The 1963 Season
The "Golden Boy" and the "Hitchhiking Champion"
By Greg Fielden
|Fred Lorenzen was NASCAR's original "Golden Boy."|
When Fred Lorenzen was 15 years old, he had his first experience in a beefed up Stock car. He and a bunch of his buddies from the Elmhurst, IL area took an old 1937 Plymouth out to an abandoned field and cranked it around in circles. The idea of this teenage game was to see who could flip the automobile first. Lorenzen claimed he did the "honors" first.
A few months later, a much more "refined" Lorenzen got out of the fields and into a more established environment--a narrow strip of asphalt that had sign posts that read "County Line Road." By that time, Lorenzen had a 1952 Oldsmobile that he had "hopped" up at a service station where he worked part time. He would often brag about how his "four wheel bomb" could outrun anything the neighborhood "wild dawgs" could find to run against him. Once he had a baited taker, Lorenzen would slip down to the gas station, chop off a couple hundred pounds of what he determined was "unnecessary weight," hustle back to the County Line Road and commence to whip 'em in an ear-piercing display of juvenile delinquency and burned rubber. "I didn't lose too many races," Lorenzen once boasted.
It was six years later that Lorenzen, then 21, would drive a car in NASCAR Grand National competition. Having purchased a '56 Chevrolet from Tom Pistone, one of the best known and successful drivers in the Chicago area, Lorenzen left for Langhorne, PA "with no change of clothing and less money." Lorenzen qualified his Chevy in the 39th starting spot in the 41 car field. If he were entertaining thoughts of getting back home after the race, he would have to run like hell. Only the top 30 finishers earned any prize money.
On the day Lorenzen arrived at Langhorne, he saw John McVitty, another driver trying to make the grade in NASCAR's major league Stock car racing circuit, kill himself in a crash while qualifying. "I really shuddered," said Lorenzen. "My assigned pit was next to the empty one that other guy (McVitty) was supposed to have. I thought about not racing. But I had already qualified and I had to somehow get back home."
|Fred Lorenzen's crew services his #28 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.|
Lorenzen struggled for 76 laps before the fuel pump broke on his car. He finished in 26th place and earned a "whopping" $25. Evidently, he made it back home to Elmhurst. The sandy-haired youngster entered six more Grand National races in 1956--and won less than $250 all year long. His average take per start was $33.57. Dreams of fame and fortune seldom develop on such meager winnings. Lorenzen packed up and trudged back to the midwest--to lick his wounds.
Lorenzen kicked around the USAC Stock car circuit for a few seasons, winning the Late Model championship in 1958 and 1959. "The best year I had," recalled Lorenzen, "I won $14,000, a trophy and a gold watch." It was not taking him where he wanted to go. In 1960, he moved South and took up residence in a tiny trailer in a friend's back yard. He also took on a job at the Holman-Moody plant in Charlotte. Moody had seen the rustic 5'11", 185 pounder in action and he befriended the determined youngster.
But Lorenzen was stubborn. Instead of working on all the cars Holman-Moody was producing for a variety of teams in NASCAR, Lorenzen wanted the whole pie. "I was bull-headed," Lorenzen confessed. "That was one of my problems. I thought I could make all the money for myself." So, he quit Holman-Moody, built his own Ford and hit the Grand National trail.
|Fred Lorenzen and Curtis Turner put on a classic duel at Darlington in 1961.|
His first start in 1960 was at SpeedWeeks at Daytona. Having become accustomed to the short tracks, a facility like Daytona with its enormous dimensions and ultra high speeds "scared me to death," Lorenzen admitted. NASCAR vets Fireball Roberts and Joe Weatherly tutored the green rookie; they told him and showed him what to do and not to do on the steep banks and the speedy straightaways. Lorenzen, a quick learner, went out and ran third in the 100-mile qualifier. He backed that up with an eighth in the Daytona 500. But it went downhill after that. His funds lasted long enough to run in eight more races. In 10 races, he earned a total of $9,135.94, including point money. He spent twice that much in doing so.
Toward the tail end of the 1960 season, Fred Lorenzen was out of racing, hungry, disgusted and discouraged. Before the year was out, he sold his car for $7,500, paid off some of his debts and went begging for a ride. Bud Moore turned him down. So did Smokey Yunick. Still owing $5,500, Lorenzen packed up and went home--a broken man. He went back to hammering nails in the carpenter "industry."
On Christmas Eve, 1960, Ralph Moody called Lorenzen and asked him to drive the Holman-Moody car in the 1961 season. "I was really surprised. I couldn't imagine what I had done to impress them. I'm sure a lot of people thought they were crazy to hire me," said Lorenzen. The Holman-Moody Ford wasn't ready for SpeedWeeks in Daytona, so Lorenzen bummed a ride from Tubby Gonzales. The deal was struck just a day before the Daytona 500. He ran fourth in the 500 in a car that probably shouldn't have finished in the Top 15. Maybe John Holman and Ralph Moody weren't so crazy after all.
Lorenzen's first ride in the Holman-Moody car was in the March 26, 1961 Atlanta 500. He qualified third and took the lead from Marvin Panch in the 34th lap. He had led straight through the 106th lap when a tire blew sending the car into the wall. He was out for the day, but had left his mark on the superspeedways. In his next start, on April 9, he won what was scheduled to be the Virginia 500. Rain washed the race out after 149 laps. Instead of picking the race up at that point the following week, NASCAR officials paid the field according to a 100-mile race. Lorenzen got his first win. The Virginia 500 was rescheduled later that month.
It was on May 6, 1961 that Lorenzen's star began to shine. In a stirring and memorable duel with Curtis Turner in Darlington Raceway's Rebel 300, Lorenzen outfoxed the 'Grand Ole Master' to take the win. Turner had taken the lead from Fireball Roberts in the 199th lap of the 219 lap contest and appeared to be headed for victory. The only other driver left in the lead lap late in the race was fair-haired Freddy Lorenzen. The 32,000 spectators were certain Turner would notch his third win at the 1.375-mile oval. Lorenzen didn't have a chance against a man like Turner. They thought!
But things got a little more interesting in the late stages. Lorenzen sliced the deficit each and every lap and moved in on the rear of Turner's red Wood Brothers Ford. Despite Lorenzen's late race strength, Turner was in the cat-bird seat. Darlington was strictly a one groove race track in those days, and no one was better at keeping a foe at bay than Turner. Lorenzen made several attempts to pass Turner on the outside. Turner blocked them all. Turner hogged the groove--which was not an unusual practice at Darlington. The leader of the race had the right to use defensive tactics--the reasoning went--and Turner was surely stretching the rules of the race track to the limits.
As the pair roared down the front chute with two laps to go, Lorenzen once again poked his nose to the high side of Turner. Turner drifted up to block the move as the two cars neared the first turn. At the last moment, Lorenzen darted to the inside of Turner and the two cars fused together. Side-by-side they went--each trying to grasp the single groove. Sparks flew. Tire smoke shot skyward. The grinding of metal could be heard over the roar of the engines. Turner's car clanged against the steel guard rail. Lorenzen skated sideways, but got straightened out. Turner gave chase to Lorenzen the final lap and a half, but fell six car lengths short at the finish line. Lorenzen became an instant hero.
Turner finally caught up to Lorenzen--on the backstretch of the cool-off lap. And he laid a heavy front bumper on the rear of Lorenzen's Ford. "That was my biggest win," Lorenzen said years later. "I caught Turner with two laps to go and made the pass. I was determined to pass him. He had blocked me for 15 laps. Ralph Moody had told me all week how to do it. He told me I'd have to make the pass on Turner low going into the turn. How did he know it would be between me and Turner? Ralph was a genius. He knew things would happen long before they did happen. I learned so much from him."
Lorenzen won three times in 1961 and twice in 1962. He won over $76,000 in his first two seasons with Holman-Moody. It turned out to be only a drop in the bucket compared to what lay ahead in 1963. Lorenzen started the season off with Holman-Moody by running third in the qualifier and second in the Daytona 500 during the SpeedWeeks festival. He won the Atlanta 500 for the second year in a row and things looked rosy.
But in the spring Holman-Moody lured Fireball Roberts away from the Pontiac camp and he joined the famed car builders for the Southeastern 500 at Bristol. Lorenzen was leading Roberts in the late stages when he had to make an extra pit stop for fuel. Lorenzen raised Cain at his pit crew for not giving him a full tank on his last scheduled pit stop. Rumors were that the respective pit crews were informed before hand that Roberts was supposed to win his first race in a Ford.
An intense rivalry between teammates was forecast by many. Roberts and Lorenzen both had a burning desire to win--particularly since they were driving for the same team. Each wanted to win the most races for Holman-Moody. Despite the personal rivalry, both Roberts and Lorenzen held each other in very high esteem. "He's the best there is," said Lorenzen. "That's why I like to beat him more than anyone else. He's got so many records you can't call him anything but the best. I'd rather beat Fireball than eat. I envy him more than anyone else," Freddy added. "I want to hold all the records he holds. Each time I beat him, it makes me the best, doesn't it?"
Lorenzen became the best in 1963. And he set records that were judged to be unattainable. He started 29 races in the 1963 Grand National season and won six times. His victories included the Atlanta 500 and the World 600--and a clean sweep at Martinsville. He finished in the top five on 21 occasions--and he finished third in the point standings despite missing 26 races. His total winnings for the year came to $122,587.28 including $9,017.28 in point fund earnings. The previous high was Joe Weatherly's total of just a shade over $70,000 in 1962. The $100,000 mark was considered a plateau that wasn't reachable for the better part of a decade. Lorenzen did it in a flash while running only half the races.
Herb Nab, Lorenzen's crew chief in 1963, shared his driver's love for beating Roberts. But he didn't share Lorenzen's view of who was the best driver. "That's the best driver there is," said Nab, pointing to Lorenzen during a lull one afternoon. "He can drive a race car better than any of the others, including Fireball. Don't let anyone tell you different."
|Joe Weatherly won a NASCAR championship in 1963 driving for numerous different car owners.|
Sharing the spotlight in the 1963 NASCAR season was a stubby 5'7", 140 pound bundle of energy who went by the name of Joe Weatherly. The Norfolk, VA native won the Grand National championship for the second straight season--the third driver to take the title two years in a row. But Weatherly did it in a most unconventional way. He did not have a regular ride the full year--and he had to 'hitchhike' his way into the starting line-up in 18 races. He drove equipment far below the potential of a champion. He spent hours on the phone trying to line up a ride--talking back-markers out of their car so he could drive for the points.
"Sometimes I would get in a car that I knew couldn't win," said Weatherly. But I did the best I could and tried to take it easy on the fellow's equipment." Weatherly drove for nine different teams in 1963. Due to the General Motors factory retreat in the early part of the season, car owner Bud Moore, who had run the full campaign in 1962, said it was not financially feasible to make a run for the championship again. Moore told Weatherly he would provide a Pontiac in the 'major' races, but that was all he could do.
On ten occasions, Weatherly hitched a ride in a Pontiac owned by furniture magnate Cliff Stewart. He registered five Top 10 finishes, including a second and a third. When Stewart's year-old Pontiac was not available, he drove for a variety of car owners--names like Fred Harb, Pete Stewart, Major Melton, Worth McMillion and Wade Younts--names not associated with championship drivers. Weatherly also drove once for Petty Engineering and in one race he drove a #05 Pontiac, whose owner could not be traced.
Weatherly had the tenacity of a pit bull. He was one of the most dedicated and determined champions ever to wear the NASCAR crown. Quitting was not a term he could understand--nor did he care to. If his car was maimed, Joe Weatherly persevered. And often, he won anyway. In the 1961 Firecracker 250, the transmission of his Pontiac kept hopping out of gear. Running the high speeds that Daytona International Speedway can generate, a balking transmission can be terminal. But not when Joe Weatherly was at the wheel.
In order to cope with the crisis, Weatherly wrapped his right leg around the gear shift lever--to hold it securely in place--and he proceeded to drive with his left foot on the throttle. He finished sixth that afternoon. On May 6, 1962, Weatherly started seventh on the grid in a 100-miler at Concord, NC. For 134 laps he worked his way into contention and spent several laps chasing leader Richard Petty. When Petty was sidelined by a broken axle, Weatherly took over the lead. With about 50 laps to go, the little man who was once described by a relative as being "so ugly he's cute," was exposed to an element of danger all race drivers fear. The throttle hung wide open when he went into the turn.
With instant reflexes, Weatherly cut the ignition switch. Once that task was out of the way, he spent the majority of the turn wrestling the car back under control Miraculously, he didn't sail into the guard rail or over the bank. He saved his car, and perhaps his life in one fell swoop. It worked once, so he tried it again. And again. Twice each lap--going into the first and third turns. The man drove for 50 laps with a throttle that was lying on the floor. He would turn the ignition key going into each turn and guide the car through the corners with one hand. He beat runner-up Cotton Owens by a half lap.
It was the same determination that carried 41 year-old Joe Weatherly to the 1963 title. In the first part of the year, he drove a Pontiac wrenched by Moore. Without new state of the art engine development, the car was short of power. Yet, Weatherly still won the Rebel 300 at Darlington. It was Pontiac's only superspeedway win of the year. Late in the season, Moore struck a deal with Mercury and the new car made its debut in the Southern 500. Weatherly finished seventh in the caution free event.
But it didn't thrill Moore in the least. He claimed his driver was 'stroking' the car--not running flat out and employing a more conservative nature than Moore liked. Weatherly admitted he was deeply hurt. "When we set the car up in practice it was running and handling fine," Weatherly said. "But we put a new motor in the car that was stronger. That changed the way the car handled. The front end was pushing. I could smell the rubber burning on the right front tire. So I had to back off where I couldn't smell the rubber.
"I could have gone for a while, but that right front tire wouldn't have stood up and I knew it. I had to accept that and do the best I could. Bud didn't understand it, but I told him that it is one thing to direct strategy from the pits and another to carry it out on the track."
In spite of the disagreement with Moore, Weatherly held his car owner in very high esteem. "I'll say one thing for Moore. He won't put a race car on the track until he is sure it is solid in every respect," said Weatherly. That's why he parked the Pontiac for the small races. We couldn't get proper parts and Bud wouldn't do a half-way job. He is a great mechanic and he must have quality products to work with. He doesn't complain when you wreck his car. The only time he complains is when you don't win. I can understand that.
"There are so many good cars now that you have to play some percentages. Some of the hot cars are going to blow, but not all of them. If you can't go to the lead and stay there, you've got to try to run hard enough to be in a position to go for the bundle at the end. "Listen," Weatherly continued, "I'd rather play the rabbit than the dog any day. But if I can't be the rabbit, it doesn't mean I'm going to give up the chase. Any time my car has speed and handling, you can look for me at the front."
Weatherly diced it out with Richard Petty for the 1963 title. The little dynamo didn't clinch the championship until the final race of the year at Riverside. Weatherly took the role of a modest champ. "My luck was better than Richard's," he said. "I had greater luck, rather than greater skill. In the first place, I was lucky to get rides. Lots of guys in racing helped me. I don't know how to thank each and every one for their help. I tried to split up the money so they would be satisfied."
In the season finale--the Golden State 400 at Riverside International Raceway, Weatherly and Petty were lined up nose-to-tail on the starting grid--Weatherly in ninth and Petty in eleventh. Just before saddling up for the 400-miler on Riverside's twisting road course--with all the championship marbles on the line, Petty walked up to his friendly rival and said, "I don't know whether to wish you luck, play it cool or what. Just don't get hurt, Joe."
"That made me feel a hell of a lot better," said Weatherly. "I had more pressure on me going into that race than ever before. Richard is a fine sport and a clean driver. He has all it takes to make a great champion."
Weatherly finished seventh in the race. It was a first round knockout as Petty suffered transmission failure after just five laps. Weatherly earned 1,216 points for seventh, while Petty got only 64. Weatherly bagged the title by 2,228 points.
The following year a tragic paradox occurred. Weatherly was killed on his next visit to Riverside and Petty wound up winning the first of seven NASCAR championshipships.
Photo credits from top: CMS, CMS, NCMS