Joe Weatherly was a leading AMA racer of the late 1940s and early 1950s. During his brief, five-year professional motorcycle racing career Weatherly won three AMA nationals, including the prestigious Laconia Classic 100-Mile road race in 1948 and 1949. Weatherly became even more famous after his motorcycle racing career as a NASCAR champion. He won the NASCAR Grand National (now Winston Cup) Championship in 1962 and 1963.
Born on May 29, 1922, Weatherly grew up in the Norfolk, Virginia. During high school, he became interested in motorcycling. As a young man, Weatherly took a job working as a motorcycle deliveryman for a pharmacy. He began racing in local events in the early 1940s. After serving in the Army in World War II, he returned to racing.
Weatherly first raced AMA nationals in 1947 and had some promising results his rookie year, including a sixth at Laconia, New Hampshire.
Weatherly’s breakthrough win came at Laconia in 1948, when he beat fellow Harley-Davidson rider and Laconia veteran Babe Tancrede by almost a full minute. It was a surprising win for the then little-known rider from Virginia, but he proved it was no fluke by winning the race again the next year. Weatherly had proven himself to be one of the finest road racers in the country.
The 1949 season proved to be Weatherly’s most active. In addition to wining at Laconia that year, he also earned podium finishes at nationals on the half-miles of Jacksonville, Florida, and Reading, Pennsylvania, and took third in the Langhorne (Pennsylvania) 100-Mile National.
In 1950, he won the AMA 10-Mile National held at one of his home state tracks in Richmond, Virginia.
By 1951, Weatherly was scaling back his motorcycle racing efforts in favor of racing stock cars. By 1952, he had totally committed to racing automobiles, but made a few more appearances in the Daytona 200 motorcycle classic through 1954.
The move to stock cars proved to be a good one for Weatherly. He started winning frequently on the NASCAR circuit and won his two NASCAR titles in the early 1960s.
Weatherly was a likable person and won NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver Award in 1961. Weatherly, Lee Petty and Johnny Beauchamp were the three drivers in the famous inaugural Daytona 500 three-wide finish in 1959.
Weatherly’s life was cut tragically short after he succumbed to injuries received at a NASCAR race in Riverside, California, on January 19, 1964.
Weatherly was one of the few that won on the national level in both motorcycles and cars. His accomplishments have been duly recognized. In 1994, he was named to the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Talladega, Alabama, and a stock car racing museum adjacent to Darlington Raceway in South Carolina is named in his honor.