CURTIS TURNER WAS A FREE SPIRIT
By Gerald Hodges/the Racing Reporter
Curtis Turner was one of racing's earliest stars and perhaps its most controversial driver. He lived just as hard away from the race track as he did while driving in a race.
Tom McGeehan of Wilmore, Kentucky recalls an incident while working for Chris Economaki as associate editor of the National Speed Sport News.
I remember one time, back in the early 50's, I attended an engine tear down after a 100 mile NASCAR Grand National at Morristown, NJ, said McGeeHan. It was a half mile dirt track, and they started 44 cars. Lee Petty won it in a strictly stock Chrysler. At the teardown at a Ford dealership, Petty got into a heated argument with Curtis Turner, who placed second. The argument got more heated, and Petty hauled off and hit Turner. Turner staggered backwards into a wall. Overhead, there was a generator hanging on the wall above Turner. The generator broke loose, and fell on Turner's head. Turner was unconscious for quite a few minutes. He finally came to, and staggered to his feet. His first words were: 'DAMN! THAT OLD MAN SURE CAN HIT!'
Perhaps Turner is most remembered because of his suspension from NASCAR competition by Bill France Sr. from 1960 until 1965, after he tried to organize the drivers for the Teamsters Union.
In a storybook comeback in 1965, Turner won a 500-mile race at North Carolina Motor Speedway on October 31.
But what makes him stand out is the way he lived his life.
He was a racer, party-thrower, moonshine hauler, pilot and timber baron.
He threw parties that lasted all night and sometimes several days. A small party would consist of 250-300 people. Some came for the whiskey, while others came for the dancing, lie swapping and music.
He could really throw them, said Bobby Allison. I was just a young hot shot driver at the time, but he could put on some big shindigs. I remember one time the police coming in about daylight and asking him if he didn't think it was too late to party.
It didn't bother him, I think he just said something like, 'hell no, it's just beginning.'
Curtis Morton Turner was born in 1924 on a small farm in Floyd County, Virginia. Like most early racers, his heritage included moonshine running.
In the late 1940s it was not uncommon for many moonshine runners to wind up in Atlanta, or other large cities in Georgia and the Carolinas. They might race on Saturday or Sunday in some cow pasture, and then head back home with a load of sugar for the still.
Turner says he was ten, and had just learned to drive when he made his first run. He was driving along a dirt road with about 100 gallons of whiskey when he came up on a mail truck.
He forgot which side he was supposed to pass on and went around on the right side and wound up against a fence.
After dropping out of school at the age of fourteen, he went to work in his father's sawmill. To supplement his salary of 10-cents an hour he got into the transporting business. By the time he was eighteen, he owned three sawmills.
While most sawmill operators sold their timber to the first buyer, Turner waited for his price. Quite often wood stacked up outside his mills and in order to make his weekly payroll he ran whiskey at night.
During World War II he served in the U. S. Navy. After the war he went back to running moonshine but now he was getting pursued. After one run he found three bullets embedded in the rear of his 1942 Ford coupe.
A few years after the war ended Turner went into the timber business. In a 1968 Sports Illustrated interview Turner said he had sold two million acres of North Carolina timberland during his lifetime.
Turner was always restless. He threatened to retire from racing after every big timber deal, but he usually wound up broke. This happened several times.
The years in which he started building the Charlotte Motor Speedway were the most tumultous of his life. The bitter struggle with finances caused him many problems.
The financing of the speedway by Turner and his group of backers was very marginal to begin with. They started out with $2.3 million, but construction costs soared and Turner scratched, begged and borrowed from everyone.
He even bought a small bank. It was so small that the maximum it could loan was $12,000. But Turner gave himself a loan of $75,000, which wasn't discovered for years.
Two days before the 1960 World 600, the paving contractors demanded their $75,000 immediately. To back up their demands they moved all their heavy equipment on the track in front of the paving machine, which still had about 100 yards to go to finish the track.
Turner and one or two other directors, took shotguns and pistols in hand and backed the operators against the wall, while Turner's own men completed the job.
Three races were run and each one was a financial success, but the money drain had been too much for speedway directors and in order to get the track on a sound financial footing, Turner went to the Teamsters Union for a loan of $850,000, promising to unionize NASCAR drivers in return. He did not know it at the time, but the Teamsters Union could not have loaned him the money.
Turner, along with Tim Flock were barred from NASCAR after the failed unionization. Meanwhile, he lost control of Charlotte Motor Speedway.
France ended the suspension on Sept. 30, 1965, and Turner quickly showed that four years on the sidelines hadn't diminished his skills. In his first race, the National 500, he finished third. Two weeks later, he won the inaugural race at North Carolina Motor Speedway.
Turner was one of my early heroes, continued Allison. But the thing about the man is he could do so much. He could have made it in practically anything he chose.
He had that sixth sense that just told him where he needed to be on the track. That sometimes means more than horsepower or handling. He just had it. That's all I can say.
Turner died in a 1970 plane crash at the age of 46.
Quote of the Day: The good Lord doesn't tell you what His plan is, so all you can do is get up in the morning and see what happens next. Richard Petty.
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Last Week's Question: How many championships did Cale Yarborough win? Answer. Three; 1976, '77, and '78.
Gerald Hodges is a syndicated NASCAR writer and author. His books may be viewed and ordered online at Amazon.com. You may contact him by e-mail at: email@example.com.