The 1964 Season
Speed, Danger on the Rise--Three Heroes Die
By Greg Fielden

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Junior Johnson (L) and Fireball Roberts in happier times. Fireball would be one of three NASCAR drivers to die in 1964.

In 1961 and 1962, Pontiac Division of General Motors was tossing fresh batches of racing options into the bins of such builders as Smokey Yunick, Cotton Owens, Bud Moore, Ray Fox, Ray Nichels and Banjo Matthews. The big, swaggering machines were virtually unbeatable in major races on the NASCAR Grand National Circuit.

All of this was going on during the supposed ban on auto racing imposed by the Automobile Manufacturers Association in June of 1957. When Ford announced that it was going to "go racing" in the summer of 1962, despite the outlines of the AMA resolution, General Motors said they would "continue to abide by the spirit of the AMA ban." This meant they would not participate directly in any stock car racing events.

What happened was all the development at GM halted. It stopped in the General Motors corner of Detroit when they said it wasn't going on in the first place. With the umbilical cord cut, by the middle of the 1963 season Nichels had switched to Plymouth, Owens went to Dodge, Moore and Matthews to Ford. Yunick raced a Chevrolet briefly before he dropped out of racing to devote full time to his GMC truck agency.

In 1963, General Motors took one parting shot before disappearing from the racing scene. They built a few potent 427 cubic inch "high lift" engines and delivered them to Ray Fox in Daytona Beach, who got throttle-stomper Junior Johnson to do just that--stomp the throttle. They ran like a scalded dog in most of the superspeedway races, but seldom finished. For 1964, Fox faced the reality that without factory help, racing a car in NASCAR was a hopeless cause. He switched to Dodge.

Prior to General Motors' throwing in the towel came the famous cannonball plunge of Ford into the racing puddle. The enormous injection of resources produced a record-wrecking year in 1963--with Fred Lorenzen going over the $100,000 mark in winnings, a 1-2-3-4-5 sweep of the prestigious Daytona 500, and a thorough shellacking of the competition all year long. In the major league of stock car racing, Chrysler had traditionally been content to dabble along in a somewhat intoxicated manner, occasionally delivering small packages to the ever-loyal Petty Engineering plant in Randleman, NC. In 1963, they upgraded a 426 cubic inch motor that generated some 400 brute horsepower. However, on the big superspeedways, the boxy Plymouth bodies couldn't run their way out of a thick fog. On the short tracks, they were quite potent. All they needed in 1964 was a little refining in the right places.

Their first step was to streamline the Plymouth and Dodge bodies. And then they dusted off some blueprints from 1951 and came up with a "new" engine to go racing with. It was called the "Super-Commando" by Plymouth and the "Hemi-Charger" by Dodge. Actually it was the hemispherical combustion engine that had been in Chrysler's bag of tricks since 1951, but hadn't been utilized on the race track since before the AMA ban in 1956.

Also out of the closet came a double-rocker arm system used in conjunction with the hemi-heads. Chrysler engineers came up with the layout that placed the huge valves on opposite sides of the combustion chamber, rather than side by side. In essence, it was a free-breathing combustion chamber which produced lots of power at the top end--about 500 or so brute horsepower on a facility which breeds high speeds.

A series of "top secret" tests were made at Goodyear's test oval in San Angelo, TX during the winter of 1963-64--on a gigantic five-mile track. Word leaked out that certain Plymouths and Dodges were recording speeds of around 180 mph--a figure unheard of in that day. In the first major event of the 1964 season at Riverside, CA, Ford Motor Company products dusted the field and enjoyed another 1-2-3-4-5 sweep. The Plymouths were quite silent. However, when the teams unloaded their new cars at Daytona International Speedway for the annual SpeedWeeks events, Paul Goldsmith, in the Nichels mount and Petty were whipping their Plymouths around the Big D at an alarming rate. Petty qualified at 174.418 mph--which was earth shattering compared to his 1963 clocking of 154.785 mph. Goldsmith was tops at 174.910 mph.

The Fords, which had only peripheral refinements made for the 1964 season, were lumbering around in the high 160s. They found it was nearly impossible to even draft their swift counterparts. The high-ranking Ford executives were awestruck. It was now apparent that the deeds on the Texas plains had been the gospel truth. In the Daytona 500, Richard Petty won his first superspeedway race in impressive fashion. He led for a total of 184 of the 200 laps and Plymouths finished 1-2-3. A Ford product led only two laps of the Daytona 500--when Petty was making a scheduled pit stop. Ford had its fanny flayed.

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Grand National car seats in 1964 provided little protection for the driver's head.

Before the Daytona 500, the touring pros were in Riverside for the second annual Motor Trend 500. Driving Bud Moore's red and black Mercury, Joe Weatherly had qualified for the 16th starting position. Weatherly, two-time defending Grand National champion, was leading the point standings entering the 500-miler on the 2.7-mile road course.

A lengthy pit stop had put the 41-year-old Norfolk, VA veteran miles behind the leaders. He had no chance of winning--or even placing high. But he was back out on the track speeding around the tight corners chasing after the valuable championship points. In his 86th lap, Joe Weatherly failed to come out of turn six. Witnesses said a puff of smoke was visible as Weatherly cranked the steering wheel through the "esses." Whether it was a mechanical problem or tire smoke from heavy braking, no one will ever know. Weatherly lost control and struck the concrete retaining barrier. The car slid across the track and wound up in a grassy area off the track surface.

The impact was not a direct, head-on shot at high speed. It was more of a glancing blow at no more than 85 mph. Such accidents were considered "routine"--and the driver was expected to climb from his car and signal he was okay. Something was wrong at Riverside on that cloudy afternoon. There was no movement from the cockpit of the Mercury. Little Joe was slumped over the wheel.

Rescue workers reached the scene and found the driver lifeless--his helmet badly cracked down the side. The injuries in the "ordinary looking" wreck were fatal. Speculation was that Weatherly's head flopped out the window and hit the cement wall on impact. Weatherly had not driven that day with a shoulder harness in place. In fact, he never even had one installed in his car. "The thing I fear the most is fire," Weatherly once said. "If my car catches on fire, I can get out a lot quicker if I only have my lap belt to unfasten."

The racing fraternity mourned the loss of its champion. Weatherly became the first driver to get cut down in race day traffic in nearly seven years. Following the Daytona 500, Ford won 11 out of 15 races. Plymouth and Dodge won twice apiece. Of the 15 races, 13 were on short tracks. It became evident that the high-powered Chrysler cars were "too strong" for their own good on the short tracks. The Fords handled better and had a better balance of power all the way around the track.

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Richard Petty was one driver who felt that speeds were overtaking the cars ability to protect the driver.

In the Atlanta 500, only 10 cars finished as tires blew like firecrackers on the Fourth of July. Seven cars were badly crashed--and all of them were being driven by top drivers in speedy, factory-backed entries. The victims were such headliners as Fireball Roberts, David Pearson, Paul Goldsmith, Darel Dieringer, Jimmy Pardue, Dan Gurney and Parnelli Jones. Most wrecks were caused by blowouts. The tremendous jump in speeds had overtaxed the available tire technology.

Goldsmith's crash was scary. While leading, a right front tire blew on his Plymouth, sending it into the guard rail--hard. So hard that the car became airborne. Goldsmith slid through the third and fourth turns on his roof--a shower of sparks shooting out like a sparkler. Goldsmith was uninjured, but the top and half of the roll bars were reduced to 'too hot to handle,' smoldering iron.

Richard Petty became concerned after the brutal Atlanta 500. He expressed particular anxiety if a similar incident occurred to a Ford driver. "The Fords should be at least 400 pounds heavier than the Plymouths and Dodges," said Petty. "But they are a couple of hundred pounds lighter. Some of us think they have lightened up their cars to a dangerous point from a safety standpoint. I'm afraid that someone may die before any safety measures are taken," warned Petty.

The second jewel of the so-called "Triple Crown" of the superspeedways was the World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Speeds were up about four mph over the 1963 qualifications. Jimmy Pardue grabbed his first career superspeedway pole with a speed of 144.346 mph in the Burton-Robinson Plymouth. The North Wilkesboro, NC driver considered it his biggest thrill in racing--better than his two short track Grand National triumphs and better than finishing second in the Daytona 500 three months earlier.

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Ned Jarrett was involved in the fiery accident that eventually took the life of Fireball Roberts, an accident that he was lucky to survive.

On the second day of time trials, Junior Johnson, wheeling Banjo Matthews' Ford, topped Pardue's mark. Johnson blitzed the timing lights at 145.102 mph, which earned him the ninth starting spot. Fireball Roberts was bumped on pole day and settled for 11th starting spot--third fastest on the second day. Pardue jumped out of the starting blocks and led the early laps. The green flag was out for only a few laps. By the seventh time around, starter Roby Combs was frantically waving the yellow flag. A terrible accident had occurred on the backstretch.

Fastest qualifier Junior Johnson, hustling toward the front, had hooked the rear of Ned Jarrett's Ford spinning both sideways. Roberts, running directly behind, looped his car to avoid hitting Jarrett and Johnson directly. The lavender Holman-Moody Ford slid down the backstretch and struck an opening in the concrete wall, designed to accommodate over-the-track infield traffic. Jarrett's car spun into the inside wall and caught on fire. Roberts' Ford, having a full load of fuel on board, exploded and flipped as it hit the edge of the concrete wall.

"I knew I was on fire and I leaped out as soon as I stopped," explained Jarrett. "I had an advantage in that my car was rightside up and it wasn't burning inside. "But Fireball's car was upside down and the gas from his punctured tank was dripping inside setting the whole inside on fire. I ran to the wall about six to eight feet away and turned around. He had started to get out of his car. Flames were four to five feet all around and I went back to help him."

"He said, 'My God, Ned, help me, I'm on fire'. I pulled him free of the flames and tore off everything I could get a hand on. He was conscious and helped me," said Jarrett. Roberts was burned badly. "The flames first got to the bottom of his legs," Jarrett added. "He was burned around his hands, neck... any loose part of the uniform. His legs were burned worse than any other part. It was a miracle he could get out at all."

The rescue squad was quickly on the scene and administered to Roberts. "Once they got there I just wanted to get away," said Jarrett. "They were trained in what to do. There was nothing more I could do. I just couldn't stand it any longer. It was a terrible experience." Roberts arrived at Charlotte Memorial Hospital by helicopter at about 1:15 pm, Sunday, May 24. He was listed in "extremely critical condition" with burns over nearly 80% of his body. The surgeon's report was issued later that night:

"At first we felt that about 80% of his body had been burned--40% second degree burns and about 40% third degree. A rule of thumb is that it is usually fatal if a person has third degree burns over 50% of his body. "All of his legs except where his shoes were, were burned--both front and back. His face was burned slightly except where the helmet was. His hands were burned badly. His back was also burned, as well as his arms up to the shoulders and on one side. The deepest burns were on the legs and hands--about 30% of his body is third degree burns, the kind that burns through the skin into the tissue. It is difficult to say what percentage of burns are second or third degree. This changes each day."

Johnson, who was near tears, said: "I guess it was all my fault. I lost control coming off the second turn and spun. Then I saw Jarrett hit the wall and catch on fire. By the time I got out of my car, Roberts' car was on fire. I've known Fireball since my first race." Johnson was checked and released from the infield hospital. "Junior was coming up on me, trying to pass me," reflected Jarrett. "He got a nose on me. He hit a bump, hit me and got crossways. There's a lot of turbulence at that speed (145 mph) and it's very easy to lose control."

Roberts' Ford was destroyed in the crash. The entire rear section was gone. All the paint was burned off and the remains had to be studied very hard to be able to tell it was at one time an American made automobile. The car was dragged back to the garage area and a brown tarpolin placed over it. It was placed in the corner of the garage area and the entire area was sealed off by the NASCAR technical inspector. Many people--including newsmen with garage area credentials--were refused admission.

Lee Petty, one of the few allowed to go into the garage area, reportedly snipped a piece of metal from one of the Fords in the wreck. He was said to have sent the metal to Chrysler engineers who reported the metal was approximately half the thickness that it should have been. "The quarter-paneling and fenders on the Fords are like tissue paper," said Richard Petty.

Petty was on the track directly in front of the crash, but he saw it all unfold in his rear view mirror. "I saw Johnson and Jarrett spinning and then I saw a third car get airborne and catch on fire," said Petty, who finished second to teammate Jim Paschal in the World 600. "The next time I came around, I recognized Fireball's car. He was on the ground and Ned was trying to tear off his burning clothes. The next time around, I couldn't look."

Roberts fought for his life--and the Charlotte Hospital released daily statements that the 35 year-old Daytonan was "improving." After a week or so, he was taken off the critical list. "He is a remarkable patient," said a hospital spokesman. "Barring tragic infection, this man will come through."

Roberts, who had rallied tremendously from his May 24 accident, succumbed to the injuries on July 2, 1964. His condition had suddenly worsened on Tuesday, June 30 after an operation to remove the burned tissue from his body. He lapsed into a coma and never regained consciousness. He died of the burns, pneumonia and blood poisoning.

The Grand National tour was arriving in Daytona for the Firecracker 400--in which Roberts was to be the defending champion--when the news hit. "It's hard to believe Fireball is gone," said Richard Petty. "He was a man first, a competitor second and a teacher third. I saw him take young guys aside many times and tell them something that would help. I guess he helped the sport more than anybody."

"Fireball was the most respected driver there ever was--or maybe ever will be," said Jarrett. "He was ideal. A lot of drivers copied him, but few had his ability. I believe that he had as much to do with making stock car racing what it is today as anyone else in the world." The day after Roberts died, Daytona International Speedway hosted a pair of 50-mile qualifying races to determine starting positions for the 400. In the first 20-lap sprint, a five-car crash sent Ford star Fred Lorenzen to the hospital with injuries. Paul Goldsmith spun off the fourth turn and was nipped by Darel Dieringer. A.J. Foyt and Johnny Rutherford were also involved. Lorenzen tried to duck under the mishap, but plowed into Goldsmith's Plymouth, demolishing both cars.

Lorenzen climbed dazedly out of his car and got on the hood of his Ford. Then, he jumped to the ground and collapsed. "I climbed out of the car," Lorenzen later said. "There was blood all over the place. I took one look and passed out." An artery had been cut and Lorenzen was bleeding profusely. Surgery was performed on his hand and he was out of the hospital in a few days.

Half-way through the 1964 season, outcries could be heard from the contestants. "It's reached the point at the superspeedways where it's a big relief when a race ends and you're okay, no matter where you finished," said Buck Baker. "It's become a pretty jumpy game."

"The cars are going too fast for the tracks," said Junior Johnson. "We haven't learned enough to keep the cars handling safely at the speeds we can now travel. And the tire companies are having trouble developing compounds that will give adequate tire wear." Lorenzen claimed the 1964 speeds "are just too fast. I'll never run another race unless they slow the speeds down."

Having several days to think things over, Lorenzen changed his tune--just a little. "When I return and just how long I continue in racing will be affected a great deal by what NASCAR decides to do about speeds. That incident at Daytona (in the 50-mile qualifier) has taken a lot out of me." Pat Purcell, NASCAR's Executive Manager, said in the summer that the sanctioning body would take steps to make Grand National stock car racing safer--and slower. "I don't know what the answer will be," Purcell said. "But in my opinion, we have simply got to find out something to do. We will see what we can come up with."

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Jimmy Pardue lost his life trying to make WC racing safer.

Talk centered around a reduction of engine size for the 1965 season. A 396 cubic inch limit on engines was discussed openly, along with expanding the minimum wheel base to 116 inches. However, these talks came up with a number of stumbling blocks, including the fact that the change would be a severe financial burden on independent teams, who relied heavily on hand-me-down parts from the factory teams--and most of them could not afford to engage in the costly process of building and maintaining new power plants. Besides, the United States Auto Club had intentions of sticking with the 427 cubic inch engine limit and NASCAR feared there would be mass defection.

In order to cope with the problem, the tire companies began to conduct an extensive series of tire tests. Nearly every factory backed driver--and there were up to 17 of them who had industry support--participated in the tire tests at all of the superspeedways. Jimmy Pardue was scheduled to make a series of short test runs at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Tuesday, September 22, 1964. He took his bright red Plymouth to the mile-and-a-half at Charlotte and was testing a new tire compound.

He was scheduled for a 10-lap test, only the 10th lap never came. On the seventh time around--the same lap in which Fireball Roberts wrecked at the same track four months earlier--there was a sickening sound of a tire exploding. Pardue, who had been clocked at 149 mph--four mph faster than the track record the lap before--shot up the banking in the third turn and broke through the guard rail. Wooden posts which anchored the rail were splintered. Forty-eight feet of railing were torn away.

Pardue's car sailed off the 75-foot embankment and apparently dived nose first into a chain-link fence 150 yards away. Reports said the car turned over once and landed in a dried up creek near a tunnel entrance to the infield. Parts of the car were scattered all over the Speedway's acreage. The engine was torn from the chassis and the front bumper was wadded up 75 yards across the infield entrance road.

Drivers Darel Dieringer, Larry Thomas and Billy Wade, along with track official Roby Combs, helped remove Pardue from the wreckage. He was taken semi-conscious to Cabarrus Memorial Hospital in Concord at 2:10 pm. Jimmy Pardue, 33, died at 4:38 pm, moments after his wife Betty arrived at his bedside. Dr R.C. Bailey, the attending surgeon, said Pardue died of "massive brain damage and a crushed chest." It was speculated that a steel post supporting the fence had come through the windshield and struck Pardue in the head.

Within two weeks, sanctioning NASCAR issued a new set of rules for the 1965 season. The engine displacement was kept at 427 cubic inches--guarding against losing their drivers to the USAC ranks--but the engines must be of production design only. Thus, no overhead cams, high risers and hemispherical heads. For the superspeedways, NASCAR said, the minimum wheelbase would be upped to 119 inches. The standard 116 inch wheelbase would remain in effect for short tracks. The new rules would effectively put Chrysler cars "out to lunch." Dodge's Cotton Owens said, "This puts us out of racing."

Richard Petty wound up winning the 1964 Grand National championship by an enormous margin. He won nine races and $114,771.45 in prize and point money. Ned Jarrett won 15 races and was second in the point standings.

Three heroes lost their lives on the NASCAR tracks in 1964. And five days into the 1965 calendar year, Billy Wade was killed in tire tests at Daytona. NASCAR addressed the situation and adjusted the 1965 rules accordingly. But the new rules triggered a series of boycotts, led by Chrysler Corporation, which pulled out of NASCAR for most of the 1965 season.

Photo credits from top: All CMS


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