Cup Champion: 1962 and 1963
May 29, 1922 – January 19, 1964
Hometown: Norfolk, Virginia
Career: 1952 – 1964
Premier Series Stats:
Joe Weatherly had a short but extraordinary career. His exploits off the track were as legendary as his accomplishments on the track. He was well known for his love of liquor, women and hard racing. Weatherly was also the king of practical jokes, earning him the nickname, “The Clown Prince of Racing.”
In the days before start switches, Weatherly would sneak along pit road and steal the keys to all the cars. When the command, “Gentlemen, start your engines,” was given, only one car fired up. It didn’t take much detective work to figure out that Weatherly was the culprit.
His partner in crime was usually fellow driver Curtis Turner. Once, in Darlington, they paid a farmer $100.00 for a mule. That evening they kept the mule out on the balcony and spent the night laughing at the reactions of the other motel guests. But they weren’t done yet.
The next day, the mule made another surprise appearance. It’s doubtful the spectators will ever forget that day as Weatherly rode the mule, complete with race stickers, in the Darlington parade.
Born in Norfolk, Virginia, “Little Joe” began his racing career on motorcycles. Between the years of 1946 and 1950, he won three American Motorcycle Association national championships.
Weatherly switched to racing stock cars in 1950 and found immediate success. In 1952 and 1953 combined, he won an amazing 101 races. Weatherly went on to win the NASCAR Modified National crown in 1953.
He also became a top driver in NASCAR’s Convertible division between 1956-59, winning a dozen races and finishing among the top five in points for three consecutive years. When the division folded, Weatherly made the move to race full-time in the NASCAR Grand National series.
Weatherly won his first Cup Series championship in 1962 with legendary owner Bud Moore. He followed that up with another championship in 1963. The second title is truly impressive when you consider the fact that he drove for nine different owners that year.
But that’s not all.
His back to back championship titles are even more remarkable when you take into account the fact that Weatherly only ran a full Cup schedule twice and both times he won the championship.
His love of fun was equaled by his love of racing and he was a master at both. In 2015 Weatherly will be honored as an inductee into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Joe Kelly, a longtime Richmond radio host, once said of Weatherly, “He was the consummate racer. He could race anything and he could win anything he raced.”
Weatherly started the 1964 season with consistent finishes and was leading the standings going into the fifth race of the season at Riverside, California. This particular race, however, was not going well and mechanical problems forced him into the pits for lengthy repairs. He finally made it back on the track in an attempt to finish the race and gain as many points as possible.
But suddenly, everything went horribly wrong. Weatherly slid off the track, crashed and struck the retaining wall. His helmet was undamaged and it’s likely that his head hit either the front roll bar or possibly struck the retaining wall.
He was killed instantly but the exact cause of the accident is unclear. There is speculation that his engine blew and that a piece of the engine cut his brake line, resulting in brake failure.
At the time of his crash, Weatherly was only wearing a lap belt. In 1964 wearing a shoulder harness was not mandatory. Ironically, one day before he died, Weatherly told The Associated Press that he preferred only a lap belt.
Weatherly was buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Norfolk, Virginia. As a memorial to this “good old boy” who raced hard and lived life to the fullest, his headstone depicts a replica of Riverside Speedway with an “X” marking the location of Weatherly’s fatal wreck.
His tragic death prompted NASCAR to require all drivers to wear some type of harness restraint the following year. They also began looking at ways to provide some protection at the driver’s side window. In 1971, the sanctioning body developed the window webbing that is still used today.
Joe Weatherly was only 41 years of age when he died.
It’s impossible to predict what he might have accomplished had he lived but chances are it would have been memorable.
“He was as good as anyone who’s ever been at this,” said Junie Donlavey, Richmond-based NASCAR pioneer and former team owner.
“He would have been right at the top of the list. He would have been right there with all the greats. He was that good.”
1953 NASCAR Modified National Champion
1962 Grand National Champion
1963 Grand National Champion
Three American Motorcycle Association championships
1961 NASCAR Most Popular Driver award
1965 The stock car racing museum in Darlington, SC which opened in 1965, is named for Weatherly.
1976 Inducted into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame
One of the grandstand areas near the start-finish line at Daytona International Speedway is named for Weatherly.
1994 Inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame
1998 Named one of the NASCAR’s “50 Greatest Drivers”
2009 Inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America
2015 Will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame