ST. PETERSBURG — Nothing could have prevented Patt Joannides from claiming her grandstand seat for the starting flag of the 1973 Indianapolis 500, neither steady rain nor the death of a driver in a practice run two weeks earlier. Her son, David "Salt" Walther, was driving.
Midway into the first lap, Mrs. Joannides watched in horror as Walther's car clipped a fence at 150 mph, was sheared in half and flipped, sending a spray of burning fuel onto spectators.
Salt Walther suffered burns over 40 percent of his body and was partially disfigured in the crash, considered one of the most spectacular in race history.
Salt Walther later returned to racing. His mother understood. She probably would have done the same thing.
For it was behind the wheel of her red Ferrari and other high-performance cars that Mrs. Joannides felt freest. She prized her quick reflexes, her ability to control a finely tuned engine with precision and speed. Especially, she liked finishing first.
A slim, athletic woman who wore hot pink lipstick and kept her blond hair in a 1960s upsweep, Mrs. Joannides smoked Dunhills through a gold cigarette holder and lit them with a gold lighter with the Ferrari logo. She liked her designer clothes, navy blue jackets, big round glasses, all of which created "a classic look in a flamboyant way," said Mary Evertz, a relative of Mrs. Joannides' third husband, Dr. Minas Joannides Jr., and a former Times society columnist.
Other members of the St. Petersburg Yacht Club might spot her sailing with other "Salty Sisters" members, but rarely saw her in the club restaurant. At parties, she did not so much mingle as hold court, taking a seat and letting others come to her.
A drive for class and speed pushed her through three marriages, all to wealthy men. She exalted her four sons, all of whom pursued careers involving cars and boats and racing. Mrs. Joannides also knew her way around an engine and sometimes changed the oil on her own Rolls-Royce.
That tomboy spirit set her apart from other society mavens.
"I don't think she had a wide circle of women friends," said Evertz, 79. "I think you would describe her as a man's woman. Most women were not interested in fast cars and boats."
Then again, not much in Mrs. Joannides' life was usual.
Patricia Strader was born and raised in Lexington, Ky. Her father, Theodore Strader, had an affinity for fast cars. An aunt she admired, socialite Mona Strader Von Bismarck, was the subject of a Cole Porter song and a Salvador Dalí painting. Von Bismarck, Chanel's "best dressed woman in the world" in 1933, had also married well, with husbands including the richest man in the world and a German count.
After high school, Mrs. Joannides married George Walther, an Ohio steel magnate with a long history of sponsoring Indianapolis 500 race cars. The couple lived in Dayton, Ohio, and also enjoyed motorcycles.
"It was nothing for them to try to race home from wherever they were on his-and-hers Harleys," said Ted Meuché, Mrs. Joannides' youngest son. In 1950, Mrs. Joannides acquired an English sports car, the second Jaguar XK120 imported to the United States, her son said.
The marriage lasted a little over a decade. A marriage to Theodore Meuché Sr., who owned an insurance company, lasted another decade.
Mrs. Joannides moved to the Tierra Verde area in 1968. She married Dr. Joannides, a prominent thoracic surgeon. The couple shared a taste for fine autos, and flew to California in successive years to pick up an Excalibur formerly owned by Tony Curtis and a white Rolls-Royce Corniche convertible.
Mrs. Joannides drove the Rolls home by herself, updating her family each night by phone.
Meuché, 52, remembers sitting with his stepfather in front of a map of the United States. "He would say, 'Now, when your mom calls tonight she will probably be here.' And when she called she was always 300 miles further to the east."
Even so, Mrs. Joannides maintained a nearly spotless driving record, with no speeding tickets in Florida.
The worst fates befell her sons. Almost exactly a year after Salt Walther's legendary crash, George "Skipp" Walther III, 27, died when his rudder broke off at 160 mph during a test run at the 1974 Champion Spark Plug Trophy hydroplane races in Miami.
"It was just the worst possible news," said Meuché. "Just about the time Mom was able to recover and Salt was on his feet doing relatively well, this tragedy devastated her again."
Salt's troubles were also far from over. He had lost parts of his fingers, was in chronic pain and had become addicted to morphine, Meuché said. Nonetheless, he continued to race and spent time in Southern California and appeared in episodes of The Dukes of Hazzard and The Rockford Files.
Dr. Joannides suffered a severe stroke in 1985. "Some people in her social circle made comments about, 'How long will it take her to drop him off in a home and find somebody else?' " her son said.
Mrs. Joannides cared for her husband at their Bayway Isles home for five years. Devoting herself to his care was, she would tell relatives, one of her "greatest accomplishments."
Among those who knew Mrs. Joannides well is Seldon Whispell, who worked on her Excalibur, Jaguar and other cars at Whispell's Foreign Cars. "I've dealt with some very rich people," said Whispell. "And some of them really thought you were dirt under their feet. She was one who absolutely appreciated everything you did. She was one of the finest customers I ever dealt with."
Dr. Joannides died in 1990. Mrs. Joannides remained in the waterfront home and enjoyed a succession of boats docked there. Her last boat, a 25-foot, bright yellow Donzi with a Chevy 435 hp engine, could knife across the water at nearly 80 mph.
Even in her later years, Mrs. Joannides never backed away from speed or danger. She rode a Harley into her mid 70s.
Mrs. Joannides was diagnosed 31/2 years ago with pancreatic lymphoma. She moved in with Meuché and his wife, Kathy, at their ranch in Bradenton. She had lost contact with Salt Walther, who in 2007 was incarcerated for nonsupport of dependents and eluding Ohio police in a 100-mph chase, after which he turned himself in.
"She couldn't even really talk about it because it just ripped her heart apart," Meuché said.
Though she could no longer drive, the passion for speed never left her. "Her reflexes were still lightning fast months before she died," her son said. "She would snatch something out of my hand and then just chuckle, saying, 'I've still got it.' "
Mrs. Joannides died May 27 at home. She was 85.
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.