Joel Wolfe Thorne Jr. was a wealthy daredevil sportsman, heir to Chase Manhattan Bank & Pullman Railroad Fortunes, he was origionally from New Rochelle, N.Y. and led a "playboy" life that included fast motorcycles, fast cars, fast boats and aeroplanes.
Joel first went to Indy as a spectator in 1933 after graduating from Rutgers and went back the next year working as a mechanic for Lou Moore. He first tried to qualify in 1936 when he aquired a front wheel drive Shaw/Offy. This was the first car to have an "Offenhauser Engineering Co.' badge on the engine. Shaw had raced the car in the 1935 Indy 500 and finished second and the following year, it was raced by 'Babe' Stapp. He qualified second and was leading until the crankshaft broke. Unfortunately Joel failed to qualify. He tried again the next year and once more came up short. In 1937 he also raced an Alfa Romeo Tipo B 2.9L in the Vanderbilt Cup race in July.
He finally made the grid for the Indy 500 in 1938 finishing ninth. A further improvement to seventh came the following year followed by a career best fifth in 1940. In 1941 he was involved in the crash between Tomei and Andres, which put him out of the race. It happened on the sixth lap, in a closely bunched field, Louis Tomei, in a front wheel drive machine, dropped below the white apron line on the inside of the track to overtake some slower cars. Emil Andres was alongside and Joe Thorne was slightly behind. When Tomei went below the white line he skidded on the loose dirt and shot back up the track, locking wheels and forcing Andres into the wall and collecting Thorne.
He started Thorne Engineering in Burbank for the purpose of building race cars for his Indy 500 attempts and employed craftsmen such as Kurtis, who went on to create the Kurtis-Kraft roadsters which dominated Indianapolis races throughout the 1950s.
In 1938 Joel built a land speed record car in his Thorne Engineering Racing Shop in Burbank. The streamlined Thorne Racer was intended to be Americas challenge to the headline making Mercedes 'Silver Arrow' & Auto Union record breakers. The war intervened and the car was eventually bought by Lou Fageol who turned it into an Art Deco machine named the Fageol 'SuperSonic'.
Kurtis built a futuristic road car for Thorne in 1938, which, among other unique features, incorporated a three wheel configuration—one in front and two in the back. Thorne used the car regularly in the Los Angeles area.
In the 1946 Indy 500, the first following WWII, Joel was supposed to have driven his Thorne-Sparks special, but broke his leg a month earlier in a motorcycle accident. Tony Hulman, the owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, had invited Rudolf Caracciola to race at Indy. However, his Mercedes-Benz W165 did not clear Swiss customs. Caracciola was thus hired by Joel to drive Thorne's "Big-Six" Thorne-Sparks racer, which was basically a supercharged version of the traditional 4-cylinder Offenhauser engine with two more cylinders added.
Caracciola, who had experience on banked circuits from the Avus track in Berlin to the Monza banking in Italy, adjusted well and was soon lapping at 118 mph, good enough to qualify. Fortunately he was forced to change his linen cloth helmet for something that more closely resembled a crash helmet, as during a practice run, Caracciola crashed in Turn 2 and was thrown from the car. It is thought that he was struck in the face by a bird or a stone, suffering a severe concussion and fracturing his skull. George Robson was then brought in to race the car and went on to win.
After the war Thorne also set his sights on Unlimited hydroplane racing. He was a last-minute choice to drive ASTRAEA II in the 1949 Presidents Cup at Washington, D.C., after regular pilot Ed Stair was suspended for a driving infraction. Thorne climbed into the unfamiliar craft and finished sixth.
In the 1950s, Thorne planned on starting his own Unlimited team and ordered a hull (to be named SCAT) from the Ventnor Boat Works, designed by Norman
Lauterbach. SCAT was reported to resemble Hot Metal and Aluminum First, a couple of Ventnor products of the late 1940s. Thorne's Unlimited Class ambition, however, was never realized.
Thorne who also worked as a stunt pilot for Paramount Pictures, was killed when, on way to his home in Las Vegas, he crashed his airplane while taking off from Burbank, California into an apartment building. He was fatally injured along with the three unfortunate occupants, including a new-born baby.