Joe Weatherly, 1964, and NASCAR's not-so-good “Good Old Days.” (Pt. 2)

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Joe Weatherly, 1964, and NASCAR's not-so-good “Good Old Days.” (Pt. 2)

Nineteen-sixty four was perhaps without precedent, in terms of its tragic events, both for NASCAR and for American auto racing in general.

 

In addition to Weatherly and Roberts, a number of other drivers died during the year.

 

(Did you miss Part One? Here's the link:)

Joe Weatherly, 1964, and NASCAR's Not-so-Good “Good Old Days.”

 

More fire

 

After the 1964 World 600 NASCAR race on May 24, the Indianapolis 500 ran on Memorial Day, May 30, 1964.

 

At Indianapolis, another fiery tragedy visited American motorsport.

 

Veteran driver Eddie Sachs (known as the Clown Prince of Racing) and rookie Dave McDonald were killed in a fiery crash on the second lap of the Indy 500.

 

McDonald crashed in Turn Four at Indy during the second lap of the race.

 

Sachs’ car plunged into the fireball that resulted from McDonald’s accident.

 

While McDonald’s death was fire related, Sachs died from blunt-force trauma that occurred when his car stuck the other cars in the accident.

 

The Sachs/McDonald accident resulted in the Indianapolis 500 being stopped.

 

This was the first time in the history of the event that the race had been stopped for an accident 

 

As a result of this accident, the use of gasoline in the race cars at Indianapolis was banned beginning in 1965.

 

After these fiery accidents, Firestone began developing a version of a fuel tank they produced for helicopters to use in race cars.

 

This “fuel cell” featured a tear-resistant reinforced rubber ‘bladder’ filled with 90% void foam designed to prevent sloshing gas turning into explosive vapor.

 

This ‘bladder’ was encased in a steel container (secured to the car with steel straps) with the fuel capacity, in NASCAR applications, of 22 gallons which was the same capacity as the production gas tanks that the fuel cell replaced in the stock cars.

 

The Firestone “Racesafe” fuel cell was introduced January 1965.

 

 

To get an idea of what the construction of NASCAR cars of the era looked like, check out this video on YouTube.

 

This video gives a quick tour of the Joe Weatherly Museum at Darlington as well as a look at the inside of a 1968 NASCAR “Cup” car, whose design was virtually unchanged from 1964.

 

1968 SOUTHERN 500 part 1 (YouTube)

 

 

 

 

Tire Testing

 

In NASCAR, the bad times extended into the area of tire testing.

 

Tire testing was being done on the tires, due to tire failures caused by the speeds being achieved.

 

Testing also involved a racing version of the inner tire that was being developed. A street car version of this inner tire design was available as a production-line option as early as 1957.

 

Jimmy Pardue, the pole winner of the May 1964 World 600 returned to the Charlotte track for tire testing for Goodyear. He was scheduled for a series of short tire test runs.

 

Pardue, in the same red Plymouth that won the pole, went out for a ten lap run at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Tuesday, September 22 1964.

 

On lap six, Pardue ran 149 mph, about four miles per hour faster than the track record.

 

On lap seven, the right front tire blew. The car, lowered to get extra speed, dropped down on its oil pan, sliding toward the third turn guardrail.

 

The car broke the wooden support posts for the guardrail, and took out 48 feet of guardrail as the car when through.

 

The engine was torn out of the car, and the car went down the banking, traveling    100 feet, stopping with what was left of its nose against a steel fence.

 

Pardue was removed from his car by the track workers and others present and he was transported in a regular car to the hospital.

 

 

Pardue was semiconscious when he was taken to the hospital and died about two hours after he entered the hospital.

 

After Pardue’s accident NASCAR put new testing rules in place that required an ambulance to be present during all testing.

 

NASCAR also ruled that teams would no longer be allowed to lower the cars (a common trick to get more speed) during testing.

 

Continuing the tragic times on the USAC circuit, Bobby Marshman (who was the co-Rookie of the Year in the 1961 Indy 500 with Parnelli Jones) died as a result of a fiery accident during a tire test at Phoenix on December 4 1964.

 

The 1964 season generated a lot of controversy in NASCAR with tire failures and the deaths of Weatherly and Roberts causing concern among the competitors.

 

The drivers’ concern about the many tire failures was highlighted by the comment from Fred Lorenzen that he was contemplating retiring from racing.

 

This comment by Lorenzen, who in 1963 was the first NASCAR driver to win over $100,000, was an illustration of just how serious the situation had become.

 

The Hemi powered Chrysler cars had been several miles per hour faster than the Fords and Mercury’s in 1964.

 

Boycott

 

NASCAR took action to slow the cars down, but created more controversy when the rules for 1965 cut back on engine power hurting both Ford and Chrysler.

 

The Chrysler teams were hurt the most as the Hemi was disallowed. Chrysler immediately announced a boycott of the Grand National (Cup) Series.

 

The Charlotte (NC) Observer newspaper when previewing the 1965 season headlined the article “Ford Versus Nobody.”

 

In the midst of all the pre-season controversy, another tire testing death occurred in January of 1965 to once again cast a shadow over NASCAR’s top series.

 

Billy Wade, the young driver for Bud Moore was killed in tire testing at Daytona.

 

Important note: PLEASE NOTE THAT SOME OF THE PHOTOS THAT FOLLOW, WHILE NOT OVERLY GRAPHIC, MAY BE DISTURBING TO SOME.

 

 

 

 

 

1965 Daytona tire test

Billy Wade was fatally injured in this Bud Moore 1964 Mercury in a Daytona tire test on January 5, 1965. The announcers liked to call the '64 Mercury’s 'the Worlds Fastest Used Cars' when they raced in 1965.

 

Moore, who had dropped the use of the number 8 after the death of Weatherly in early 1964, dropped the use of the number 1 after Wade’s death.

 

Moore also changed the color scheme of the cars adding a white roof to the black-over-red colors formally used, ostensibly to reduce the heat build-up inside the black-roofed cars during the heat of summer.

 

When the 1965 season began, the fans showed their displeasure by not going to the races.

 

The 1965 Daytona 500 had attendance of 58,682 compared to 69,738 in 1964.

 

The poor crowds continued through the year, such as the April 1965 race at Martinsville drawing about 10,000 fans compared to 23,500 April 1964.

 

The Rebel 300 in May 1965 at Darlington had about 15,000 attendance, about half of the attendance of the 1964 Rebel 300 race.

 

Bill France finally changed the rules, and on July 25th the Chrysler Corporation agreed to return to racing, setting up competition for the Fords and Mercury’s for the last quarter of the season.

 

France was under so much pressure from the track owners and promoters, led by Bob Colvin of Darlington, that he finally lifted the four-year-old ban of Curtis Turner.

 

But tragedy had not stopped stalking the NASCAR circuit.

 

In 1965 the Southern 500 was held on September 6th.  Rookie Buren Skeen spun out in the third turn of lap two.

 

Skeen’s 1964 Ford was struck in the door by the Ford driven by Reb Wickersham.

 

Skeen died on September 13th, without regaining consciousness. 

 

The twenty-eight year-old Skeen was survived by his wife and two sons, aged four and two.

 

Skeen’s seat was shoved toward the center of the car by the impact and one of Skeen’s injuries introduced a term new to race fans of the 1960’s but one that would become all too familiar to fans in the twenty-first century: basal skull fracture.

 

1965 Buren Skeen fatal crash Darlington

1965 Southern 500: Two laps into what would be a wreck-filled race, Buren Skeen's 1964 Ford was hit in the door by Reb Wickersham, knocking Skeen's seat to the other side of the car. Skeen’s car is shown being towed away by a wrecker.

 

Tragedy would once again visit NASCAR just six races after Darlington, at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

 

Harold Kite, making his first NASCAR start since 1956 was killed in a first lap crash involving five cars in the National 400 on October 17 1965.

 

Kite, however, was not an inexperienced racer having raced on the MARC circuit against Curtis Turner who was in the race making his sixth of seven  NASCAR starts in 1965.

 

The end of 1965 did not end the controversy around NASCAR.

 

Boycott, again.

 

NASCAR’s troubles continued into 1966 when Ford boycotted NASCAR after the 427 SOHC engine it wanted to use to counter the Chrysler hemi was not approved.

 

Fans once again stayed away from the races.

 

NASCAR, desperate to draw fans, looked the other way when Smokey Yunick showed up for Darlington’s Rebel 400 on April 30, 1966 with Curtis Turner driving a cunningly but obviously modified Chevrolet Chevelle.

 

But the crowd at Darlington for that race is only 12,000 with 5000 of those being Boy Scouts who were admitted for free.

 

(Refer to the photo at the beginning of this article.)

1967 Chevelle [updated from the 1966 model] driven by Curtis Turner at 1967 Daytona 500, started on the pole, led six laps, and finished in 25th with engine failure completing 143 laps of the 200 lap race. This photo is the traditional pre-race photo taken at Daytona for many years. Note how short the distance is between the front fender opening and the front bumper. Yunick moved both the front and rear wheels forward maintaining the stock wheelbase but, in essence, moving the body back, and thus increasing the weight on the rear wheels.

 

The Ford boycott was finally broken only when Junior Johnson entered a car for Fred Lorenzen to drive at the Dixie 400 at Atlanta on August 7, 1966.

 

The Johnson car, painted in his sponsor’s yellow colors, was immediately dubbed the Yellow Banana due to its outrageous shape.

 

Johnson’s car had a raked windshield, a chopped top, and the rear fenders sweeping upward from the rear window.

 

Even from the grandstands the Yellow Banana was blatantly outside the rules; but when NASCAR allowed it to race it served NASCAR’s purpose.

 

1966.08.07 Junior's Banana

The Junior Johnson-built #26 Ford, driven by Fred Lorenzen in Atlanta's Dixie 400, was one of the most radical cars to ever compete in NASCAR Grand National competition. The front end of the car sloped downward, the roofline was lowered, the side windows were narrowed (the result of a chopped top), the front windshield was raked back in an aerodynamic position, and the tail was kicked up. Several of rival drivers called the car "The Yellow Banana," "Junior's Joke," and "The Magnafluxed Monster."

 

The boycott by Ford was quickly ended, but the Banana never raced again.

 

And from the time this second boycott was broken, NASCAR was wary of having their organization dictated to by the auto manufacturers.

 

Driver safety.

 

During 1965, NASCAR had still not addressed the factors involved in the death of Joe Weatherly.

 

When the Grand National Series had returned to Riverside on January 17 1965, Ford Motor Company required all the drivers of Fords and Mercury’s to drive the road course with the drivers’ window rolled up.

 

The idea behind having the drivers’ window rolled up was to protect the driver in the event of an accident similar to the one that killed Joe Weatherly.

 

The problem that had killed Weatherly was not addressed until 1968.

 

 

1968.01.21 Riverside

Bobby Isaac's #37 Dodge skids off the course during the Jan. 21 1968  "Motor Trend" 500 at Riverside International Raceway as Dan Gurney passes in the #21 Wood Brothers Ford. It was the first NASCAR Grand National event that included protective screens in the driver's window. The window screens use weren't mandated by NASCAR until 1970.

 

NASCAR finally required window nets after the Richard Petty crash at the 1970 Rebel 400 at Darlington.

 

Richard Petty Darlington crash 1970

As the two seasons following Joe Weatherly’s death has shown, the “Good Old Days” were filled with death and boycotts.

 

So the “Good Old Days” were not as great as nostalgia might lead us to believe.

 

END

 

For a look at more recent tragedies in the world of NASCAR, I suggest the following Bleacher Report article:

 

Nine Years Ago Today, NASCAR Changed Forever

By Clayton Caldwell

 


 

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