“If you feel like you’re in control (of your car), you ain’t going fast enough,” Floyd County’s Curtis Turner would say. That quote is often attributed to Mario Andretti, Indycar and Formula One champion, who stole it from Turner early in his career.
Turner was a legend in the early days of the NASCAR, a hard-charging and hard-living driver who took racing and life with the hammer down.
And now he is one of latest inductees into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, North Carolina. He has been on the list for consideration since the first year of the Hall of Fame and made it as part of a group that included one-time business partner Bruton Smith and “Texas” Terry Labonte.
Turner won more than 350 racing in the early days of stock car competitions, including 17 in NASCAR’s top level. He raced in NASCAR’s first stock car event in 1949.
My mom, who dated Turner along with other NASCAR drivers, including Joe Weatherly and Cale Yarborough, in her young and single days, said Turner was exactly what he seemed: Someone who lived life at full throttle.
“He never backed off anything,” she said.
Turner continued life that way 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 Turner “for life” in 1961 for trying to start a union for drivers. France lifted the “lifetime ban” in 1965. Smith was also named to the 2016 Hall of Fame with Turner.
Turner was a private pilot and often traveled to and from races in his plane and scouted timber locations for his lumber business from the air.
He lost his pilot’s license for landing his plane on on Main Street in Easley, South Carolina, in 1967, to pick up a bottle of whiskey someone owed him. On takeoff, he raised his landing gear while still only a few feet off the ground to fly under a stop light 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!” The deputy wrote down the tail number of the plane and called the feds.
When he landed in Charlotte a short time later, Federal Aviation Administration officials were waiting and to seize Turner’s license to fly.
Turner made and lost money in the timber business and always found ways to make it back. He got 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. He and friend Clarence King, a golf pro from Roanoke, died in the crash.
He left a career of 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.”