The Tragic Death of NASCAR Hall of Famer Joe Weatherly Changed the Sport Forever

Joe Weatherly was one of the most beloved NASCAR drivers throughout the 1950s and ’60s. Nicknamed “The Clown Prince of Stock Car Racing,” Weatherly brought tons of fans to NASCAR with his delightful personality and unique approach to racing.

But a year after Weatherly ascended to the top of the NASCAR Cup Series, a devastating car accident tragically took his life. Weatherly’s death was one of the saddest days for NASCAR at the time, but it wound up changing the sport for the better.

Joe Weatherly was a fan-favorite on the NASCAR track

Joe Weatherly was one of the most beloved NASCAR drivers in history, and his tragic death in 1964 changed the sport as we know it.
Joe Weatherly | ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images

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Joe Weatherly might be remembered today as a legendary NASCAR driver, but he first started racing motorcycles in the American Motorcycle Association. He spent four seasons in the AMA and won three national championships before finally making it to the NASCAR Cup Series in 1951.

It took a few years for Weatherly to find his place in the Cup Series. He didn’t win his first race until 1958, but the flood gates opened from there. From 1960-63, Weatherly won 24 races and finished inside the top 10 in an incredible 109 of his 153 starts.

By 1962, Weatherly was arguably the best driver in the Cup Series. He won back-to-back championships in 1962 and 1963, and he was just hitting his stride as a racer. During his historic 1962 season, Weatherly won nine races in 52 starts and finished outside the top 10 just seven times.

Weatherly was named one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers in 1998, and he was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2015.

Off the NASCAR track, Weatherly was a goofy character that fans just couldn’t get enough of. One time, he drove his practice laps in a Peter Pan costume before a race, which undoubtedly contributed to his nickname, “The Clown Prince of Stock Car Racing.”

The tragic death of Joe Weatherly

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Weatherly returned to the NASCAR Cup Series in 1964 after winning consecutive championships in the previous two seasons. He started the season on a positive note, as he notched two top-fives and three top-10 finishes in his first four starts.

The fifth stop on the Cup Series schedule was at Riverside International Raceway. At one point during the race, Weatherly lost control of his car on a sharp turn and crashed into the wall on the driver’s side. His head flew outside the window and struck the wall, killing him on impact.

He was 42 years old.

Joe Weatherly’s death changed NASCAR forever

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Joe Weatherly’s death was one of the darkest days in the history of NASCAR, but it actually led to a brighter future in the sport. During his final race, Weatherly didn’t have a protective net on his driver’s side window of his car. He also wasn’t wearing a shoulder harness at the time of the crash.

In 1971, NASCAR made the window net a necessity for every car in the Cup Series. Weatherly’s death devastated the NASCAR world in 1964, but it saved countless others down the road.