The Frontstretch: Wood, Whiskey, Women, and Winning : Curtis Turner by Vito Pugliese -- Thursday September 20, 2007

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Wood, Whiskey, Women, and Winning : Curtis Turner

Driven to the Past · Vito Pugliese · Thursday September 20, 2007

 

Name: Curtis Morton Turner
Birthdate: April 12th, 1924
Died: October 4th, 1970 DuBois, Pennsylvania (plane crash)
Hometown: Floyd, Virginia.
Nextel Cup Debut: Charlotte Speedway (.750 mile dirt track)
Races: 183
Wins: 17
Poles: 16
Top Fives: 54
Top Tens: 73

Career Highlights: 17 Cup wins, including the 1956 Southern 500; 22 wins in convertible division in 1956; first driver ever to win back-to-back races from the pole, while leading every lap; and the first driver to qualify for a race at over 180mph. Was also the brains and backing behind the construction of Lowe's Motor Speedway.

Curtis Turner started out driving well before he was old enough to get a driver’s license. He hailed from the area of Bent Mountain, Virginia, and as with many who lived in remote regions of the South during this era, Turner worked to export the local product: Moonshine. He became as big of a legend running illegal liquor as he did on the track. His ability to outrun Federal agents as well as local law enforcement earned Turner respect for his skill behind the wheel and unlike his counterpart Junior Johnson, Turner was never apprehended by the police. He ran his first race in 1946 in Mt. Airy, North Carolina. He finished last in a field of 18. In his next start, he won, beginning a legend as the best driver ever to race on dirt.

Turner wasn't only a racecar driver, he was a businessman as well. A self-made millionaire (in 1950's dollars), he made a fortune buying and selling timberlands. He would make a fortune and then lose it more than once in his career. He once tried to broker a deal that would have allowed the Ford Motor Company to advertise on US currency. In 1959, with barely enough money to buy the property, Turner would start construction on the Charlotte Motor Speedway, today known as Lowe's Motorspeedway. Shortly after the track opened, Turner would be pushed out by his fellow investors, leaving him nearly broke and without a track following his banishment from NASCAR in 1961.

While he was allowed to drive, one of Turner's most memorable races was one he never won. On the last lap of the 1961 Rebel 300 at Darlington, he and Fred Lorenzen started the last lap running door to door. It degenerated from there into a slugfest. Lorenzen got the last hit on Turner, and won the race. On the cool down lap, Turner rammed his car into Lorenzen's, crushing the front end, in a scene that would serve as the inspiration for one of the more memorable scenes in Days of Thunder. Turner got out of his car and walked back to the garage.

The Blond Blizzard of Virginia was a legend in many respects; he combined hard living, hard driving, and hard partying. Curtis never won a Cup Championship, but he never lost a party. His bashes were legendary, often leaving right from a party to a race, and returning back to the party afterwards. An Oldsmobile pilot from 1950-1954, he would then switch to Fords. In 1956 he would win 22 races in NASCAR's convertible series. He never ran a full season to contend for a championship, but not many drivers did in those days. He was the first NASCAR driver to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated; heralded as "The Babe Ruth of Stock Car Racing." He later would earn the nickname, “Pops”, for his propensity to pop drivers in the back and move them out of his way.

Turner broke many barriers in racing: The first driver to win a race by two laps, while leading every lap at Rochester, NY and Charlotte, NC in 1950 . He was flagged the winner at Weaverville in 1956 after the race was red flagged, because all of the other cars had wrecked or broke. That same year he won the Southern 500 by two laps over pole-sitter Speedy Thompson. In 1967 he qualified Smokey Yunick's #13 Chevrolet for the Daytona 500 at 180.831mph, becoming the first driver to break the 180mph barrier in a stock car.

In 1959, on a whim, Turner decided to build a racetrack and conceived the Charlotte Motor Speedway. With $2 million to work with, he began moving dirt, only to hit a very large rock; he would spend over $70,000 in dynamite trying to blow up a gigantic piece of granite. As the budget for the track continued to go up, the contractors refused to finish the backstretch shortly before the inaugural race in 1960. It wasn't until Curtis provided some persuasion in the form of a Smith & Wesson revolver did the equipment start moving again. This would, however, prove to be his undoing.

Desperate for cash and to pay off the debt he had incurred, Turner attempted to organize a driver's union in 1961. This was heresy as far as Big Bill France was concerned. Turner was issued a lifetime ban from NASCAR racing, although in 1965 he was allowed to return to the track. His final win would come that year at the American 500, the first race ever held at the North Carolina Motor Speedway in Rockingham. At Atlanta in 1967, Turner crashed heavily in Yunick's Chevrolet, a violent wreck that led Yunick to pull his entry from the race stating, "I'm not going to build the car that Curtis Turner gets killed in."

Turner would retire from racing following the 1968 season, and would die in a plane crash near Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania on October 14, 1970. The crash also claimed the life of golfer Clarence King.

Benny Parson's is quoted as saying, "ask any race fan under 50 who's the best racecar driver of all time, and they'll say Dale Earnhardt. Ask any race fan over 50, and they'll say Curtis Turner." Turner one time lined up eight glass jars of moonshine on an empty road, and proceeded to slide a Cadillac in between them, executing a 180 "Bootlegger Turn" ….sliding the car backwards through them. He did so cleanly, not spilling as much as a drop. He emerged from the car and in his slow Virginian drawl said, "It was easy…..I couldn't waste all the good liquor."

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4x4s
09/21/2007 05:16 AM
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Curtis led an amazing (but too short) life, and was there through the very start of NASCAR. I just finished reading a biography of him:
Full Throttle: The Life and Fast Times of NASCAR Legend Curtis Turner
By: Robert Edelstein

I’d highly recommend this book for any NASCAR fan. There’s a great section in the book that describes Curtis’ run in the inagural Carrera Pan America race that ran the length of Mexico from Texas to Nicarauga. He drove the week long race in a Nash with his good friend – Big Bill France. Yeah, the same friend who would ban him for life from NASCAR.

If you found Vito’s article here at all interesting, get the book, It’s great.

Thanks Vito, keep up these kind of columns – I love ‘em.

Ron P.
09/21/2007 07:12 AM
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Vito,
Thank you again for a great story about the history of NASCAR. It is nice to see that some one still cares about the roots of the sports and the heros that made it what it is today. I wonder what people ike Joe Weathery, Turner, Roberts,Daddy Petty the Flocks would say about where NASCAR Racing is today?
Thank you for help to keep their memories alive.
RJP

Michael
09/21/2007 07:52 AM
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Great article. Every fan of stock car racing needs to read all they can about the drivers of the past. Not only to see how racing used to be but also to get a sense of how driver attitudes have changed. I can’t say i ever recall Turner complaining about an aero loose race car. He simply tried every line possible on his 7 inch wide 6 ply truck tires and made the pass.Makes you laugh at some of the whining that goes on today,
Curtis would show up in a suit, take off his coat and tie, race the car, put his coat and tie back on and fly off to a meeting. Benny Parsons was correct.Curtis might have been the best of all time. To get a sense of just how good try to find the films of the Daytona Beach races in 1957 or 1958 and watch Turner pitch the car sideways a quarter of a mile before the turn in a ferfectly controlled slide.

Michael
09/21/2007 10:29 AM
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By the way Vito, the beginning of the article lists Curtis Turner’s debut as a nextel cup race. It was no such thing. Nor was Earnhardt Sr. a nextel cup champion. Lets quit giving these marketing geeks a pass .The REIGN OF BRIAN started the nextel cup.

Vito Pugliese FS-Staff
09/21/2007 11:26 AM
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Michael –

Perhaps I should have used Winston Cup, eh? ; )

Michael
09/21/2007 12:15 PM
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No, lets take sponsors out of it completly. Lets’ just refer to drivers as NASCAR competitors. In Turners day it was Grand National, so lets call his and others of that era Grand National drivers.

4x4s
09/21/2007 06:55 PM
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Michael,

Actually it wasn’t even the Grand National yet in the start of NASCAR. In the first season it was the “Strictly Stock” series.

Vito Pugliese - FS Staff
09/21/2007 07:07 PM
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I can dig it – We just use “Nextel Cup” – as that is the premier series in NASCAR now. Helps establish some continuity from the past to the present.

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