29/5/1922 - 19/1/1964
Record updated 29-May-20
Born Joseph Herbert Weatherly in Norfolk, Virginia. Weatherly had discovered motorcycles while in High School, and upon returning from the Army started racing them. Weatherly earned three American Motorcycle Association (AMA) Championships before he started racing stock cars in 1950. By 1953, Weatherly had won NASCAR's Modified National Crown with more than 52 victories.
In 1952, Weatherly switched to NASCAR racing and won 49 of the 83 stock car races that year.
In 1953, Weatherly won NASCAR's Modified National Crown with 52 more victories.
In 1962 he won the NASCAR Grand National (now Winston Cup) Division Championship.
In both 1962 and 1963, he won the "Rebel 300" at Darlington. Weatherly was the Most Popular Driver in 1961, and he won the National Championships in 1962 and 1963.
This brings us to January 19, 1964, the day Little Joe Weatherly died at Riverside Raceway. The 41-year-old, two-time point champion from Norfolk, Virginia, qualified 16th on the twisting 2.7-mile road course. Weatherly's car had a mechanical problem early in the race, and he made a long pit stop. He went back out to chase the points, and on the 86th lap, he met instant death in Turn 6.
Those who saw it said Weatherly's car was a little out of shape and struck the wall a glancing blow at no more than 85 or 90 mph. He hit the wall with the left side of the car. Weatherly was not wearing a shoulder harness, nor did he have a window net on the driver's door. NASCAR did not make it mandatory. Speculation has always been that Weatherly's head flopped out the window and hit the cement wall on impact. His helmet split down the left side.
Weatherly was terrified of fire and said if his car were to burst into flames he could get out quicker with just a seatbelt and no net over the window. He also drove No. 8. "That way fans can't tell if I'm on my wheels or on my top," he would say.
He won $247,418 during his 12-year NASCAR career, from 1952 to 1964. He won 25 of the 230 events he entered and was on the pole for 18 races.
Dan Gurney and Marvin Panch, driving a pair of Wood Brothers Fords, finished 1-2 that Sunday at Riverside. Almost immediately NASCAR made the shoulder harness and window net on the driver's door mandatory. In its book on how to build racecars, NASCAR also made mandatory stronger bars inside the doors, especially on the driver side. All this made it safer for the next driver slamming the driver's door against a concrete wall. It did not make it easier for Weatherly fans, who mourned the loss of their hero, appropriately called the first Clown Prince of Racing for his jovial, light-hearted personality.
As a final tribute, the old version of Riverside Raceway was etched on his headstone. One final joke for the Clown Prince.