FLORENCE, S.C. -- At Darlington, Joe Caspolich was clinging to life.
In Florence, he regained his grip.
Between nearly dying in the 1957 Southern 500 and his triumphant return two years later, Caspolich did more than heal after breaking practically every bone on his left side at Darlington Raceway.
He found a second home in Florence, even moving here in 1958 for a while to work while focusing on his comeback. Therein grew a bond between Caspolich and the city, so much so that he and a group of avid Florence race fans scraped up enough money to purchase the 1959 Oldsmobile that Lee Petty drove with the No. 42 to victory lane in that year’s first Daytona 500.
Only in the 1959 Southern 500, Caspolich drove it with the No. 2, a car named the “Paperhanger’s Special-City of Florence.”
Never mind Caspolich did not win that 1959 Southern 500. He finished 13th.
This story goes beyond that.
It’s one that tells of a man’s will to return to the sport he loved. It’s one that tells of a city that went above and beyond to get Caspolich back on his feet and in a racing car.
Caspolich did not want his final NASCAR race to be one he didn’t finish.
He and Florence made sure that would not be the case.
A career was born
Caspolich made his first mark in racing along the Gulf Coast in modifieds after finishing his term in the Army.
His cousin, David Grey Caspolich, said it was almost by accident that Joe got into racing.
“Joe was watching a coup race, and he said he could drive better than another driving a car, and that car’s owner heard him say that,” David recalled. “And the owner went up to Joe and told him to prove it.”
Joe did. He went on to win his first race in that car, and a career was born.
But according to David, winning was more important to Joe than any hardware he collected.
So after a boy’s dad asked Joe if he could buy that trophy for his son in the early 1950s, Joe just gave it to him. That token of generosity would be paid back one day.
Although Joe had planned to try stock-car racing in 1958, he was persuaded to try it a year earlier.
Joe and his Ford met the entry deadline for his first Cup race, the 1957 Southern 500, by an hour.
After qualifying 16th, Caspolich started a race that included two tragic accidents, the first of which killed Bobby Myers.
The other included Caspolich. He was running fifth on Lap 67 when his Ford hit Bill Blair’s car, which had been spinning after blowing a tire. The wreck happened almost right in front of the grandstand seat of Caspolich’s wife, Myron. Joe received emergency treatment at the track hospital. Then, he was on his way to Florence to receive more treatment at what is now the McLeod Regional Medical Center before his wife could make it to infield.
Darlington police, however, took Myron to McLeod to see her husband.
“… I would have been all right if it hadn’t been for a blowout. Bill Blair blew a tire and hit the rail,” Caspolich told the Morning News’ Fletcher Allen in 1957 from his hospital bed. “(Blair) hit the fence and banged me in the rear. I started a spin, and that’s all I remember until last Wednesday. It was like a real nightmare.”
He broke his pelivis, ribs and shoulder, and his left arm was mangled.
It was a nightmare, however, that Caspolich saw coming.
“But you know I had a feeling,” he said. “A man knows when something is going to happen. That’s how I felt. I’ve had my back broken three times before this, but this was the closest I’ve come to getting killed.”
He was pronounced dead
At one point, according to Joe, he WAS pronounced dead after that 1957 Southern 500. And in a 1992 interview with the Associated Press, Caspolich talked about it.
“I was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital,” Caspolich said. “They covered me up with a sheet and wheeled my body into a room with two other stiffs. An intern, who was a friend of mine, came into the room to pay his last respects. My arm moved and fell off the table, and he ran out of the room yelling, ‘He’s alive. He’s alive.’”
That intern was more than just a friend. He was the kid Caspolich gave that trophy to after his father asked for it years earlier.
And Caspolich still wanted to race.
“I’ll race as long as I can move a muscle,” he told Allen.
Once Caspolich was discharged after seven weeks, his goal was to race in 1958. But before he was discharged, burglars broke into his car shop in Mississippi and stole several thousand dollars' worth of tools and equipment.
Still, come 1958, Caspolich wanted to return to Darlington – and win.
“I’ll be there even if I have to sit in as a spectator,” Caspolich said. “I love that track and could race on it seven days a week.”
With that in mind before 1957 came to an end, he traveled back to his Gulfport, Miss., home.
But he would return.
In January 1958, Caspolich did return to Florence after a 12-hour, 800-mile drive. After an infected bone was discovered in his left arm, he refused surgery in Mississippi and instead drove to Florence for treatment. Roughly two months after that, Caspolich had the surgery here.
It was just another step Caspolich knew he must take.
His collar bone, pelvis and ribs had healed by then. But to race, he needed his arm fixed.
After all, Caspolich was determined to return to Darlington.
'I've got to race it'
“I’ve got to race it,” Caspolich told Allen. “I made a promise that I’d finish my last one. I can’t quit on a race like that one last year. I’ve got to finish it.”
But Caspolich still needed time to heal in 1958, so his time and energy turned to 1959 – and as a show of his will, he moved here in the spring 1959 to become a resident. That’s when he also took up a job as a mechanic at Griffin Motors, an Oldsmobile dealership.
“He got to be close to (Darlington),” said Angela Perry, one of Caspolich’s daughters. “He had a job to support his family, and he embraced the way this beginning of the stock-car industry was including him.”
From that point on, Caspolich began not only to work in the city of Florence, he became a friend to many people.
And after more people heard of his wreck in the 1957 Southern 500, they wanted him to race again just as bad as he wanted to.
A very famous car was available: the Oldsmobile that Petty won the first Daytona 500 with. Petty had gone with a 1959 Oldsmobile that race because he didn’t have all of the parts for a Plymouth. Since Petty had been racing an Oldsmobile, he fixed one for that Daytona 500 and won it.
And then he sold it to a group of Florence members of the business community for $5,000. One of those new owners was Tom Kirkland, a former Darlington Raceway photographer. In a book he wrote, “Darlington International Raceway, 1950-67,” he shared the following:
"We bought the car just like it was when it finished the race, with one spare engine and 16 wheels with the tires mounted. In those days, the same tire was used for all tracks. … Several of us went in on this car ownership deal. There was Red Tyler (who would become vice president of Darlington Raceway in 1967), Allen Windham, Scrunt Schipman, Joe Caspolich and me. Each of us put up $1,000."
And they had a racer in mind that they wanted to drive it: one of the new owners.
By talking to people he had met in the area since 1957, Caspolich was able to raise his share.
"Joe went to doctors, nurses and everybody else he could find and asked them for money ... $25, $50 or $100 ... whatever he could get," Kirkland wrote. "That's how he came up with $1,000."
'We borrowed that name'
And then the name “Paperhanger’s Special” was born.
“"We borrowed that name from a car that had raced in Indianapolis years before," Kirkland wrote. "It was owned by hundreds of people. The co-owners would put in $100 or $200 ... whatever they could afford.
"They couldn't figure out what to call the car. Well, they had a doctor, a lawyer, a minster, a photographer, a banker, and a surgeon. Every profession – except a paperhanger. None of the co-owners hung wallpaper for a living. So they called it the 'Paperhanger's Special.'"
But the group did not want to exactly copy that nickname. So, they put a local twist on it.
“Like these folks in Indianapolis, we had doctors, lawyers, a photographer and so forth in on the sponsorship," Kirkland wrote. "I don't think we had a minister. So we called the car the Paperhanger's Special, the City of Florence."
In July 1959, the Paperhangers had their car for Caspolich.
After pointing out that this car maintained a 135-mph average during its Daytona 500 win, Caspolich shared his confidence with the Morning News.
“I’m sure not going to lose,” he said. “If we are successful, we will try to get a 1960 model to use later and use the present car on dirt tracks. Then I would be going almost full time at racing.”
A club official pointed out if they were able to reach the point they were running dirt and paved tracks, the Paperhangers might be able to back a program similar to the famous Curtis Turner-Joe Weatherly team.
And at the same time, Florence’s excitement about Caspolich’s car took off.
And no one caught the essence of this more than Charles E. Mitchell, president at the time of the Florence Chamber of Commerce. He talked about how Caspolich came to Florence to heal from his devastating crash in the 1957 Southern 500 and how Caspolich wanted to show the city his appreciation by coming back to help however he could.
“The moral of this story is ‘You never know how a small favor you extend to a stranger will affect his future and the future of the community,’” Mitchell wrote in a chamber of commerce newsletter that was printed in the July 20, 1959 edition of the Morning News.
And he ended his newsletter with “The Chamber of Commerce is still just ‘People working together.’”
That is what made this car’s appearance in this race so significant. It WAS indeed people working together to make his dream come true.
City shared the dream
And with the car bearing “City of Florence,” his dream became the city’s dream. Caspolich’s car went on display at the local museum, and there was even talk of a movie being filmed during that 1959 Southern 500 (which would be named “Thunder in Carolina” while his car donned a No. 82 instead of its 2).
But back to the race.
After turning in record times during practice runs, Caspolich qualified sixth in the first two rounds. Only the top 5 from each round made the field.
But on the third day, Caspolich topped the old track record for the third straight day and this time got into the lineup. It was the fastest qualifying time for an Oldsmobile.
”I feel real good about the car now,” Caspolich told the Morning News in 1959 after his successful qualifying bid. “It ran and handled very well in my runs today. We probably will not do any more important work on it and I doubt I will drive it much. We are ready to go, and I sure hope I can bring the City in a winner. We have a real good chance.”
But the Paperhanger’s Special-City of Florence finished 13th.
"It didn't do too well .... Prize money for 13th was only $470. We didn't meet our expenses,” Kirkland wrote. “The car ran a couple of the races after Darlington and never did well. At the end of the season, we sold it."
But Caspolich at least made good on his vow, returning to Darlington and finishing the race. And he did it with Florence’s help.
“The folks of Florence took Joe under their wing after his 1957 Darlington Raceway crash and helped him heal – medically, financially and emotionally through their warm hearts,” said Marshall Griffin, nephew of Bobby Griffin, who was the sales manager for Griffin Motors. “It was one of Florence’s finest moments in its history.”
Florence Mayor Stephen Wukela is even amazed by it. But not surprised.
“It’s not only interesting, but I think it’s symblomatic of the support that this community always has had for the Darlington racetrack and for the Southern 500 and the affection we’ve felt for Darlington and for that race,” Wukela said. “So it’s altogether appropriate that this community got together and supported this driver to get him back into a seat and racing.”
A cameo in the movie
Caspolich eventually raced eight Cup events in all – four of which were at Darlington (three Southern 500s). He posted his best Cup finish of 12th at the 1960 Southern 500.
He can even be seen in the movie “Thunder in Carolina,” where he makes a cameo and has a speaking part.
In the 1961 Southern 500, Caspolich called it a Cup career with a finish of 37th and eventually moved back to the Gulf Coast.
The No. 2, however, would become significant in NASCAR again. Rusty Wallace drove the No. 2 from 1991 until his retirement. The throwback era that Darlington Raceway will celebrate this weekend is 1990-94. Brad Keselowski won the 2012 points crown with that number.
And, of course, Keselowski won last year’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 in the No. 2.
Caspolich died in January 2009, but Perry did find out what happened to the Paperhanger’s Special-City of Florence car over a couple of chance meetings with NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty, whose father was Lee Petty.
“(Petty) said they got the car back,” she said. “He said they had to keep it in the family.”