Born in Odon, Indiana, Dawson competed in the Indianapolis 500 race three times. He also raced in the Vanderbilt Cup.
The ACA and AAA got together in 1910 to form the Motor Cup Holding Company, which was to conduct both the American Grand Prix and the Vanderbilt Cup race on Long Island. However, the GP was cancelled and few Europeans entered the Vanderbilt race.
Three people had already lost their lives, amongst them Louis Chevrolet's riding mechanic, when Joe Dawson who was leading the race in his yellow Marmon, came in late for a pit stop, sobbing and oblivious to the crew’s work on the car. When the stop was complete Dawson just sat there motionless, tears running through the grime on his face. Crewmen stood back uncomfortably, and the manager hardly knew what to do, as valuable seconds and then minutes slipped by. Finally Dawson confessed that he had killed a man out on the course, however once the manager had verified with the judges that the man had not, in fact, been killed, Dawson snapped out of his hysteria rejoined the race, finishing second by only twenty-two seconds. In all four people were killed and twenty-two seriously injured in the race, the last year the Vanderbilt Cup was held on Long Island.
In November 1910 he won the Savannah Trophy (231 – 300 cubic inch class)
In his first Indy 500 in 1911 he drove a Marmon in a controversial race won by local hero Ray Haroun. Many people think that the real winner that year was Ralph Mulford but due to appalling lap charts and time keeping the issue will always remain a mystery. However the net result of the enquiry was that Joe was moved up to fifth.
1911 in the Savannah Challenge Cup, Dawson was so badly injured that he could not race for the rest of the year.
The following year at age twenty-two he became the youngest driver to ever win the prestigious race, a record that stood until equalled by Troy Ruttman in 1952.
Dawson won driving a National after Ralph DePalma dropped out with a mechanical failure. For one lap Ralph and his mechanic, the Australian Rupert Jeffkins, drove around at 20 miles an hour. Rickenbacker said that the car crawled like a hurt animal. He had led the race from lap three to 197 and had a lead of five laps. Some say that he could have backed off and nursed his car home. However the 'Grey Ghost' Mercedes expired on lap 199 and DePalma Jeffkins got out and pushed the big rig to the pits. While this was going on, Dawson who was in second place was closing in on the lead. The crowd went crazy. They cheered as much for Ralph’s efforts as for Dawson’s victory. It is widely reported that Ralph pushed the Mercedes all the way to the finish. However this was not the case and the car was retired with one lap to go.
Don Herr drove relief for Dawson between laps 108 and 144.
The event established a record of sorts when Ralph Mulford took 8 hours and 53 minutes to finish 10th. It seems that officials told Mulford he wouldn't get paid unless he finished the whole 200 laps, so Ralph meandered along at about 56 mph, having lunch and stopping occasionally for a few other niceties.
In his final Indy 500 race in 1914, Dawson went out after an accident on the 44th lap.
He returned to Indy in 1928 to drive the Pace Car, a Marmon "8" (Model 78).
Later became a supervisor from the American Automobile Association and sadly died from a heart attack in 1948 while carrying out a track inspection for an upcoming race.