A History Lesson ~ Charlotte Motor Speedway
by: PattyKay Lilley
On Sunday, May 20, 2012, a close friend shared with me a full-page ad from Bank of America that appeared that same day in the Charlotte Observer, the local wrapper of fish where he and his wife now make their home. I’d like to share with you today, the exact wording found within the text of the advertisement regarding Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“In 1959, Bruton Smith had the vision to design and build what many race fans now call, “The Greatest Place to See the Race” — Charlotte Motor Speedway. Today the Speedway sets the standard in motorsports entertainment, allowing fans to truly immerse themselves in the sport. Bank of America has worked with Charlotte Motor Speedway from its inception, providing the financing and support that have helped make it the mecca [SIC] of motorsports. It’s a local-business story that has helped establish racing as one of the most popular sports in the world.
Charlotte Motor Speedway also contributes $400 million annually to the regional economy and employs hundreds of area residents. It’s another example of how we’re working to help locally based businesses grow and hire in and around Charlotte — and across the country.”
For many that read those words, they appear to be a glowing documentary of the history of the Speedway that is the prototype for all those mile-and-a-half tracks of which NASCAR is so fond today. There’s only one problem. None of the historical part is true!
Unlike my friend, that is ready to lynch someone for what he deems to be yet another attempt to revise the history of stock car racing, I suspect this is merely a case of a giant corporation entrusting small details to a worker near the bottom of their food chain. In more clear terms, they handed the ad layout to a minimum wage-earner and said, “Fill some copy in here.” It happens. It happens a lot. In fact, it happens multiple times a day, everywhere.
With no disrespect to Mr. Bruton Smith today, and with no desire to be bought up and sold for dog meat by a megalithic corporation the size of Bank of America, allow me to share some simple facts with you. My fondest hope is that, when I’m through, you might begin to question a lot more of the supposedly “historical facts” being tossed about by today’s media, be it print, audio or video.
Charlotte Motor Speedway was conceived and built by a driver named Curtis Turner. Turner hailed from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, and aside from driving stock cars (and some say moonshine as well), Turner continued on with his father’s lumber business, managing in his lifetime to make and lose several fortunes.
During one of his “up” times, in 1959 he invested $2 million of his own money into building a Speedway in Charlotte, NC that he thought would make him rich beyond his wildest dreams… and he had many of those. After a long battle with granite rock and a huge cost overrun because of same, the track opened for business in 1960, but Curtis, like the gentleman in the TV ad for I don’t remember what product, was “In debt up to his eyeballs.” At that time, I believe that eyeball level was somewhere around $800,000. He was forced to turn to his own pocket in order to pay the purse money for that first race, as the gate didn’t cover the cost of the race.
In an attempt to raise enough money to pay off his debt-holders, Curtis made a deal with the International Teamsters Union to organize a Drivers’ Union under their sanction in exchange for what was owed. In truth, he did, at first, sign almost all the drivers and collected the princely sum of $10 from each for their Union membership fee.
Enter William H. G. (Big Bill) France. France let it be known, loudly and certainly, that no driver known to be aligned with any union would race under the NASCAR sanction. Not only did France mean it, but assured anyone and everyone that he would back it up with a pistol, which he did have and said he would use. Most of the drivers “unsigned” almost immediately from the Teamsters, and both Turner and Tim Flock were handed “Lifetime suspensions” from NASCAR. After five years, France did lift the suspensions; Turner returned to racing, but Flock never drove another NASCAR race.
Somewhere between that first race and June of 1961, Bruton Smith found his way onto the Board of Directors for Charlotte Motor Speedway. Shortly after the World 600 that year, that same Board voted to oust Curtis Turner as President of the very track he had built. In the aftermath of Turner’s leaving, Bruton Smith was put in charge of the track, only to wind up filing bankruptcy the following year.
The track was turned over by Judge J.B. Craven to local furniture store owner Richard Howard, who ran the track and worked it out of its debts. Howard arranged a public burning of the mortgage in 1967. Meanwhile Smith moved to Illinois, eventually buying out other shares of stock in the track to regain control in the early 1970s.
Most of what I’ve told you here is verifiable and is a matter of public record. That which is not, comes from the memories of those of us that were around in 1960 and watched it happen. How is it then, that the copy from the Bank of America ad is so very far off the mark as to be considered worthless? Therein lies a tale.
Because of a recent conversation here on RacersReunion® concerning some information found to be in error on a completely different subject, I consulted the pages of the much vaunted but error-filled on-line encyclopedia, “Wikipedia.” The copy in the ad was almost word for word, excepting, of course, the tie-in with Bank of America, which, to be fair, was the point of the ad itself.
We live in a marvelous age of instant information that I never thought or dreamed I would ever be a part of, coming as I do, from a time when there were no microwaves and no televisions. My generation can remember the beginnings of everything most folks take for granted today, including the computer on which you’re reading this.
But with all of the instant information, it seems to me there should be a cautionary warning issued. “Beware: information contained herein has not been checked for accuracy and comes from a single source only. Believe it at your own risk.”
The following words are the opening paragraph of our Mission Statement, prominently displayed in several places on the RacersReunion® site:
“RacersReunion® has been created to preserve and celebrate racing history. To provide a living, growing historical document to educate young fans and to give older fans a walk down memory lane.”
RacersReunion®, the site where legends and fans unite, invites you to come and join us as a member. Whether you are a racer or a fan, young or old, there is a place for you here. Simply go to our Home Page and choose your style of racing, stock cars, dragsters, open wheel etc. Click on the link for that series. At the right-hand side of the page that opens, you’ll see an invitation to either “Sign in” or “Sign up.”
You’ll find me on the stock car site. I look forward to seeing you soon.