Joe Kelly was an entrepreneur with a very expensive hobby. Automobiles had always been very special to Kelly. Selling them was his life's work. Racing them was the result of his life's work. Known in Ireland for his car dealership, Joe would use his success as a salesman to fund his other, more addictive past-time.
Kelly had been active in racing since the late '40s. He had been somewhat successful, but he always knew where his true talent lay. Never deceived or too puffed-up concerning his abilities, Kelly raced because he enjoyed it. Yet, he was still good. Always a crowd favorite, Kelly thrilled the spectators for six years, until 1955. He then retired back to his true talent, selling cars.
Coming into 1951, Kelly's motor racing calendar had never been too focused on one form or style of motor racing. Kelly participated in multiple forms of racing, from grand prix to sports car races to Formula Libre. Joe never competed in races as a career, and therefore, only entered those that truly interested him, or, that were in the best interest of his car dealership.
Because racing was more of an interest, Kelly's racing season began later than those for whom racing was their career. The weekend of the 5th of May was to be a busy weekend for Kelly. Joe not only entered the 3rd BRDC Trophy race, but also, the International Daily Express Trophy Meeting Sports Car race. Both events were held at Silverstone, England on the 2.88 mile road course that utilized the taxiways of an old Royal Air Force base.
Kelly was entered in the International Daily Express Trophy Meeting in division II. This division included engines over 2000 cc. Joe entered the race with an Aston Martin. Kelly failed to score a finish in the race, however, as he did not even start it. Stirling Moss went on to score a dominant victory, completing 30 laps in the timed one hour event.
The other race of the weekend was the 3rd BRDC International Trophy race. And this was one race in which Kelly was to participate. The race was made up of two 15 lap heat races. The heat races determined the final order of the grid before the final race. In heat one, Kelly qualified 15th, or second-to-last, on the grid. Kelly's location on the grid was on the inside of the last row. As the heat race got underway, Joe was unable to really move up. After a couple of failures, Joe finished the heat race in 12th, one lap down. The top-three finishers in the first heat race were Juan Manuel Fangio, Reg Parnell and Felice Bonetto. In the second heat race, Sanesi, Whitehead, Trintignant and Gerard occupied the front row of the 4-3-4 arranged grid. Giuseppe Farina started on the inside of the third row, but, he would not stay there very long. As the 15 lap heat race wore on, Farina came up through the field to take the victory. Consalva Sanesi ended up finishing the race in 2nd, and Prince Bira, finished the race 3rd after starting the race from the last place.
Joe Kelly would start the final race from the middle of the 8th row. Sanesi would start the race from the pole, with Bonetto, Whitehead and Trintignant along the rest of the front row. The race began with rain falling on the track. In the rain, Reg Parnell was able to take his Ferrari 375 to the front. In a very short amount of time, the rain turned into a torrential downpour. It was difficult for drivers to hold onto their cars under such conditions. While Parnell was able to hold onto his Ferrari, Kelly was struggling with his Alta GP-3 (See Alta Article). The torrential rain ended up flooding the track. After only 5 laps, the race organizers began to mull over the idea as to whether it was better to call the event early instead of allowing it go the entire 35 laps. Then, on the 6th lap, the organizers decided to do just that. Reg Parnell ended up being able to hold on for the victory over Duncan Hamilton. Third place went to Graham Whitehead, although he finished the race one lap down to Parnell. In the midst of the water and the chaos, Kelly withdrew from the race on the 3rd lap. In the overwhelming rain and flooding, Parnell was still able to have an average speed of almost 62mph.
After taking part in a Formula Libre handicap race at Phoenix Park in Ireland on the 20th of May, Joe Kelly headed about two hours north to Dundrod for the 5th Ulster Trophy race. The 5th Ulster Trophy race took place on the 2nd of June on the 7.4 mile public road circuit. Kelly brought his Alta GP-3 to do battle with some rather good talent. Farina was present with an Alfa Romeo 159, Reg Parnel was also there with a Ferrari 125 and Louis Rosier came in his own Talbot-Lago T26C.
Joe qualified 20th for the 27 lap event. Farina had the pole with Parnell and Shawe-Taylor 2nd and 3rd respectively. The race, at the front of the pack, was rather uneventful. Though there were some good battles, the top four finished just the way they had qualified for the race. Kelly's race started with disappointment and ended in disaster. Starting 20th was not exactly a confidence builder. But he had 27 laps of a long 7.4 mile road course to try and make things happen. However, to be able to turn the poor qualifying into a positive result he would first have to finish the race. This proved the more difficult and daunting task. Some 42+ miles into the scheduled 200, the engine in Kelly's Alta developed a problem. The engine sounded terrible and it was down on power. This forced the Irishman to abandon his race. Kelly's engine ended up having a piston problem.
Never straying too far from home, Kelly journeyed to Silverstone, England, yet again, but this time for the British Grand Prix. Back in May, all of the competitors appeared to be more at a boat race than a grand prix. The British Grand Prix, in July of '51, would take place under dry conditions. In the dry, the powerhouses came out in force. Ferrari and Alfa Romeo dominated in qualifying. Jose Froilan Gonzalez was on the pole for Ferrari with a lap of 1:43. Rather unconcerned with what was happening at the front of the grid, Joe Kelly went out and set the 18th fastest time. As long as the weather stayed dry the best Kelly could do was keep from being lapped numerous times. Even that strategy failed.
At the start of the race, the two Argentineans, Gonzalez and Fangio, disappeared into the distance and started to make it look like a two-car race. The two pushed each other and seemingly forgot about everybody else out on the track. They were obviously in a class of their own as they would lap the entire field at least twice before the end of the race. This meant that Kelly had also been lapped numerous times, but that didn't matter. Joe tried the best he could to avoid mechanical problems, or, any other problems. But it wasn't to be. On the 75th of the scheduled 90 laps, Kelly's race came to an end due to a failure. He wasn't alone. Some of the championship contenders for '51 dropped out of the race including Alberto Ascari and Giuseppe Farina. The only Formula One event in which Kelly would enter that year was the British Grand Prix. He was sorely outclassed, both in talent and in machinery. However, he did compete. He had completed a total of 75 laps, but, left Silverstone without having scored a single point.
Seven days after the unsuccessful British Grand Prix, Kelly took part in another historic race. Though it wasn't a Formula One championship event, it was the first-ever Scottish Grand Prix. The race was held at another aerodrome, the Winfield Aerodrome in Hutton, Berwickshire, Scotland. With the exception of Reg Parnell, and perhaps David Murray, Joe was one of the more famous drivers to take part in the race.
Once again behind the wheel of his Alta GP-3, Kelly qualified 3rd for the race. Reg Parnell set the pole in a HWM/Alta. Philip Fotheringham-Parker qualified in between the two in 2nd.
The layout of the Winfield aerodrome was rather straight-forward. At 2 miles in length, the circuit was mostly made up of two notable straights, a couple of hairpin turns, and a couple of kinks, both left and right. The first Scottish Grand Prix was 50 laps, or, 100 miles in total.
Things started out rather ominously for the more famous drivers. Right at the start of the race, Parnell started to have trouble. The driveshaft on his HWM/Alta had broken and his day was done before having even completed a single lap. A more local racer was the next out the race on the 13th lap. Then, it was Kelly's turn. During the previous couple of laps Kelly was having trouble with his car's gearbox. Then, finally, on lap 14, Kelly's race came to an end with the total failure of his gearbox. Once again Joe suffered from another did not finish (DNF) at a race. Philip Fotheringham-Parker ended up going on to win the race. Only Gillie Tyrer was on the lead lap with Philip. Third place was two laps down by the end of the race.
Since racing was more of a hobby than a career, Kelly didn't have the team around him to help prepare his cars for both qualifying, or, the race. In addition, without the expertise of a team around him, quality repairs and refinishing could not be done to help make him competitive at each event. Without such a team around him, Kelly was truly left to hoping and praying for good results. He could not press the issue too much without the proposition of a failure. Each and every race Joe had a choice to make. He either had to push the car, and likely, suffer from a mechanical failure, or, he had to fight himself and take it easy in order to help nurse the car to a finish. Always remembered as a fast, hard-charging driver, Kelly's results in 1951 exude the personal choice he had made in the matter at each race.
The 1st Scottish Grand Prix was Joe's last major grand prix of 1951. However, he still had a Formula Libre race and a sports car race to go. The first of his remaining races was the Wakefield Trophy (Formula Libre) race.
At the time of the Wakefield Trophy race at Curragh, Ireland, Kelly was well into his 38th year of life. Throughout the season, Kelly had been one of the older competitors out on the track. At Curragh, he was the second-oldest. However, out on the track with him were a couple of the young guns for grand prix racing. At the time of the race, Stirling Moss and Mike Hawthorn were both twenty-two and mixing it up on the same track as Kelly.
Thirty-seven cars would start the race. Kelly was looking to have a repeat performance in his Alta as he had scored a 2nd place at the Wakefield the year before. However, this was a different year, and his Alta another year older. As it had at the Scottish Grand Prix, the gearbox on his Alta failed, ending his race. One more race, yet another failure.
One week after the Wakefield Trophy race, Kelly travelled the two and a half hours north to take part in what was his final race of the 1951 season. The race was the Tourist Trophy race held at Dundrod, in Northern Ireland. Kelly switched from his Alta grand prix car to drive an Aston Martin in the sports car race. A total of 60 cars were entered for the race. Among the drivers to take part in the race were Luigi Chinetti, Stirling Moss and 24 Hour of Le Mans champion Peter Walker.
Kelly was looking for a much better result than had been experienced throughout the earlier parts of the season. However, the year had been difficult, and it wouldn't be any better for him during his race at Dundrod. While Stirling Moss went on to complete the 43 laps in about 3 hours and 42 minutes and beat Peter Walker by over 2 minutes, Kelly had already been packed up and ready to leave the track. This was because Joe suffered from problems with his Aston Martin and was unable to even take the start. This brought Kelly's miserable 1951 campaign to an end.
Concerning the Formula One world championship, Joe was unable to score a point and, officially, Kelly had only been able to finish one race all year long. And that race was the Formula Libre race at Phoenix Park all the way back in May of that year. He had come close to finishing at another couple of races, but to no avail. In other events things just went bad, either mechanically or due to incredible weather conditions that made it almost impossible to carry on.
Besides the fact the season went so terribly, Kelly was already 38. Although there were drivers who were older, he was definitely on the downhill run of his career. This was evidenced by the fact that Kelly would only race competitively for another three years. 1951 would be the last year in which Kelly would take part in a Formula One race. A serious accident at Oulton Park in 1955 would cause the Irishman to consider heavily the costs of motor racing. Under no false illusions, Kelly would walk away from his hobby and just concentrate on selling cars, instead of racing them.