Joe Weatherly, 1964, and NASCAR's Not-so-Good “Good Old Days.”
The “Good Old Days” were not really that good. Even those of us who lived through those days must admit, upon further reflection, that the Good Days are today.
I’d like to take this opportunity to give some history, as well as a bit of personal perspective about 1964, the year Joe Weatherly died and beyond.
[Opening photo: (left to right) The '61 USAC Stock Car Champion Paul Goldsmith, a teenage Linda Vaughn as Miss Pontiac and Joe Weatherly [who went on to win the '62 NASCAR Championship] are shown during a promotional tour for the record-setting Nichels Engineering prepared Pontiacs. This photo shows the red Catalina hardtop and appears to be taken at Daytona, note the high banks and the distance to the banking.]
Not too long after the death of Joe Weatherly, I was riding with my father when he told me he wanted to stop at a place where I might see something interesting.
We pulled to a stop at a monument company! Displayed in front of the building were examples of the company’s main product: headstones.
When we got inside, Dad asked the man to show me a proposal drawing for a headstone.
The proposed headstone was for Joe Weatherly. While the actual finished design of the marker differs from my memory of the drawing, the designs’ distinctive features are intact.
The marker is in the shape of Riverside International Raceway, as it was used for the NASCAR races.
(The cars followed the track going through the “esses,” then taking the right-hand Turn Seven then going straight to the right-hand Turn Twelve, for a 2.62-mile, nine-turn lap.)
The point where Weatherly’s car impacted the wall (Turn Five) being marked on the headstone by crossed checkered flags.
Perhaps such an unusual headstone is appropriate for a man who was called “The Clown Prince of Racing.”
During the Grand National race on January 19, 1964 at Riverside Speedway in California, Joe Weatherly was involved in a horrific accident. He died as a result of injuries suffered in the accident. He was Grand National Champion for the years 1962 and 1963 and was leading the points for 1964 when the accident occurred. Burial: Forest Lawn Cemetery, Norfolk Virginia, USA.
The photo below shows Weatherly in that race at Riverside, with his window rolled down and not using a shoulder harness.
The construction of the race cars was much more basic in the early 1960’s. The photos below show the interior of a 1964 Mercury built by Bill Stroppe, the ‘official’ factory supported team. However, the construction is typical of 1964.
Shot of the inside of a Bill Stroppe-built 1964 Mercury Marauder, looking toward the rear. Note that the doors still work!
View of driver’s seat, Bill Stroppe-built 1964 Mercury Marauder. Note that the doors and the window handles still work!
Important Note: PLEASE NOTE THAT SOME OF THE PHOTOS THAT FOLLOW, WHILE NOT OVERLY GRAPHIC, MAY BE DISTURBING TO SOME.
The simple roll bar structure shown in the above photos is the basic design upon which the current structure is based.
Safety, as can be seen in the photo, was nothing like it is today.
When Cotton Owens added a door bar (about at seat cushion level) on the drivers side of his Dodges driven by David Pearson, it warranted an article in the race program for the 1964 World 600.
For most of NASCAR’s existence, driver’s safety equipment was “suggested” or “recommended.” The drivers and teams were, after all, “independent contractors.”
For example, Weatherly did not like, and did not use, a shoulder harness and none was required. Weatherly said he could escape from any fire faster if he was not using a shoulder harness.
As you may have noticed in photos of Weatherly in my story about him, he is often shown wearing short-sleeve shirts and regular dress shoes; the shoes in Joe’s case usually being brown-and-white saddle shoes.
Even later, when driver uniforms were available, drivers tended to wear street shoes, David Pearson and Dave Marcis were well known for their well-worn leather shoes.
Safety testing in more recent years has shown that leather shoes are not protective in the case of a fire.
Drivers who use ‘sneakers’ or similar type street shoes are very vulnerable to fire injury, as the rubber parts of these types of shoe can melt causing major damage to the driver’s feet.
Driver’s uniforms in 1964 were regular cotton material soaked in a chemical bath and then allowed to air dry, leaving the garments stiff and smelly.
Glenn “Fireball” Roberts, although a fine athlete who worked out regularly, suffered from asthma and did not wear a treated uniform. (More on this later.)
The first protective driver uniforms used NOMEX ® a flame resistant material, which was under development in the early 1960s by DuPont, but was not available until 1967.
Weatherly’s car impacted the concrete wall in the right hand Turn Five at Riverside. This turn was part of the complex of turns commonly called the “esses” labeled as Turns Three, Four, Five and Six.
The above images show how the impact with the wall has crushed the left front fender and the headlight area of the grille on the cars’ left is totally crushed.
The impact was so hard that the windshield had popped out of its mounting, with the rubber window seal (shown in the top image) in the air to the right of the car.
This AP photo shows the track rescue workers beginning to remove Weatherly from the wrecked car.
Although the information available is not clear on this, it is generally believed that Weatherly died on impact.
Joe Weatherly's Fatal Crash (YouTube)
Or you can watch this video with overview of the entire race, with two views of Weatherly’s crash.
1964 NASCAR Motor Trend 500 Riverside
1964 World 600
On May 24, 1964 the World 600 was held, and once again, I was with my Dad and his friends in the Ford Grandstand on the front straight to watch the race.
An accident occurred half way through lap eight on the back stretch.
We weren’t quite sure what had happened, as we were without a radio to listen to the race broadcast; but we soon knew some bad was happening.
A large cloud of black smoke began to rise from the back straight.
This photo was taken from a slightly lower angle than my viewpoint in the Ford Grandstand on the front straight at the Charlotte Motor Speedway.
This photo shows an overhead view of the accident, as Roberts’ car is being extinguished. The black smoke was from burning gasoline.
The accident included Ned Jarrett, Junior Johnson and Glenn ‘Fireball’ Roberts.
Roberts’ car had struck the inside guardrail rear-end first and the stock gas tank, still full of fuel, was split open and the contents burst into fire.
Jarrett’s car had also hit the inside wall with his cars’ smashed gas tank spilling gas which caught on fire as well.
Jarrett pulled Roberts from the burning car. Roberts driving suit, specially tailored to fit, had not been chemically treated and Roberts suffered burns over 80% of his body.
Roberts’s car had landed upside down and the burning gas pooled in the roof of the car.
Roberts amazed the doctors by surviving the first 48 hours after the accident, and he somehow survived, even appearing to begin recovery, until succumbing to his burns on July 2, 1964 at age 35.
The death of Joe Weatherly had still been on the drivers’ minds before the start of the race.
Roberts had mentioned to Jarrett before the start of the ‘600’ that he was thinking of retiring at the end of 1964.
Roberts in fact had recently been divorced but had wanted to wait to get re-married until he and his fiancé could have a ‘proper’ wedding.
Roberts’ fiancé visited him every day while he was in the hospital. When Roberts died she was legally entitled to nothing from his estate, and she never married.
Jarrett went on to win the season championship in 1964 and retired while still champion in mid-1965.
Johnson basically retired after the 1965 season, but competed in seven short-track races late in 1966.
[End part one] Click link below for part 2.
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