Thursday, June 26, 2008

Earl Swift, my hero

Probably one of the best newspaper writers in America who you've never heard of. Come ready to chew into this one on Monday. By Earl Swift of the Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk.



The scar made a long straightaway down the left side of his face. It ran shallow across his forehead and sliced through his eyelids and dug deep into his cheek. It crossed his mouth so that when he grinned, as Joe Weatherly was predisposed to do, he left a third of the smile behind.

Big as it was, the wound might have been the second thing most people noticed about Weatherly. The first, most likely, was the way he arrived, because he could drive anything on wheels faster than it made sense to go, and faster than anyone with sense had desire to.

For a time, the skill served him well: The Norfolk boy grew up to be a national motorcycle racing champion, then joined the stock car circuit; before long he owned a piece of three racetracks and was one of NASCAR's first big stars.

Over a dozen years, Joe Weatherly won 25 races, placed in the top five 105 times and won the points championship, now called the Nextel Cup, two years in a row. He was a favorite among fans for his flair as much as his victories: Weatherly was an archetype of the early NASCAR hero, an inveterate practical joker and hell-raiser, a resilient hard partier, a rough-and-tumble Southern rogue.

The scar predated all of that. When he'd made it big, some sportswriters guessed the wound dated to his motorcycle days. Others offered an explanation that persists on the Internet, that during his Army service in World War II, a bullet from a German sniper had torn into his cheek.

Neither story was true. Joe Weatherly got his scar on Norfolk's 26th Street, in a wreck that nearly killed him.

And he didn't get the worst of it.

An October midnight in 1946, Wednesday the 2nd rolling into Thursday: The Norfolk Police Department's graveyard shift had just come on duty when two officers in the traffic bureau, Charles D. Grant and Chase R. Davis, got the word: Accident on 26th at Leo Street. Multiple injuries.

The two rolled to the scene in a stretcher-equipped van assigned to whoever was pulling accident detail. They brought along a pair of cops who'd been angling for a ride home - a lucky break, because they needed the extra hands. The scene that awaited them was a mess.

A 1942 Buick sedan, eastbound on 26th, had hit the curb as it negotiated a tight S-curve. It had slid 188 feet across the road, jumped the far curb and smacked head-on into a tree. The car was totaled. Six people, three couples, lay inside.

Weatherly, the driver, was hung up in the broken windshield, his face cleaved in two, blood spurting from his punctured neck. His girlfriend, 18-year-old Jean Flanagan, lay bunched in the right front footwell, both legs broken. In the back seat, Marion Wells and another girl were shaken but unhurt, and Marion's date, Alvah "Skeet" Cowan, wasn't badly injured.

Not so the last passenger, 24-year-old James Edwin "Eddie" Baines. His head, wedged between front seat and door post, had suffered grievous damage. As Officer Grant would later recall: "We knew he was in bad shape."

But Weatherly commanded immediate attention.

"He was bleeding profusely," Grant said. "He'd have died in a few more minutes."

One of the off-duty cops, Louis D. Looney, clamped his hands over Weatherly's neck, trying to stanch the blood until an ambulance arrived.

These days, 26th Street carries just eastbound traffic until it merges with westbound 27th Street to become Lafayette Boulevard. They fuse at about the spot Weatherly crashed.

But the modern junction is much changed from that of 1946. The curve that 26th negotiates to meet 27th is wide and graceful; that of 61 years ago was a far more sudden jerk to the left, onto northbound Leo, followed by an almost immediate, 90-degree cut back to the right.

To the police, the accident's cause was no mystery: The 2-ton Buick had been moving too fast to negotiate the back-to-back turns. And it was no surprise to find Weatherly draped over the steering wheel.

"It was speed," Grant said, "which is what he was known for. Anybody who knew Joe Weatherly would tell you that he'd run a car as fast as he could. He was one we knew."

In fact, Weatherly was driving illegally that night, his license having already been revoked for an infraction lost to history. Within months he'd be making a name for himself as a motorcycle racer, and within two years he'd be national champion, but as Grant and Davis untangled him from the wreckage, Weatherly was in serious legal trouble.

At the time, it wasn't clear that he'd survive to face it. He'd been cut, Grant recalled, "all the way down his face and into his jugular vein.

"That officer saved his life," he said of Looney. "Thank God we had those other two officers with us."

A cop drove the unconscious Eddie Baines to Norfolk General Hospital. Looney rode with Weatherly to DePaul, a hand still pressed to the driver's neck. Jean Flanagan was conscious when Grant, destined to become Norfolk's police chief, lifted her from the footwell.

"We had to get her out of there and straighten her legs to get her on a stretcher," he said. "She hollered so as to make the hair stand up on your head."

That afternoon's Ledger-Dispatch reported that "four persons were injured, three seriously," with Baines suffering "a forehead laceration and internal injuries." The following morning's Virginian-Pilot added that Baines and Flanagan were in "critical shape" and that an arrest warrant waited for the improving Weatherly. The charges: reckless driving and driving with a revoked permit.

Then, on the afternoon of Oct. 6, Baines, who lived in the Fox Hall neighborhood and had recently mustered out of the Army's 101st Airborne Division, died of his head injuries.

A native of Blackstone, Va., Baines and a few of his nine siblings had moved to Norfolk before the war. He was buried near Rocky Mount, N.C.

Weatherly was charged with homicide.

A few weeks later, on Nov. 30, Weatherly presented Jean Flanagan with a ring. They were married in October 1948.

He spent a good piece of the intervening two years in court. In a lengthy police court session two months after the wreck, the homicide charge was dropped - a fitting development because, Jean Weatherly would say more than 60 years later, speed hadn't killed Baines.

Actually, the evening had been pretty tame: The six had been at Schoe's Curb Service, a drive-in restaurant at 21st and Granby streets that Jean's family owned, before Weatherly set out to take everyone home. Just before the wreck, he stopped the car at 26th and Church streets to say hello to a friend.

"It was only a block away," she said, "so he didn't have time to get much speed up, with the weight of the car."

Her explanation: "We hit the curb and broke the steering rod, and the tree was right there."

Even so, Weatherly was convicted of the lesser charges. He appealed to Norfolk Corporation Court - today's Circuit Court - where on Jan. 10, 1947, he was hit with $400 in fines and two suspended 30-day sentences.

That spring, Baines' sister, Effie E. Daniels, sued Weatherly and his mother, Carrie Kellam, who owned the Buick. The claim against Kellam was dropped, but Weatherly was found liable for $15,000, to be divided equally among Baines' four brothers and five sisters.

Weatherly's fiancee and her mother sued, as well. In June 1947, a jury in the Court of Law and Chancery fixed the damages due to each at $10,000 and $4,000, respectively.

And as a brief filed by State Farm Mutual Insurance Co. in federal court observed: "In each of said actions it is alleged that the Buick automobile in question was operated with gross negligence."

The accident wasn't Weatherly's last brush with the law, by any means. In September 1947, an unspecified misdemeanor saw his suspended sentences revoked, and he went to jail. In 1955, he led police on a wee-hours chase through Norfolk, for which he was slapped with a $100 fine, another suspended sentence and the loss of his license for 60 days.

By then, he was a big-time racer - newspaper stories wondered whether he could legally drive on a track when he was barred from the streets - and the press tended to couch his transgressions as harmless fun, even nicknamed him the "Clown Prince of Auto Racing." Legends bloomed from his practical jokes and hell-for-leather partying, about how he banged up rental cars and supposedly drove one into a motel swimming pool.

It seemed that, the scar aside, that night 61 years ago did not much change Weatherly.

"You saw him from the rear, wherever he went," said his friend Robert Ingram of Norfolk, a prominent car builder of the era. "He'd take it to the edge."

Weatherly won NASCAR's first all-star race in 1961. He dominated the sport in 1962, the first of his years as points champion. He did it again in 1963, when he finished 35 of his 53 races in the top 10. He was leading the points race for a third year when he pulled into Riverside, Calif., for the road race of Jan. 19, 1964.

He was a superstitious man, spooked by the color green or the presence of peanuts at the track, beholden to talismans and ritual. But those quirks, that scar, didn't prompt him to use a shoulder harness. When he crashed on the 110th lap, his unrestrained head smacked into a retaining wall.

He died of facial injuries.

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