Left to right: Rex White, Sherry MacDonald, Cathy Jones, Henry Jones, Frank Warren, Ted Tidwell, Bud Gates


December 1st, 1963, the Grand National drivers were at the half mile dirt oval in Jacksonville, Florida. It was the last race before the traditional Christmas break, and the big names were all there. Among the lesser known independent drivers on hand for the race was Wendell Scott, a pioneering African-American driver, in his lightly regarded Chevy. He had been racing Grand Nationals since 1961 and never scored a victory. But that day Scott had the track wired and he blew past no less a driver then Richard Petty on the 175th lap to take the lead. To his great confusion, when he crossed the line on the last scheduled lap, number 200, the checkered flag was not waved. So Wendell kept right on driving. On the next lap he didn't get the checkered, nor on the one after that. Buck Baker was flagged the winner on that lap. Wendell hopped out his car, and filed a protest. Scoring was done manually in those days, so checking all the score cards was a time-consuming procedure. Over an hour later NASCAR admitted a mistake had been made and declared Wendell Scott the winner. He remains to this date the only African-American driver to have ever won a race in NASCAR's top division. While some say that it was just a mistake, others argue NASCAR was afraid how the crowd would react to a minority winning the race, and purposely flagged the wrong winner to give the crowd time to disperse before making the announcement. In the meantime, someone stole the trophy.


When Grand National action resumed December 29th at Savannah, Georgia, Richard Petty scored his first victory of the year. His brother Maurice also raced that day, and in fact ran second much of the event before slipping to fourth.


The race at Riverside was traditionally the last event before the teams headed for Daytona. It was not uncommon in those days for the factories to stick road racing sports car drivers in factory cars, as many of the Grand National drivers of the age seemed to think road courses were intended for off road racing and used their big taxicabs to plow furrows through the surrounding fields. That race was no exception and Dan Gurney won the event in a Wood Brothers Ford. But Gurney's win was overshadowed by tragedy. Joe Weatherly had been atop the points standings going into the race, but a botched pit stop put him hopelessly out of contention. He was out on the track running for points when he lost control in the "S" curves and went off the track. His Mercury slid sideways into a retaining wall and bounced back across the track. The accident didn't look all that severe but when rescue crews arrived they found Joe Weatherly dead in the car. Weatherly's biggest fear in a race car was fire, and he did not use, nor did NASCAR require, shoulder belts, fearing they would hinder his getting out of a burning car. When the car struck the wall, Weatherly's head went out the window opening and struck the wall hard enough to crack his helmet. The two time champion and fan favorite was killed instantly. Weatherly was the first fatality in a major NASCAR race since Gwyn Staley died in a convertible race in 1958.


Then, as now, the biggest race of the year was the Daytona 500, and Chrysler was set to debut their all singing, all dancing Hemis that year. As it turned out, the rumors were true. Paul Goldsmith flat out blistered the track on pole day in his Plymouth, at 174.910 miles per hour, almost 14 miles per hour faster than Fireball Roberts' pole speed of a year before in a Ford, and almost 20 miles per hour faster than the best Mopar had run in 1963. Richard Petty was just a tick behind on the outside pole. The fastest Fords were five or six miles per hour off the pace. Keep in mind, those cars that were running nearly 175 miles per hour were very different from the race cars of today. The frames were still factory items; the cars were equipped with four-wheel drum, non-power brakes, roll cages that wouldn't pass tech for a Super Stock drag car today, and treaded bias ply tires. The doors still opened and closed and pit crews had to unscrew the gas cap to add fuel to a stock tank, protected only by a thin metal shield. The driver sat in a stock bucket seat with a little bolster added to the right side to help keep him in place going into the high banked corners, protected by a fiberglass open-faced crash helmet and hanging on for dear life to a stock steering wheel the size of a transit bus. If it got hot in the car he could crank down the window for a little air. Those tires would prove to be incapable of running at the speeds the cars could run beneath the heavy Grand National cars of the day.

In those days, the 125-mile qualifying races on the Thursday before the Daytona 500 paid points, and both events were won in convincing fashion by drivers in factory Mopars, Junior Johnson and Bobby Isaac. The Daytona 500 ,however, belonged to Richard Petty, who led all but a handful of laps in his Plymouth, leading the way for a one-two-three finish for Chrysler. Even Richard admitted that as easy as he made the win look, it was nerve-racking driving at those speeds, just waiting for a tire failure. It was the first of seven Daytona 500s the King would win in his career.


Ford had been shown up badly at the biggest stock car race of the year, and the corporate folks at Blue Oval headquarters were not real happy about it. Almost immediately, they began developing a secret weapon of their own, the 427 SOHC motor. When Ford had first reentered the fray officially in 1962, they had a 483 cubic inch engine in development, but NASCAR had caught wind of the plan and enacted a 428 cubic inch maximum rule. (Thumbs down to NASCAR on that one. Can you imagine a SS600 Camaro, a 610 Cobra Jet Mustang, or a 650 Hemi Cuda that might have followed had the limit not been enacted?) The SOHC was the first new engine Ford had planned since that point. Developing the new engine would take time and in the meantime Ford wanted to get back to Victory Circle. In those days, common wisdom said it took 10 horsepower or the loss of 20 pounds to gain one mile per hour on the Superspeedways. Unable to find more horsepower, Ford went about finding ways to lighten up their cars. One of those techniques was to "acid-dip" the body in order to make the sheetmetal thinner. Lightweight Fords were built for the big tracks, though the beer can thin sheetmetal would never have survived the bumping and banging on short tracks.


Everyone expected the Mopars to dominate, but that's not how it happened. Like any new engine,  there were teething pains and the Hemi was not as reliable as the Ford engine. The massive torque of the Hemi blew drive-train parts with frightening regularity. All that horsepower proved to be a detriment on the shorter tracks, where it simply overwhelmed the tires, causing them to wear out quickly. Ford had a secret weapon of its own, Fred Lorenzen. Unlike drivers such as Junior Johnson or Tiny Lund that drove their cars each lap like they hated them, and either put their cars in victory lane or the scrap heap, Lorenzen was a thinking man, who drove smoothly, conserved tires, and thought about strategy. That's not to say Fred was slow. He entered only the big events, paved tracks of a half mile or more in length, and at the first four events he entered after Daytona, Bristol, Atlanta, North Wilkesboro and Martinsville, he not only won every race, Lorenzen led 1349 out of 1400 laps. On the smaller tracks where Lorenzen did not run, Ford had another weapon in its arsenal, Ned Jarrett, the master of the dirt tracks and bull rings. Jarrett was running the full slate of events and right from the outset it was clear he would contend for the title, on his way to a 15 win season with 45 top ten finishes in 59 starts.


In the Chrysler camp, Richard Petty was emerging as a first among equals, and Petty Engineering seemed to be at the forefront in developing Hemi cars that survived. The Petty team, along with the Wood Brothers on the Ford side, were the first to sense that with the need to replace tires so frequently, a team that was faster on the pit stops had a decided edge on the track. Until then, pit stops were usually rather sloppy affairs, but the Pettys and the Woods set a standard others would have to shoot for.


What no one could figure out was how to control the alarming number of tire failures on the Superspeedways. The next superspeedway after Daytona was Atlanta, April 5th , and tire failure and resultant wrecks decimated the field. David Pearson, Fireball Roberts, Jim Pardue, Darel Dieringer , and Paul Goldsmith were all involved in frightening high-speed wrecks caused by blow outs. Goldsmith lost a tire, hit the wall, rolled the car onto its roof, and slid such a long distance, the roof and the top of the roll-bar were glowing cherry red from the friction by the time his errant Plymouth came to rest. Fred Lorenzen, who went on to win that race, just narrowly avoided getting collected up by the overturned Goldsmith mount. Drivers were expressing increasing concern about those Superspeedway races, and admitted dreading it each time they had to run one. Even Buck Baker, who had more guts than a Chicago slaughter house, was quoted as saying, "It's reached the point on the Superspeedways where it's a big relief when a race ends and you're OK, no matter where you finished."


Things went a bit better at Darlington, where Fred Lorenzen won the fifth race he had entered in a row. There were no notable wrecks caused by tire failures. That weekend, a new driver appeared for the first time on the Grand National scene. Bobby Allison was slated to drive one of Ray Fox's Dodges to replace Junior Johnson, who had had his fill of the unreliable Mopars and jumped ship to a Ford owned by chassis legend Banjo Matthews. After practicing the car, however, Allison decided he was too inexperienced to handle the speeds and wisely withdrew. Still, a lot of the name drivers in factory cars were predicting there was going to be a tragedy because of the speeds and the tire failures, and sadly they were right.


The Grand National circuit paid their traditional Memorial Day weekend visit to the Charlotte track for the World 600, the second biggest event of the year behind the Daytona 500. On the seventh lap, Junior Johnson was attempting to pass Ned Jarrett and lost control. The two cars hit and Jarrett's car slammed the wall and headed for the infield in flames. Fireball Roberts came onto the scene and attempted to spin out his car to avoid hitting either of the other two cars dead on, which might have killed one of those drivers. Tragically, his car struck a pedestrian crossing gate, became airborne and exploded in flames. Jarrett managed to leap out of his burning car, and was heading for safety when he saw Roberts trapped in his burning overturned car. In the finest example of sportsmanship and courage our sport has ever known, Jarrett rushed to Roberts' rescue, dragging him from the car, burning his own hands in the process. Once Jarrett had Fireball free of the flaming wreckage he tried valiantly to beat out the flames and tear away the other driver's burning clothing, while Roberts did what he could to help. The rescue arrived and extinguished the fires as Roberts was rushed to the hospital in extremely critical condition, with burns over 80% of his body. Tragically, despite Jarrett's heroism, Fireball would later succumb to his injuries and passed away that July.


Compounding the tragedy was the fact Fireball Roberts had apparently had premonitions of his own death. The evening before the event, while chatting with Ned Jarrett beside a motel pool, Fireball told Ned he no longer felt the same desire to drive a race car he once had, since his friend Joe Weatherly had died . Roberts said he intended to retire soon, and Jarrett told him if he felt that way, it might be better he step out of the car immediately. The morning of the race Fireball told another friend and driver, Banjo Matthews, he didn't want to drive in that race and had a bad feeling about it. Banjo told Roberts that if that were the case he shouldn't race. Fireball said he felt an obligation to all his fans who had come out to see him and Ford, to run the event. He talked about retiring after the race. Tragically he never got the chance.


To newer fans of the sport, Joe Weatherly and Fireball Roberts are barely-known drivers in dusty history books on the shelves, but in their time both men were fan favorites, popular with their fellow drivers and they are of course, still dearly missed by their families. Between them they had 58 victories during their careers. To put things in perspective for newer fans, and in doing so, I don't wish ill on either driver mentioned or any other competitor, imagine this season if Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt had both lost their lives in on-track wrecks. Such was the nightmare facing the NASCAR family and the fans at that point in 1964, and the season was not yet halfway over.


At present, Matt is not taking email correspondence at Race Fans Forever. If you have comments, please leave them below and he will read them at his leisure.

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