Curtis Turner: Full throttle

Curtis Turner with his Wood Brothers Ford in 1966.
Curtis Turner with his Wood Brothers Ford in 1966.

The Blue Ridge Racers Reunion honored the life and racing career of Floyd County native and NASCAR legend Curtis Turner in Roanoke Saturday.

“If you feel like you’re in control (of your car), you ain’t going fast enough,” Turner often said. That quote is often attributed to Mario Andretti, Indycar and Formula One champion, who stole it early in his career.

My mom, who dated Turner along with other NASCAR drivers including Joe Weatherly and Cale Yarborough in her young and single days, often said Turner was exactly what he seemed:  Someone who lived life at full throttle.

“He never backed off anything,” she said.

Mom was dating Weatherly while working at the Navy Yard during World War II.  Weahtherly was not an auto racer yet but a motorcycle competitor who won three American Motorcycle Association nationals.  When my future dad met my mom, he challenged Weatherly to bike race through the streets of downtown Norfolk for the right to take my future mom out on a date.  He beat AMA champ Weatherly in a close race.  He and my future mom married seven months later and I came along 19 months after that.

Meanwhile, Curtis Turner continued life at full throttle in both racing and business.  He and Bruton Smith built the Charlotte Motor Speedway and almost went under then the costs went over budget.  NASCAR founder Bill France banned home “for life” in 1961 for trying to start a union for drivers.  France lifted the “lifetime ban” in 1965.

Turner lost his pilot’s license for landing his plane on Maine Street in Easley, South Carolina, in 1967.  On takeoff, he raise his landing gear while still only a few feet off the ground to fly under a stop light.  He made it but clipped a telephone cable and left Easley without phone service.

He also hedgehopped several cars, including a deputy sheriff, who said: “I was just driving along minding my own business when I looked up and here comes a gawdamned airplane!”

When he landed in Charlotte a short time later, Federal Aviation Administration officials were waiting and to seize his license to fly.

Turner made and lost money in the timber business and made it back.  Hwgot his pilot’s license back and was flying his twin-engine Aero-Commander while returning from a timber scouting trip for his lumber business in 1970.  The plane went into a tailspin and crashed near Punxsutawney, PA.  Turner and friend Clarence King, a golf pro from Roanoke, died in the crash.

He left behind a career 360 race wins in many different series, including 22 in the old NASCAR Convertible Division and 17 in the Grand National Division that is now Sprint Cub.  He remains the only NASCAR driver to win 25 major races in one season driving the same car in different divisions, including 22 in the convertible division and three in Grand National with the same car with the top welded on.

That same year he won a race at the Asheville-Weaverville track in North Carolina.  NASCAR red-flagged the race and gave the win to Turner because he was the only driver left on the track.

In 1962, Turner drove a Ralph Moody Ford into the history books as the first to drive the twisting, dangerous 12.42 Pikes Peak road in less than 15 minutes (14 minutes, 37 seconds).

In 1967, Turner, driving a Smokey Yunick Chevrolet, became the first driver to qualify for the Daytona 500 at a speed over 180 miles-per-hour.

“Curtis had one speed — flat out,” my mother used to say.  “That’s the way he lived his life.”

"I get all the sleep I need waiting for a stoplight to change,"  Curtis Turner often said.
“I get all the sleep I need waiting for a stoplight to change,” Curtis Turner often said.

One Response to Curtis Turner: Full throttle

  1. Some folks made a documentary about Turner’s life a few years back Called “Hey Pops”, including interviewing my father (a sports writer at the Roanoke Times at the time, among other things). There was a one-time invitation-only premiere at the Valley View theater, but unfortunately as far as I know it was never released. I’m not even sure if my dad got the contributor’s copy he was promised, come to think of it.