The Life and Good Times of Curtis Turner… by: PattyKay Lilley
by: PattyKay Lilley
This piece is offered in loving memory of legendary NASCAR driver Curtis Turner, who left us far too soon, on October 4, 1970, 42 years ago Thursday. If there ever was a man capable of raising Hell in Heaven, Curtis Turner was that man, and I hope when I get there, the party is still going on.
Farewell and Godspeed Chris Economaki. You were indeed one of a kind, and a very good kind it was Sir. You are and always will be missed in the worlds of Journalism and Motorsports. Oh, and don’t be too hard on God. I’ve heard He is a race fan. ~PattyKay
Way back in the beginning, long before Richard Petty became “The King, before Dale Earnhardt ever intimidated anyone and even longer before Jimmy Spencer never forgot and another Jimmie won five times, there was a racecar driver named Curtis Turner who made those good ol’ boys seem like pussycats by comparison. It’s probably safe to say that Curtis wouldn’t have made it in today’s politically correct NASCAR, so it’s a good thing that he came on the scene when he did because he is a legend, pure and simple.
When on the racetrack, he would never have been satisfied with merely intimidating a competitor. He was far more likely to erase them, even at the expense of wrecking himself in the bargain. Today’s car owners and mega-bucks sponsors seem to have some problem with that sort of behavior. Back in the 50s when NASCAR was in its infancy, drivers didn’t make much money, but they were allowed to have personalities, so hang onto your hats because I have some marvelous tales to spin about Curtis Turner and his personality!
Curtis was born in 1924 in Floyd, Virginia, which lies just west of where the Blue Ridge Parkway traverses the mountains, and grew up with a father who was in the lumber business. When grown, Curtis took over that business and managed to make $millions with it, but managed to spend or lose as much as he made, only to wheel and deal and make it all back again. I don’t know for sure, but it seems to me that his middle name must have been “fun” because that is what he lived and died for, the fun of it all.
Growing up in the mountains of Virginia, it was just a natural thing that he would align with the local moonshine runners of his day, or the “Shine clan” as he called them. It can’t be proven that he ever actually transported corn squeezin’s, since he was never arrested for it, but certainly, he raced and partied with those that did.
He ran his first actual race (One that wasn’t through the back woods of Virginia) in 1946 at a small track in Mt. Airy, NC, and was ready and waiting when Big Bill France initiated NASCAR as a sanctioning body for stock car racing. His first “official” win came in September of 1949 at a little circular bullring in Langhorne, PA. By far his most impressive year was 1956 when he was racing in the convertible division and claimed 22 victories out of 43 races. Putting a cap on that year, he welded a top on his car and dominated the Southern 500 as well.
Turner was never crowned a NASCAR Champion, for a couple of very good reasons. The first reason was that although he racked up over 350 wins in his career, a large percentage of them were not NASCAR sanctioned races. The second reason is that it is a given fact, had he not destroyed so many cars on the track his win total would be far greater than it was.
In the garage area, he was known as “Pops”, which was not the fatherly term that it would seem to be. It stemmed from the noise that is made when one car “pops” another in the left rear quarter panel, a move that usually culminates with the car that was popped finding the wall. To Turner, that was part of the fun! As much as he loved to win, he also thoroughly enjoyed seeing someone else lose, even if that someone was teammate and best pal, Little Joe Weatherly.
Those two sometimes would go to banging on each other just for the pure joy of it and every time they did it, the crowd went wild. If you could get Turner and Weatherly to come to your racetrack, you’d have a sold out grandstand every time. Maybe the only one that didn’t totally enjoy “the show” as they called it was car owner Ralph Moody, who had to pick up the bills for both beaten and wrecked racecars.
He (Ralph) told a story about a race in Virginia where Curtis and Lee Petty got into it on the racetrack, but it didn’t end there. If you have a long memory, you know that Lee Petty was a very serious racer. He made all the races, which few others did back in the early days, and nothing but winning was deemed acceptable. Lee was as tough a driver as you’d want to see, but he wasn’t one who would take you out for the fun or it. Curtis was! They commenced to banging on each other throughout the race, with Curtis coming out the eventual winner while Lee brought home only a damaged racecar.
After the race, Curtis was sitting on a split-rail fence, enjoying an adult beverage from a bottle in a paper bag when Lee walked up to him with a rolled up newspaper in his hand that he was gently slapping against his leg. “I want to talk to you,” Lee said, and then proceeded to whack Curtis right off the fence when that newspaper hit his head. Inside that newspaper was a torque wrench! I’ve heard tell that it didn’t accomplish what Lee had hoped, because he was in Curtis’ sights on the racetrack from that day forward.
Once, Moody got so mad at Curtis for slamming Joe’s car around at Darlington that he told him, “If you do that again, we won’t pit you.” Of course, Curtis did it again, and the next time he pulled into the pits the crew just sat there looking back at him and made no move toward the car. According to Moody, Curtis was so mad that he just slammed the car into the cement wall, but it didn’t end there. The next day, driving a brand new Cadillac, Curtis showed up at the garage and drove that car right through the roll-up door (Which was closed at the time), backed up and drove away. (And they say that Jimmy Spencer never forgets!)
There was one time when Curtis was driving the pace car at the Charlotte fairgrounds and had a reporter in the back seat of the 1956 Ford convertible. When the green flag flew, Curtis didn’t pull off the track as he was supposed to, but floored that Ford and took off, leading the pack. The poor soul in the back seat was tossed every way but loose and scared about out of his wits. Remember, cars had no seat belts back then. He kept screaming at Curtis that the racecars were going to hit them. Curtis laughed and said, “Nah, they won’t hit us, and if they do, I’ll hit them back.” That lasted for two laps before Curtis finally turned the poor fellow loose in the infield, laughing all the way.
Now, as wild as the antics of Curtis and his pal, Little Joe were on the track, they didn’t even compare to some of the stuff they pulled off the track. These were not your basic family-oriented men and what both loved to do was party! If you thought that Tim Richmond traveled in the fast lane, Curtis and Joe would make him look like an altar boy by comparison. Every year they rented a place together in Daytona Beach that they referred to as the “Party Pad” and it soon became legendary. Parties at the Party Pad didn’t last for hours. They lasted for days! Hard liquor flowed like water down a steep hill and the place never closed. Now, mind you, no one here is promoting the idea of making Canadian Club the pre-race beverage of choice, but those boys did it with regularity. Arriving at the track hung over and without sleep was almost the norm, but it never seemed to detract from their racing skills.
There was a scene in “Days of Thunder” in which Cole Trickle and Rowdy Burns were frammin’ and bammin’ in a pair of rental cars. That scene was based on an escapade that actually involved Curtis and Little Joe.
One year at Daytona, they had each rented a car and decided that a race back to the motel was in order. They took those cars out on the four-lane and commenced to banging each other, strewing car parts in their wake as they went. When they reached the motel, Turner slowed, but Weatherly kept right on driving. After all, there was a bottle of Canadian Club on the line, and a little trip into the swimming pool wasn’t about to stop him from winning it. Emerging from the sunken car, Joe collected his winnings and toasted his victory on the spot. Reportedly, his first comment was, “Guess we’re gonna have to call a tow truck, huh Pops?” The rental car company blackballed both men, to the point of sending their pictures to offices near every track, with instructions never to rent to them again.
Curtis was also an accomplished pilot and used his personal aircraft not only for traveling to races, but as a tool in his thriving lumber business. Of course, being Curtis, he also used that plane for shenanigans. There’s been a story around for many years, in different versions, of Curtis putting that plane down on the main street of a small southern town, making an alcoholic purchase and taking off again, to the detriment of the power lines which just happened to be in his way. Depending on which tale you believe, he either got away with that or had his pilot’s license lifted. Heck, he may have done it twice and both stories are correct.
Another tale has him up in the air with Little Joe and a journalist, when he decided to have a bit of sport with Weatherly. He quietly cut one engine, and then pointed the fact out to Joe. When Joe, who was also a pilot, began to fret, Curtis cut the second engine and started the plane in a spiraling descent. About the time that Joe was ready to go into cardiac arrest, he refired the engines and straightened the plane, laughing all the way. The journalist, I’ve heard tell, needed a change of BVDs.
It’s said that he took prospective buyers up in the plane to survey timberlands and often, closed high–finance deals before even landing. The same talent that he had for driving and partying was equaled by his ability to deal with people and most certainly, with money. In his short lifetime, he made and lost entire fortunes and it never seemed to bother him. Well, I take that back; once it did bother him, and that’s the next chapter in our story.
Curtis Turner was the man who built the Charlotte Motor Speedway. No matter what you’ve heard about Bruton Smith, he entered the picture a bit later. The original concept, construction and financing were all attributable to Curtis Turner. It was his baby, and it cost him part of his racing career.
The track opened for business at the World 600 in 1960, heavily burdened with debt. Curtis had to dig into his own pockets to assure purse money for that race, and the money from the gate helped some, but there were still many creditors looking to be paid. Curtis hired a skilled accountant to handle the speedway finances and within a year, many of the debts had been paid and there was light at the end of the tunnel. Unfortunately, the Board of Directors didn’t see it that way and in June of 1961, summarily ousted Curtis as President of the Speedway. The man who had recently become Vice-President, Bruton Smith, resigned in protest of the Board’s action.
Curtis took it in stride and decided to do something about the outstanding debt on the track. With contact initiated by his accountant, he met with the Teamsters’ Union (An idea that had been suggested a year before but never acted on) and agreed to try to organize the drivers as a Local of the Teamsters. In consideration of that effort, the Union proffered a loan reported to have been in the $800 thousand range, ample to satisfy all of his creditors.
As good as his word, Turner went about contacting all of the drivers and pushing hard for the idea of a union. On August 8, 1961, he released a statement that read, “A majority of the drivers on the Grand National Circuit have signed applications and paid initiation dues of $10 for membership in the Federation of Professional Athletes.”
That statement was tantamount to waving a red flag at a charging bull, and that bull was known as Big Bill France. When word got to France about the union, he made a little statement of his own: “No known Teamster member can compete in a NASCAR race, and I’ll use a pistol to enforce it.” (He had been known to do that very thing)
Before the next race, at Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem NC, France met with the drivers and issued what amounted to a decree, “Gentlemen, before I have this union stuffed down my throat, I will plow up my two-and-a-half mile track at Daytona Beach and plant corn in the infield. Auto racing is one of the few sports that has never had a scandal. We’ll fight this union to the hilt.” Following that, he issued lifetime suspensions to Turner and two drivers who assisted him in the organizing effort, Tim Flock and Glenn (Fireball) Roberts, for “Conduct detrimental to auto racing.”
Within two days, Fireball Roberts resigned from the union and realigned himself with France. He was reinstated in NASCAR, but Flock and Turner remained under suspension. Other drivers soon followed Roberts’ lead and resigned from the union. In the end, France stood victorious as so often happened. It was his game, and folks were expected to play by his rules. Turner and Flock fought the NASCAR law…and the law won.
Curtis continued to race over the next few years, though not in NASCAR sanctioned races. By 1965, Big Bill had a change of heart and offered to reinstate both Turner and Flock. Turner accepted, but Tim Flock declined and never ran another NASCAR race. Curtis ran his first race after returning to NASCAR at the North Carolina Motor Speedway in Rockingham. He started the inaugural American 500 in fourth place, driving for Glen Wood, and was a force to be reckoned with right from the start. In the end, it was a two horse race between Turner and young Cale Yarborough, with Turner coming to the checkers first. It was obvious that the man could still drive!
The year 1967 found Curtis driving one of Smokey Yunick’s famous Chevelles, but after he crashed hard at Atlanta, Smokey took leave of that partnership saying, “I will not build the car that Curtis Turner was killed in.” Smokey, if you will remember, was always more concerned with the drivers than with the races.
After that, Curtis rather drifted in and out of retirement, racing only when the price was right or something intrigued him. He continued that way until his premature death in 1970 at age 46. Ironically, Turner did not die on a racetrack, but while he was chauffeuring professional golfer Clarence King in his airplane. The plane hit a mountainside in Pennsylvania and both were killed. It was rumored that Curtis sometimes set the controls on auto-pilot and caught a little nap while flying, but no one will ever know exactly what happened that day because there was no one left to tell of it.
In his short but fun-filled life, Curtis Turner stacked up some very impressive records and accomplishments:
He is the only NASCAR driver ever to win 25 major NASCAR races in a season driving the same car in each. (1956 ~ 22 wins in the #26 in the convertible division and the rest, including the Southern 500, with the top welded in place)
He is the only driver to have won a major NASCAR race that was red-flagged because he was the only car still running. (Asheville-Weaverville track in NC, on September 30, 1956)
He was the first driver to climb Pike’s Peak in less than 15 minutes. (14 minutes, 37 seconds ~ in a 1962 Ralph Moody Ford)
He was the first driver to qualify for a NASCAR Grand National race at a speed greater than 180 miles per hour (1967 Daytona 500 ~ Smokey Yunick’s #13, a 1967 Chevrolet)
In 1968, Turner was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated (A first for a NASCAR driver) with an accompanying article entitled, “King of the Wild Road,” wherein he was referred to as the “Babe Ruth of Stock Car Racing.” In his racing career, he racked up 353 race wins in various venues.
The year after his death, Curtis was voted into the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame. On that occasion, Big Bill France, who knew them all and had seen them all race said, “Curtis Turner was the greatest racecar driver I have ever seen.” Turner was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1992, and in 1998 was named as one of NASCAR’s fifty greatest drivers.
Curtis Turner never won a NASCAR Championship, but he was a champion in every sense of the word. He lived life to the fullest, every day that he lived. He drove hard, he wheeled and dealt hard and most assuredly, he partied hard. No, Curtis would not have made it in today’s Politically Correct version of NASCAR. We have seen multi-thousand dollar fines dished out for a mere cuss word. Just try to imagine Mike Helton dealing with Curtis. (There is your hilarious visual for the day!) I don’t think they make fines that big!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this stroll down Memory Lane with me, because it’s been a pure joy for me. There are so many tales about the life and times of Curtis Turner that in the interest of space (and keeping you reading) I have only touched on the highlights here. Do yourself a favor and learn more about this giant among men. It’s good reading!
Be well gentle readers, and remember to keep smiling. It looks so good on you!
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