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Curtis Turner: He ‘Lived Good’ And Drove Better

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, January 23 2016
Curtis Turner, who was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Saturday, had big reputations for his life both on and off of race tracks. (File photo by ISC Archives via Getty Images)

Curtis Turner, who was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Saturday, had big reputations for his life both on and off of race tracks. (File photo by ISC Archives via Getty Images)

By Deb Williams | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – A 6-foot-2, ruggedly handsome Virginian, Curtis Turner combined his brazen driving tactics with a swashbuckling lifestyle to carve himself a unique place in NASCAR history.

hallf of fame logoOn Saturday, Turner was rewarded for his efforts with induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame along with Speedway Motorsports Inc. founder Bruton Smith and NASCAR champions Bobby Isaac, Terry Labonte and Jerry Cook.

Considered one of the best-ever dirt track drivers, Turner captured the attention of Sports Illustrated in the mid-1950s. He was featured on the prestigious publication’s cover and its story declared his “350 feature wins made him the Babe Ruth of stock car racing.” No one really knows how many wins Turner secured prior to his NASCAR days since records weren’t kept before the sport was organized. However, there was no doubt that Turner was among the fastest and most colorful competitors in NASCAR’s early years.

The fans loved his charge-to-the-front, fearless, close-quarter driving style and his ability to accomplish unbelievable feats with a race car were legendary.

“He was the best at controlling a car and putting it where he wanted it of anybody I’ve ever seen,” said NASCAR Hall of Fame member Leonard Wood, who was Turner’s crew chief when he drove for the Wood Brothers. “You can’t explain it to

Curtis Turner poses with the car he drove to a second-place finish in the NASCAR Modified-Sportsman race on the Daytona Beach-Road Course. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

Curtis Turner poses with the car he drove to a second-place finish in the NASCAR Modified-Sportsman race on the Daytona Beach-Road Course. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

anybody how good this man was as far as controlling a car. If the thing was up the bank or whatever, he never stopped driving the car.  

“At Bowman Gray (Stadium in Winston-Salem, N.C.) he went into the corner and somehow the thing got up on two wheels. It was going to turn over. He just steered it like a bicycle until he got to Bobby Myers and then he let it land on Bobby. It threw it back on its wheels and he went on and won the race.”

Born Curtis Morton Turner on April 12, 1924 in Floyd, Va., a small Shenandoah Mountain town, he was a NASCAR competitor from the sanctioning body’s beginning. He competed in NASCAR’s first Strictly Stock race in June 1949 and eventually became the only driver to pilot a Nash to victory in a NASCAR premier series race. However, it was the creation of NASCAR’s convertible division and a contract with Ford that truly placed Turner in the spotlight. In 1956, he won 22 of 43 convertible races and 11 of 31 the following year, his only other full season in the ragtops. Overall, he totaled 38 victories in 79 starts on the circuit that folded after the 1959 season.

In NASCAR’s premier series, Turner recorded his first of 17 career victories in only his fourth start on Sept. 11, 1949 at Langhorne (Pa.) Speedway. He also racked up 17 poles in 17 seasons. Today, Turner remains the only premier series driver to win two consecutive races from the pole leading every lap.

“He was one of those guys that if you had him in your car you were about a sure winner,” Wood said. “I’ve seen him pass two and three cars in the middle of a corner. He’s one driver, that if you were leading the race and there was one lap to go, you didn’t want on your bumper. If he got a fender on the inside of you, you were passed. He wouldn’t turn you. He would scrub you, but he didn’t go in and knock you out.”

NASCAR Hall of Fame member Rex White admitted that racing against Turner “was

NASCAR superstars – and now Hall of Famers – Joe Weatherly (L) and Curtis Turner (R) at Orange Speedway. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

NASCAR superstars – and now Hall of Famers – Joe Weatherly (L) and Curtis Turner (R) at Orange Speedway. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

just different.”

“He would come to the race track in a suit and a tie and not many drivers did that back in those days,” said White, the premier series’ 1960 champion. “Curtis put on a great show on dirt. If he had run less aggressive, he probably would have won more races.”

However, running wide open and aggressive was the only lifestyle Turner knew and understood. One of four children, the Great Depression demanded he grow up fast. He hauled his first load of moonshine at age 9 and he honed his driving skills on narrow, mountain dirt roads. When once questioned about those early days, Turner responded: “Those were hard times back in the hills and you did things you shouldn’t in order to get by. I’m not proud of my past, but I am proud of the future I made for myself. I’ve made a few fortunes, but I like to live good.”

And live good Turner did, making and losing more than one fortune during his life. He considered life a party and he enjoyed playing the role of a rich man, one who raced and dealt in timber.

Turner began lumbering at age 14, earning 15 cents an hour using a crosscut saw. Legend has it that by the time he was 20 he owned three sawmills, plus logging equipment and a truck line necessary to keep them going. Influential businessmen Turner met via racing discovered he possessed an uncanny knack for sizing up a timber patch and estimating the number of board feet it contained by merely flying over the area. When Turner and his associates closed a deal involving about $1 million, a publicist labeled the country boy a millionaire race car driver.

Privately, Turner thought the “millionaire” tag was a joke, but he never attempted to dismiss the rumors of his wealth. He maintained one didn’t have to be a millionaire as long as you could live like one. His parties became “musts” for an increasing number of well-to-do new race fans. After all, Turner made good money and he enjoyed spending it on parties and new airplanes.

“He could pilot a plane as good as he could drive a car,” Wood commented.

And Turner was just as much a daredevil in his plane as he was in his race car; a fact that didn’t always set well with the Federal Aviation Administration. That was the case one quiet Sunday morning in Easley, S.C., when Turner and an old friend from the town decided while flying over the friend’s home they would like to have a drink. Turner landed his plane on a street in front of his friend’s house so a bottle could be obtained. However, when he prepared to take off, church services had ended and traffic was coming from several different directions. After hopping over several motorists with his plane, Turner finally pulled up at a crossing, taking a stoplight and several dangling wires with him. His stunt cut off telephone service in Easley. When Turner landed in Charlotte an angry FAA representative was waiting and he grounded the flamboyant driver for quite some time.

The grounding, however, didn’t tame Turner on the race track. He and good friend Joe Weatherly often banged fenders in an event’s later stages. It was a tactic the two Ford drivers called “popping”, thus giving rise to Turner’s nickname “Pops.”

“He’d come down the beach and sling it sideways rather than let off,” Wood said. “He and Joe Weatherly were teammates driving for Ford in 1956 on the convertible circuit. Joe’s windshield blew out. Imagine the convertible with the windshield gone how much aero advantage you would get. It was helping Joe quite a bit. So Curtis took his foot and was trying to kick his windshield out. He took a cramp, but he still won the race.”

Even though Turner was known for his competitiveness, he was more than a talented race car driver who enjoyed a good party. He was a businessman who realized the sport’s potential. After accepting the invitation to become a board member of the first Atlanta Speedway organization, he decided to construct a race track in Charlotte.  

Turner announced plans to build a 1.5-mile track on April 22, 1959. He said it would be on Highway N.C. 49 and known as Charlotte Motor Speedway.  Projected to cost $750,000, the speedway would have 45,000 seats and contain a 1-mile road course. By May 7, 1959, Turner and his partners had formed a corporation to build the speedway. His partners were Darlington Raceway builder Harold Brasington, North Wilkesboro Speedway promoter Enoch Staley and Bowman Gray Stadium promoter Alex Hawkins. Turner was elected president and the corporation was authorized to issue 1 million shares of stock at $1 a share. However, a new location had to be selected when a deal was never finalized for Turner’s proposed site. Turner now turned his attention to 550 acres just inside Cabarrus County, 12 miles north of Charlotte, on U.S. Highway 29.

By June 1959, Turner and Bruton Smith had joined forces in constructing the Charlotte speedway. The sanctioning agreement for the inaugural World 600 was secured in September 1959, but construction problems left the track about $800,000 in debt by the time it opened. Twice Turner approached the Teamsters Union about loaning him money to satisfy the speedway’s debt. The first time he talked with the Teamsters was soon after the inaugural race in June 1960. He decided not to accept the offer, but then returned in August 1961 after the track’s board of directors ousted him as the speedway’s president. Turner’s acceptance of the Teamsters’ original proposal in an effort to regain control of the track he and Smith built would eventually result in one of the most devastating events in Turner’s life.

The Teamsters told Turner they would provide the money he needed if he would organize the drivers under the Federation of Professional Athletes. It was stated the FPA’s objectives were: upgrade facilities for drivers and the speedways, including shower and lounge facilities; better purses; pension plans; a scholarship fund for children of deceased members; and more adequate insurance coverage. However, it wasn’t mentioned the FPA would bring pari-mutuel betting to auto racing, something NASCAR President Bill France Sr. felt would be detrimental to the sport. After France defeated Turner’s attempt to organize the drivers, the sport’s star was suspended indefinitely from NASCAR. Turner actually had been misled by the Teamsters, who couldn’t legally make a loan to a company the union was attempting to organize.

However, the damage was done. It was now early 1962 and since Turner couldn’t compete in NASCAR he headed for Hollywood where he had been invited to meet with scriptwriters who were interested in a movie about his career. A movie deal never materialized, but Turner enjoyed the parties. He also competed in non-NASCAR events, including the Pikes Peak Hill Climb. However, his heart remained in NASCAR and when he was notified in 1965 that his suspension had been lifted he didn’t waste any time in returning.

Turner was ecstatic to be back in NASCAR and the fans were just as happy to have him. He returned to the NASCAR lineup on Labor Day weekend in the Southern 500 with a 35th-place finish. Four races later Turner was back in true form, piloting the Wood Brothers Ford. He thrilled the fans with a fifth at North Wilkesboro (N.C.) Speedway and a third at Charlotte. Then, in his seventh premier series start since his reinstatement, Turner returned to victory lane in the American 500, the inaugural race at the new North Carolina Motor Speedway in Rockingham. The 41-year-old Turner out-dueled a 26-year-old Cale Yarborough on the 1-mile track for his last victory in NASCAR’s premier series.

Turner, who started fourth, led eight times for 239 laps in the 500-lap race, taking the lead for good with 27 laps remaining when Yarborough pitted. Yarborough returned to the track 17 seconds behind Turner, but cut it to 11 before the checkered flag waved.

“At the end of the race he had to nurse it and be as easy with it as he could because it was overheating,” said Wood, who noted Turner was driving with a broken rib he’d suffered in the Charlotte race. “It was overheating because there was so much sand there that it wore out the fan belt and the fan belt started slipping.”

Despite that issue in the closing laps, Turner didn’t complain. In fact, Wood said he only complained once in all of the races he drove for the team. It was after the 1965 October Charlotte race when Turner told Wood he needed to put some shocks on the car.

“He could drive one sitting on a 5-gallon can,” Wood said in describing Turner’s talent. “We went to Riverside (once). I told him I wanted him to get in the car to see if the seat fit. He stuck his foot in the door and said, ‘It’s just right.’”

After the Rockingham victory, Turner competed in 31more premier series races before he and professional golfer Clarence King lost their lives in a plane crash on Oct. 4, 1970 in Punxsutawney, Pa. At 46 years old, Turner was gone, but his legendary feats with a race car lived on.

“These drivers that are super, super good are born with something the others don’t have,” Wood said. “You can teach guys how to drive. You can take them to school and teach them how to be a good driver, but the ones that are really good are just born with something that the others can’t pick up. You can tell them and show them, but some just have an instinct of how to do it. Just driving the car, he was one of the best. When you had Curtis Turner in your car, you felt like you had an ace in the hole.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, January 23 2016
2 Comments

2 Comments »

  • The Mad Man says:

    Floyd Virginia sits at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and isn’t really close to the Shenandoah Mountains. Floyd is also the hometown of former Cup championship crew chief Darian Grubb and former Truck Series driver Jeff Agnew.

  • Charlie Perry says:

    Enjoyed your article. I’ve been a lifelong fan of Curtis Turner but every time I read something about him I learn a little bit more about him. So here’s a tidbit your may not know. Back in the 1990s I tried to start an outdoor drama about Curtis Turner but could never acquire the backing, especially from NASCAR, that was needed to get it going. To gather material for the drama I interviewed several people who were close to Curtis. One, who I will never forget, was Paul Sawyer, the owner of the Richmond Speedway. The day I interviewed Paul it was just him and me in his office, surrounded by trophies, pictures, and other racing memorabilia from all his racing days. When he got to talking about Curtis tears came to his eyes. He said he still missed him and still had a hard time believing that Curtis died while flying his airplane.

    Charlie Perry
    Callaway VA