Race Weekend Central

That’s History Profile: Curtis Turner

Name: Curtis Morton Turner
Birthdate: April 12, 1924
Died: Oct. 4, 1970 DuBois, Penn. (plane crash)
Hometown: Floyd, Va.
Nextel Cup Debut: Charlotte Speedway (.750-mile dirt track)
Races: 183
Wins: 17
Poles: 16
Top Fives: 54
Top 10s: 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 180 mph. 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, Va., 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, N.C. 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 1950s 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 U.S. 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 Motor Speedway. 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, N.Y. and Charlotte, N.C. 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 polesitter Speedy Thompson. In 1967 he qualified Smokey Yunick’s No. 13 Chevrolet for the Daytona 500 at 180.831 mph, becoming the first driver to break the 180-mph 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, Penn. on October 14, 1970. The crash also claimed the life of golfer Clarence King.

Benny Parsons 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” and 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.”

About the author

Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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