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.

From the Andy Towler Collection

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.

Little Joe and Curtis
From the Andy Towler Collection

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.

Please click here to view the 146 pictures of Curtis Turner in the RacersReunion photo gallery.

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)

From RR Group – Remembering Curtis Turner

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)

Courtesy of Bill Rankin

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.

Courtesy of Ken Martin

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 & Big Bill
From the Andy Towler Collection

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!



Twitter: @MamaPKL

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  1. Thanks for the stroll down memory lane PK it was well worth the read. Spent some time with his daughter over the week end and had a great time with she and her husband.

    • Thanks for the kind words Mike. I thought about you this weekend, as I sat home and so many were at Hillsborough. I tried hard to find someone that would even meet me halfway, but no takers. Just cannot drive that far in one day alone. Meeting Susie would have been one of my first “targets” on arriving. Heard everyone had a great time despite some less than perfect weather.

  2. Brought back many memories for me. Thank you for the great, heart warming read.

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment Vivian. I did get your email as well and will answer tomorrow. So glad you enjoyed this one. :)

  3. In the late 60s I was managing a convience store in Charlotte. One of my suppliers was invited to a party at Curtis’ and took me along when he learned I was a fan. Great, friendly man. Later as things were winding down we were getting ready to leave. Curtis came up and asked where we were going. We told him it looked like the party was over. He said to hang around a few minutes and another one would be starting. Sure enough, about 30 minutes later another group started showing up. We partied all night. He will always be one of my favorites.

    • Um…yep, that sounds about the way I’ve always heard it. Glad you had a good time. Wish I’d been there. 😀

  4. “In 1968, Turner was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated (A first for anyone in motorsports) with an accompanying article entitled, “King of the Wild Road,”

    I must correct this point. He was the first strictly NASCAR driver on the cover. There were at least 19 motorsports related covers before Curtis and at least nine other drivers had headshots or were specifically named.

    I say strictly NASCAR because Dan Gurney was on in 1963 and won a NASCAR race that same year. He followed up with four more. AJ Foyt was on the cover in 1964 and also won a NASCAR race that year. Sports Illustrated used to be big on the Indy 500 and to a lesser extent, sports car racing. I thought Penske was on the cover in 1960 when he was a driver, but can’t find evidence.

    • Thanks Andy… I think. You have just handed me maybe a week’s worth of work checking through ten-year-old sources to find out what was erroneous. I think you know I don’t make this stuff up, so some trusted source gave that info. It appears you are correct, so either the error is mine or that of my source. As I said, that will take time. and probably much growling on my part… but it will be corrected if needed.

    • Andy, I have established that the error did not come from the Internet, therefore it came from one of the books in my library. I “suspect” I know the culprit, but I have neither the time nor inclination to read four or five of his books another time looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. The article now reads a first for any NASCAR driver.

      Back in the stone age,it was common for drivers in the two series to commingle at times. Dan Gurney, Johnny Rutherford, A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti and others joined the stock car boys for an occasional race. Conversely, both Allison brothers and Cale Yarborough took some turns in the open wheel ranks. Tim Richmond came to us from there, as did Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Kenny Irwin and many others. Those latter drivers are considered NASCAR drivers, as they stayed.

      The old guys such as Gurney, JR, AJ and Mario were not NASCAR drivers per se, and I think you know that. Thanks for the correction. All is repaired now.

  5. Did Bill France have a change of heart in 1965 or was he desperate to draw in the fans that stopped coming when the Hemi was banned? Ever the promoter, I’m guessing that he thought Curtis could fill a few empty seats.

    • It is my understanding that it had to do with a boycott and he felt Curtis was needed. Big Bill knew when and where to forgive, and that generally benefited him in some way, but he was a nice guy. You won’t hear much negative talk of him here. Without him, stock car racing might well have remained in the dark ages. Agree or disagree, it did not.

    • At the time C T was involved with a new ‘stock car ‘ orginisation and na$car was in deep attendance trouble . This was no result of forgiveness on Frances part .

      • Donald, thanks for taking the time to comment. I believe I answered Andy’s question last night by saying it was the result of a boycott… by Ford Motor Company, to be exact. Big Bill knew Curtis was a drawing card and allowed him back because of that. As to forgiveness in his heart, you have no more knowledge of that than do I. I am always willing to give the benefit of the doubt.

  6. I’ve always thought Curtis Turner was a viable candidate for the NASCAR HOF, but I wonder if his long-term feud with Frances will still keep him out. I hope not.

    • Don, those Hall of Fame questions are always something akin to dynamite. Both Curtis and Little Joe Weatherly are among those thought to be in waiting for induction. His “problems” with Bill France were ironed out to my knowledge when he agreed to return at the request of Big Bill. Furthermore, we have Bill’s own statement that Curtis was the best he had ever seen. I don’t believe that Curtis was the only one on whom that honor was bestowed over the years, but I don’t think the original difference between them still holds weight. I could, however, be totally wrong on that. Some strange things occur concerning that Hall of Fame, and I keep as far away as possible… because I like it that way.

  7. Curtis Turner is akin to legendary, as people forget Pikes Peak (The Raceway or the Hillclimb) Exist Today.

    • Curtis is a legend Tony, and count me as one that has not forgotten Pike’s Peak… especially the hill climb and a whole bunch of folks named Unser. :)

  8. An extremely well written piece, PattyKay. Really enjoyed it.

    • Thanks for the kind words Dave. Much appreciated.

  9. Thank you patty, love hearing the stories of nascar history. I don’t think Mike Helton would Know what to do with a Curtis Turner

    • Thank YOU for reading Bob. I too love the old stories. We have a rich history that should be shared before it becomes buried in whatever they’re calling this sport today. Don’t be too hard on Mike though. When Billy passed away, Mike was left with a job I surely would not have wanted, and he’s doing it the best way he knows how. Do I wish Billy had left it to him outright? Oh, you bet… but he didn’t… so to quote Mike himself, “It is what it is.”

      And Dale is still dead…

      • Ohh i meant no disrespect to Mike. I have no problem with him. I think a guy like curtis turner would be a welcome sight with fans, and
        poor mike would be stuck between him and Brian france. And I wouldn’t want his job either.

        buy the way, did you see the article on jayski
        about the top 35 rule? you get some credit for that

        • I saw it and am just about to post inside the portion that refers to that very thing. I keep telling folks that they actually DO listen. Many times, they don’t heed, but those empty seats and the sharp drop in TV ratings speak louder than we ever could. We voted with our wallets, and they understand that language. There is more to do, but every little bit helps.

          We have trucks racing at The Rock. Not enough, but a start. I want the Southern 500 back at Darlington on Labor Day, not Mothers’ Day.

          But today, I’m happy that the top 35 guarantee will become history soon. Yes Virginia… there is a Santa Claus!

          EIGHT YEARS that took…

          • The rock is on my list. and re-open or not
            I am seeing north wilkesboro

          • Next to Pretty Little Martinsville, North Wilkes was always my favorite. I miss it like no other, but it belongs now solely to Bruton Smith and I look for nothing good coming from that. Great idea though.

  10. Great artical PattyKay, I enjoyed it so very much.

    • Thanks so much for the kind words Curt, and for taking the time to comment. I’m happy you enjoyed it. 😀

  11. Great one PK,what more can I say.You always do good,just keep em coming.

  12. Thanks Buddy. Means a lot to me that folks appreciate my writing. :)

  13. Hi PattyKay!!

    What a great article you put together on Daddy! I do hope we can meet sometime! I would love that!

    Thank you for all you do and Thank goodness it is you doing this! You made my week so much lighter!

    Thanks again!
    MargaretSue Turner Wright
    Curtis Turner’s Daughter

    • I am so happy and honored that you liked my piece on your Dad Susie. One of these days, I do hope that you and I can meet face to face. I had thought that might happen at Columbia back in the spring, but many folks just couldn’t make it because of Easter weekend.

      So many of them, like Hillsborough last weekend, are just way too far for one old lady to drive all alone. The trip from my house to there was over 8.5 hours according to Google, and that’s without lunch, pit stops and road construction, all of which are certain to happen. Tried to find someone… anyone… somewhere in the middle to share drive with me, but no takers.

      I will be at the Moonshine Festival in Dawsonville at the end of this month, but I suspect that might be one heck of a trip for you. If all else fails, do try to make Columbia next spring. I’ve done that one twice and know I can handle the drive both ways. 😀



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