One of the great things about the week leading up to NASCAR’s race in Darlington, S.C. – at least if you live in South Carolina – is reminiscing about the past.
Whether it’s Cale Yarborough sailing clean over the wall and coming to rest several hundred yards outside the track in the 1965 Southern 500, Ricky Craven edging Kurt Busch by .002 seconds – the closest finish in NASCAR history – in the thrilling 2003 spring race, or Johnny Mantz, the slowest of 75 drivers to qualify for the track’s inaugural race but then going on to outlast the field in a 1950 Plymouth outfitted with truck tires, Darlington has had no shortage of great moments.
The State newspaper of Columbia today focused on the man who won at the track 50 years ago this week – Joe Weatherly.
Weatherly was known as the clown prince of racing, a nickname that was well-earned, according to publication.
“He flew to races in his own plane, but never learned to read the instruments. He used gas station maps for navigation. Once, he left his Virginia home for a race in Dayton, Ohio. All was well until the Empire State Building appeared out his window,” according to The State.
“On a good day, his rental car wouldn’t be a total loss upon return. On a typical day, the car might have found the bottom of a hotel’s pool,” the paper added. “He often was as lubricated as his race car’s engine, a party animal with a knack for talking his way out of arrests.”
Weatherly, who captured NASCAR’s top division title in 1962 and ’63, won 25 races in his career. The victory at Darlington on May 11, 1963, however, would be his last.
Fifty years ago NASCAR was a far cry from the sophisticated, safety-focused operation it is today.
Driver protection consisted of a helmet, a lap belt and clothing – often a short-sleeve shirt and a pair of slacks – dipped in flame-retardant chemicals.
Some of those on the track would pay the price for the fact that safety wasn’t keeping pace with the increasing horsepower under the hoods of the cars they were driving.
Weatherly would be killed the following January at Riverside, Calif., when he crashed during a race and his head smacked the wall at nearly 100 miles per hour.
Weatherly’s stock car didn’t have a window net and he wasn’t wearing a shoulder harness, for fear of being trapped in a burning car.
Sadly, the man who won the fall race at Darlington that year, Fireball Roberts, also died in 1964.
In May 1964, Roberts was racing at the World 600 in Charlotte, when Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson crashed. Roberts wrecked trying to avoid them and his car slammed backward into the inside retaining wall, flipped and burst into flames.
Roberts suffered second- and third-degree burns over most of his body and was airlifted to a hospital in critical condition.
He held on for several weeks and it appeared that he might survive, but then contracted pneumonia and sepsis, and died in early July.
The deaths of Weatherly and Roberts would start NASCAR on its first real push toward driver safety, according to The State.
“Soon came the innovations,” according to the publication. “A netting to secure the driver’s side window. A rubber bladder to encase the gas tank to prevent rupture. Mandatory shoulder harnessing. Restrictor plates on the larger tracks to limit speed.”
Many of the old-time characters who helped make NASCAR what it is today are no longer around. But their efforts and sacrifices contributed to making the sport what it is today.
And at least a few of the old-time tracks such as Bristol, Martinsville, Richmond and, of course, Darlington, remain as a reminder of NASCAR’s wild and wholly early days.
(Top: Joe Weatherly, front, races against Richard Petty.)