Check valves like these were added to fuel cells after Roberts' firey crash.
This brings us to January 19, 1964, the day Little Joe Weatherly died at Riverside Raceway. The 41-year-old, two-time point champion from Norfolk, Virginia, qualified 16th on the twisting 2.7-mile road course.
Weatherly's car had a mechanical problem early in the race, and he made a long pit stop. He went back out to chase the points, and on the 86th lap, he met instant death in Turn 6. Those who saw it said Weatherly's car was a little out of shape and struck the wall a glancing blow at no more than 85 or 90 mph. He hit the wall with the left side of the car.
Weatherly was not wearing a shoulder harness, nor did he have a window net on the driver's door. NASCAR did not make it mandatory. Speculation has always been that Weatherly's head flopped out the window and hit the cement wall on impact. His helmet split down the left side.
Weatherly was terrified of fire and said if his car were to burst into flames he could get out quicker with just a seatbelt and no net over the window. He also drove No. 8. "That way fans can't tell if I'm on my wheels or on my top," he would say.
He won $247,418 during his 12-year NASCAR career, from 1952 to 1964. He won 25 of the 230 events he entered and was on the pole for 18 races.
Dan Gurney and Marvin Panch, driving a pair of Wood Brothers Fords, finished 1-2 that Sunday at Riverside.
Little Joe Weatherly looks on as Roberts (left) and fellow racer Cotton Owens shake hands.
Almost immediately, NASCAR made the shoulder harness and window net on the driver's door mandatory. In its book on how to build race cars, NASCAR also made mandatory stronger bars inside the doors, especially on the driver side. All this made it safer for the next driver slamming the driver's door against a concrete wall.
It did not make it easier for Weatherly fans, who mourned the loss of their hero, appropriately called the first Clown Prince of Racing for his jovial, light-hearted personality.
When the teams arrived at Charlotte Motor Speedway (now Lowe's Motor Speedway) in May 1964, qualifying speeds were up 4 mph over 1963 speeds. Jimmy Pardue, driving a red Plymouth, won the pole at Charlotte with a speed of 144.346 mph.
The cars were fast and tires were popping like fireworks during the first part of the season. Drivers were lucky to survive a seven-car wreck at Atlanta. Richard Petty said the cars were going too fast, and he pointed a finger at some Ford teams, claiming they were taking too much weight from their cars.
But the next day, Junior Johnson turned in the fastest time of the week. He ran 145.102 and earned the ninth starting spot. Fireball Roberts settled for the 11th starting spot-third fastest on the second day.
When the green flag waved that dreadful Sunday, Pardue came out of the box and led the early laps. Johnson was coming, and in a hurry. Pardue, like Johnson, was from Wilkes County, North Carolina. Johnson wasn't about to give up any of his fame for being a charger.
On the seventh trip around the track, Johnson hooked the rear of Ned Jarrett's Ford, spinning both sideways. Fireball, running directly behind the two, looped his lavender Holman-Moody Ford and slid down the backstretch.