299. Joe Weatherly
Joseph Herbert Weatherly was born in Norfolk VA on 29 May 1922. In high school, he developed a fascination with motorcycles and speed. Like many young men of the time his interests were interrupted by WW2, and he served in North Africa, followed by the grinding campaign through Western Europe.
On 2 October 1946, Norfolk police responded to an accident at 26th and Leo Street. A 1942 Buick hopped a curb, skidded 188 feet, and slammed head-on into a tree. Four were injured, three seriously. Weatherly, driving, was trapped in the windshield, cut from the temple to the jugular. Louis D Looney, one of the cops, clamped Weatherly’s artery with his hand, probably saving Little Joe’s life. Twenty-four-year-old Eddie Baines died from head injuries. Eighteen-year-old Jean Flanagan broke both legs. Two years later, Weatherly and Flanagan married.
Weatherly was charged with reckless driving and driving with a suspended license. Later, homicide was added to the list. He spent the next two years fighting court battles. He received suspended sentences for the traffic violations. In September 1947, he went to jail for another misdemeanor, probably another traffic violation.
After springing the pokey, Weatherly began racing motorcycles seriously. He won three American Motorcycle Association national Championships between 1946 and 1950. That was fame enough to earn rides in modified four-wheelers. He won his first modified race, and the national title in 1953, after finishing 2nd in ‘52. That success brought factory backed rides, from Pete DePaolo, and later, Ralph Moody, in the Grand National and Convertible series.
If Fireball Roberts was NASCAR’s “thinking man’s” racer, Weatherly was the “devil may care” good old boy. He enjoyed “pops,” banging quarter panels with the competition to knock them out of the way, and a foot to the floor driving style. That style culminated in the ’59 season, when he started seventeen races, carded ten top tens and seven DNFs.
At Daytona 1956
Race fans loved Little Joe’s “win or wreck” show. Weatherly and Curtis Turner assured packed grandstands at every track they visited. The pair was as famous for off-track antics as for on-track successes. Both were married, but kept a bachelor pad on Atlantic Ave in Daytona, where legendary marathon parties were held during speedweeks. The ‘rental cars” scene from “Days of Thunder” is loosely based on a story of Turner and Weatherly racing, and demolishing, rental cars down Highway A1A for a wager of a bottle of Canadian Club. Legend reports that Turner backed off at the finish line, but Weatherly kept going into a hotel swimming pool. The story continued that both men were banned from renting cars, but that could also be explained by both losing their drivers licenses on at least one occasion.
While Weatherly’s practical jokes and parties are amusing, his legend has been somewhat distorted. His war record was distinguished. Little Joe’s scar may have been due to reckless driving, or may have been the result of a shattered steering knuckle when he hit a curb. The parties and hard-driving style may have damaged brain cells and filled seats, but they didn’t win races. When Turner was banned from Grand National, and Weatherly lost his Holman-Moody ride, it seems he finally got serious about racing.
Lorenzen & Weatherly 1960
In 1960, for the first time, Weatherly claimed more than one Grand National win in a season. He landed with Bud Moore, who taught the lesson Moody hadn’t: The race was won on the last laps. In ’61, in twenty-five races, the team won nine times, tripling Weatherly’s career total from the previous eight seasons. The next two seasons brought Weatherly and Moore their first Championships. Weatherly’s death at Riverside may have prevented a three-peat.
At Daytona, where Barney Oldfield, Ralph DePalma, Sir Henry Seagrave, and Frank Lockhart are honored, only four sets of stands bear NASCAR racers’ names: Petty, Earnhardt, Roberts and Weatherly.