Joe Caspolich was a native of Bay St. Louis, MS and drove race cars from the local Mississippi dirt tracks to NASCAR and even into the movies.
By my records, Joe started racing motorcycles in 1945 at the age of 15. After being injured in several accidents, Joe decided that Hot Rod racing would be safer. By the early 50’s, he had earned the respect of his fellow race car drivers and caught the eye of many owners. Joe Caspolich raced at all the Mississippi tracks and won big races at out-of-state tracks like New Orleans, Port Arthur, Dallas, Pensacola, Birmingham, Montgomery and Chattanooga.
Joe was a country boy and didn't care much for the fame of being a winner. Around 1950, Joe was racing in Louisiana and met a youngster who would later save his life. This teenager was a fan of Joe’s and wanted to help get the car ready for the race. The kid hung around all night doing what he could to help. Joe won the race and gave his trophy to the teenager.
In 1957 Joe teamed up with Pappy Crain of Biloxi and entered a car in the NASCAR race at Darlington SC, The Southern 500. Joe qualified his car 16th in a field of 50 cars. On the last day of practice, Joe turned in the 2nd fastest lap ever at the track. Many experts gave this rookie a good chance to win. On lap 66 of the race, Joe was running in 2nd and just behind the leader. He got a good run out of turn #2 and picked up speed down the back stretch. Knowing that turn #3 was the worst place on the track to pass, Joe went for the lead. Joe pulled alongside the leader, lost control, hit the guardrail and crashed. His car came back down across the track and was T-Boned in the driver's door. Click here to see the Newspaper Clipping of the race. It was a very bad wreck !! Every bone on his left side was broken and I understand that they pronounced Joe dead at the track. His body was taken to the local hospital and placed in the morgue. While at the hospital a young Doctor came by and introduced himself to Joe's wife. He was from New Orleans and a huge fan of Joe's. He explained how Joe had given him a trophy years earlier and just wanted to pay his respects. The young Doctor went in to see his hero one last time and noticed he wasn't dead and wheeled him out of the morgue and into the emergency room. Joe had to sit out the 1958 NASCAR season because of his injuries.
Joe Caspolich may have finished the race a disappointing 37th in his rocky NASCAR race, but he won the respect of everyone at NASCAR. He returned to NASCAR at Darlington in 1959 with a solid 13 place finish. He also returned again in 1960 and 1961. All in all, he raced in 8 NASCAR events.
Unocal sponsored the UNOCAL/Darlington Record Club, and Joe became a charter member in 1960. To become a member of this elite club, you have to run the fastest speed In the Southern 500 qualifying for the manufacturer. The other charter members were “Fireball” Roberts, Elmo Langley, Richard Petty, “Speedy” Thompson, Bob Burdick, Marvin Panch, and Dick Joslin. The purpose of the club was to train the rookies as they came along. The rookies could not qualify the first day at Darlington. It was mandatory that they qualify the second day. And before they could qualify, all of the rookies had a test they had to go through that was observed by a panel from the members of the Record Club.
In 1960 he was asked to drive as the stunt driver in a racing move called “Thunder in Carolina”. This film has tons of beautifully filmed vintage racing footage. It also includes loads of wonderful footage of the Darlington 500, scenes of crews prepping cars, and some risky practice driving through the Carolina Mountains.
I spoke with Joe back in October 2008 and invited him to the 2008 Mississippi Racers Reunion being held down on the Mississippi coast that month. He was excited about coming and seeing his old friends and fans. Unfortunately, his health turned bad and he could not make the trip. He told me that one of his most exciting moments “on the track” was racing against and beating an up and coming young driver named Clint McHugh at Speedbowl Park in Jackson back in 1955. He said that Clint was the best driver that he had ever seen and he had seen a lot of good drivers.
His most exciting moment “off the track” came a few years back. Joe said that the phone rang one afternoon and it was Roger Penske calling. Mr. Penske said that he had a young driver that he was going to put into a race car and Roger wanted to know if Joe would let the new kid use his old number. He told Roger that he could use his number once the kid had won 4 races in a row. Roger just laughed… Turns out the kid had just won his 5th race in a row. The car number was Joe's #2 and the kid was Rusty Wallace. The rest is racing history !!
I want to say thank you to David Gray (Joe's Nephew) for the pictures of Joe's NASCAR days. Joe Caspolich was a good man, talented race car driver, percisionist, hero and a true pioneer in Hot Rod Racing.
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