races.
In today’s slang Weatherly was Curtis Turner’s “wing-man.” In virtually every report you will see about the two, the reports will start “Turner and Weatherly did…” this and that.
Turner competed in just eight GN races in 1961, and by 1962 he had been ‘banned for life’ by Big Bill France for his money-for-union-votes effort he undertook to get funds to pay for his new racetrack.
Turner had been promised a loan by the Teamsters if he could successfully sign up drivers for a union.
Although Curtis had a complete set of Virginia law books in his original office in his home state before moving to North Carolina, he was not aware that it was against federal law for the promised loan to go through.
It appears that as Weatherly approached his fortieth birthday, and with Turner no longer around, he got serious about his racing.
Perhaps Joe decided it was time to add some Grand National (Cup) championships to his résumé.
Weatherly was likely pleased with his chances, as Pontiac won 30 of the 52 races run in the Grand National circuit in 1961.
But before the 1962 season began Joe was involved in something completely different.
Near the end of 1961, Ray Nichels who owned the USAC Stock Championship Pontiac driven by Paul Goldsmith approached Pontiac about an effort to prove the strength, endurance and speed of the up-coming 1962 models.
Nichels was based in Indiana and was aware of the Stevens Challenge Trophy, awarded by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway since the 1920’s.
This trophy was awarded to manufacturers who set 24-hour speed and distance marks at the famous race track.
Ray Nichels and his two Nichels Engineering Pontiacs are preparing to set a series of Stock Car world speed records (which still stand) at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on November 20, 1961. The effort was originally scheduled to start on November 16th but was delayed by weather, and the cars ran in rain and sleet before the runs ended.(Photos: High Performance Pontiac Magazine; http://www.highperformancepontiac.com/features/hppp_0804_ray_nichels_pontiac_engineering/photo_01.html )
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway had been built not just for racing, but also as an auto test facility, as the number of manufacturers around Indianapolis at the time the track was built was greater that the number of makers around Detroit.
In 1954, Chrysler Corporation set the 24-hour record at 2,157.5 miles, with an average speed of 89.89 mph for the Stevens Challenge.
Ford Motor Company established the 500-mile record, running 111.916 mph, including a one-lap speed record of 117.832 mph.
Nichels went after all the records with two Pontiac Catalina’s, one red and one black.
While the red car was a standard Catalina body, the black car was a Police Enforcer 2-door post coupe, sold by Pontiac to law enforcement departments.
Nichels painted the doors on the black car white and added a blinking red light (supposedly for visibility concerns) which made the car look very much like a police car.
The two cars were kept as stock was possible with reinforced wheels, front spindles and roll bars the must noticeable of the safety changes.
Nichels’ drivers were Joe Weatherly, Marvin Panch, Glenn "Fireball" Roberts from NASCAR; and Paul Goldsmith, Len Sutton, and Rodger Ward, from USAC.
Delayed by bad weather, the run began at Indy at 3 pm on November 20 1961.
Despite a small accident by the ‘black-and-white’ and rain starting at 4 AM, the records were accomplished.
Nichels used a fork lift during pit stops to lift the entire car in the air for quicker stops, allowing all four tires to be changed on the cars at one time.
The red 1962 Pontiac Catalina is shown running for world records in the rain at Indianapolis. The effort started on 3 pm on the 20th, and the drivers ran the last 11 hours of the 24 hour effort in the rain, snow and sleet.
The team broke the previous 24-hour distance record in their 20th hour.
The black-and-white Pontiac ran over 2,586 miles for the 24-hour run, for an average speed of 107.787 miles per hour.
The red Catalina ran over 2,576 miles for the 24-hour run, making an average speed of 107.343 miles per hour.
The cars had been driven the 150-mile trip from Nichels’ shop to the speedway, and afterwards, driven back to the Highland Indiana shop (21 miles from Chicago) for the USAC inspection.
Nichels then took the cars to the most famous stock car track, Darlington, to repeat the run under NASCAR supervision.
When the runs of the two cars were over, the “Certificate of Performance” signed by NASCAR car’s Joe Epton and Bill France stated that the Police Enforcer with the 389-inch Super Duty engine had run one lap at 116.580 MPH.
The car also set the 500-mile mark of 109.247 MPH (4 hours 43 minutes 52.89 seconds) and 24-hour marks of 108.819 MPH for 2612.500 miles.
END PART 4A; click link below for final installment.
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