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NASCAR HOF inductee profile: Joe Weatherly

Born: May 29, 1922, Norfolk, Va. Died: Jan. 19, 1964, in a crash at Riverside International Raceway in California.

Family: No known close relatives.

Career highlights: 230 major NASCAR level starts, 25 wins, 18 poles, racing from 1952 to 1964.Was the Most Popular Driver in 1961. Won the 1962 series championship while driving for Hall Of Famer Bud Moore with nine victories and an astonishing 30 other top-five finishes in 52 starts. With no regular ride in ’63 for various reasons, he drove for nine teams and repeated as champion with three victories, 17 other top-five finishes and 15 more in the top 10 in 53 starts. Career earnings of $247,418. ... During the 1951 and 52 seasons Weatherly won an amazing 101 times in NASCAR’s Modified Division to become national champion both years. He earlier had won three American Motorcycle Association championships. ... Scored his first top-level NASCAR victory in the Nashville 200 in 1958 at Fairgrounds Speedway, a half-mile paved track in Tennessee. His last win came on Oct. 27, 1963, in an untitled 167-lap race at Occoneechee Speedway in Hillsboro, a nine-tenths-mile dirt track.

Reflections

Retired Observer motorsports writer Tom Higgins on Joe Weatherly:

I first saw him: On Sept. 8, 1957, at Asheville-Weaverville Speedway, the first race I ever both attended and covered. As a scared, lost cub reporter I ascended a rickety, three-story, wood-frame tower on the infield side of the start/finish line. Two men were already up there with helmets curled under their arms. They were dressed in slacks and sport shirts, not unusual for drivers to wear during races in those days. I recognized them to be stars Joe Weatherly and his best friend, Curtis Turner, whom he called “Pops.” They were passing a pint of Jim Beam back and forth, swigging straight from the bottle. Neither had a ride that day, but they would have taken a car if offered. I thought to myself, “Man, this is a hairy-chested sport. I think I’m going to like this!”

My favorite memory of him: In the winter of 1959, shortly after joining the Winston-Salem Journal sports staff, I was invited to attend a racing dinner at the Robert E. Lee Hotel. The event was part of a series hosted by Darlington Raceway as a means of maintaining offseason interest in stock car racing. As I leaned over to sign a guest book, someone threw a fake snake around my neck – Weatherly. I hate snakes but didn’t react, figuring it to be a phony. Later, Weatherly threw the realistic-looking snake under the feet of a waiter carrying a tray filled with after-dinner drinks above his head on the tips of his fingers. The waiter screamed in horror and tossed the tray. I still recall the scene in what seems slow motion, the tray tumbling through the air, the glasses spilling and breaking as they crashed to the floor. Raceway president Bob Colvin roared, “Little Joe, you’re paying for every bit of that!” A delighted Weather replied, “Put it on my tab!” He, of course, had no tab. Weatherly was most deserving in being known as the “Clown Prince Of Racing.”

What people might not know about him: The fun-loving Weatherly was up to any outrageous stunt. He once wore a Peter Pan outfit while qualifying. He donned a huge sombrero and rode a donkey the length of one Southern 500 parade in downtown Darlington. … Weatherly was extremely superstitious. He refused to enter the 1952 Southern 500 because it was billed as the “13th Annual.” When Weatherly wouldn’t budge, Colvin changed the billing to “12th Renewal Of The Southern 500.” Little Joe entered.

Most memorable quote: “I’d rather be the rabbit than the dog any day (on leading races). But if I can’t be the rabbit, it doesn’t mean I’m going to give up the chase. Any time my car has speed and handling, you can look for me at the front or trying to get there.”

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