The Tragic Death of 'The Clown Prince of NASCAR' Joe Weatherly at Age 41

NASCAR 75: One of a series of 75 stories that helped define the first three quarters of a century of NASCAR, as Autoweek races to the 2023 Daytona 500.

  • Joe Weatherly died at the young age of 41 in the Motor Trend 500 on January 19, 1964.
  • The crash occurred at the now-defunct Riverside International Raceway (RIR) in Southern California.
  • Weatherly was one of the most popular drivers of his time and the two-time defending NASCAR Grand National (now NASCAR Cup) champion (1962 and 1963).

    While NASCAR provides memories of great races and excitement, there’s also a sad side to the sport, namely, the number of drivers that have been killed behind the wheel.

    Of course, the biggest death in the sport’s history was Dale Earnhardt, who was killed in a last-lap wreck in the 2001 season-opening Daytona 500.

    But there have been a number of other notable drivers killed including Neal Bonnett, Fireball Roberts, Tiny Lund, J.D. McDuffie, Kenny Irwin and Adam Petty. Other drivers have also been killed, but not necessarily in races, including Alan Kulwicki (plane crash) and Davey Allison (helicopter crash).

    One of the most significant names that tragically lost his life while driving a race car was Joe Weatherly, who perished at the young age of 41 in the Motor Trend 500 on January 19, 1964, in a crash at the now-defunct Riverside International Raceway (RIR) in Southern California.

    1956 old dominion 500
    Joe Weatherly (12) gets sideways at Martinsville in 1956.
    RacingOneGetty Images

    One of the most popular drivers of his time, and two-time defending NASCAR Grand National (now NASCAR Cup) champion (1962 and 1963), Weatherly, driving for legendary team owner Bud Moore, was piloting a 1964 Mercury when, on Lap 87 of the 185-lap event, the former motorcycle racer turned NASCAR competitor wrecked and was pronounced dead from head injuries he sustained.

    According to reports, Weatherly, whose car did not have a window net installed because he feared being trapped in a burning car, and who himself was not wearing a shoulder harness or seat belts, was coming around a turn when his car slid into a retaining wall.

    Without anything to stop his body from its abrupt sideways movement, his head made contact with the wall and he was killed instantly, according to reports.

    Sadly—and with some irony—Weatherly’s grave marker is a sculpture of RIR, with a checkered flag indicating the spot on the track where his fatal crash occurred.

    bud moore
    Team owner Bud Moore, left, helped Joe Weatherly win the NASCAR championships in both 1962 and 1963.
    RacingOneGetty Images

    Joseph Herbert Weatherly wasn’t forgotten by his peers, the racing media or his fans. He was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2009, the American Motorcycle Association Hall of Fame in 1998, was named one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers in 1998.and was posthumously inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2015.

    While he won 25 races (and added 105 top-5 and 153 top-10 finishes) in 230 career Grand National starts, the man nicknamed “Little Joe” also was one of the greatest Modified drivers in NASCAR history before moving to the Grand National ranks.

    In his first season in the Modified class in 1950, not only did he win the first race he entered, he’d go on to win 49 of 83 races that season and finished runner-up in the overall standings. He’d win 49 of 83 races again in 1952, also winning the Modified National Championship, and then won 52 more races and a second championship the following season.

    In addition to being a great driver, Weatherly also had a great personality. According to reports, he was one of the most colorful and full of life drivers in the sport, once taking laps while wearing a Peter Pan suit, and was also known for partying into the wee hours and having a good time, which earned him the nickname “The Clown Prince of Racing.”

    Follow Autoweek correspondent Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski

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