Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The (almost) return of Curtis Turner

As I've noted before, I really enjoyed blogging over the last year or so about each of Richard Petty's 200 wins. Not only did I learn a tremendous amount about Petty history, but I also stumbled over some other meaningful minutia and NASCAR nuggets. One example soon to follow...

My memories of 1965 are pretty fuzzy - well, let's just say non-existent. I'm pretty sure its because that was the year I was born. Sleeping, eating, filling my diapers and crying took up the majority of my time. But from what I later learned as a Petty fan, 1965 is remembered as the year The King went drag racing because of Chrysler's boycott of NASCAR. For the first six months of year the year, that's about right. For the second half of the year, differences were resolved, the boycott was rescinded, the Plymouths and Dodges returned, and Petty resumed his winning ways in NASCAR.

By the time I was introduced to Richard Petty, he had over 150 wins and five NASCAR championships. I didn't know about other larger-than-life NASCAR legends such as Fast Freddy Lorenzen, Fireball Roberts, and Curtis Turner. But I learned.

Turner and Roberts were arguably the most iconic NASCAR heroes in the early 60s. Sadly, Fireball lost his life in July 1964 - about six weeks following a gut-wrenching accident and fire in the World 600 at Charlotte. I've heard some suggest his death was felt more acutely by the NASCAR fan base than the passing of Dale Earnhardt - albeit in fewer numbers.

Curtis Turner was a timber man first, a good-time-haver second, and a damn fine race driver third. Legend has it that Curtis could fly over a forest and nail an estimate of how many board feet he could yield from harvesting it. Several stories have also been published about his partying days with fellow driver Joe Weatherly. I only wish I could share a beer with someone who knew about the unpublished stories.

What many don't realize is he was the lead force behind the building of Charlotte Motor Speedway. Bruton Smith will claim otherwise, but Curtis brought that track to life. Bruton tried to build a competing track nearby but was unsuccessful. He eventually partnered with Turner to complete, open and operate CMS.

Curtis had the vision for the project and a name and the stones to get it rolling. What he didn't have as much as was needed was cash. He needed loads of it to operate the track and re-pay construction loans. He apparently signed a deal with the Teamsters Union to invest in the track. In exchange for the cash infusion, Turner agreed to do what he could to help organize drivers into the union. Bill France, Sr. was livid and banned Turner "for life" in 1961.

Four years later, the "life" sentence was rescinded. With the deaths of Roberts and Weatherly and the Chrysler boycott that sidelined the two new superstars - Richard Petty and David Pearson - France needed help.

From the mid-1950s until he was banned in 1961, Curtis was generally known as a Ford driver. He drove other makes in the early 1950s and near the end of his career, but he was most associated with Ford. When his banishment was rescinded by France, he quickly proclaimed he would resume his racing at Piedmont Interstate Fairgrounds in Spartanburg, SC driving ... a Plymouth ... fielded by Petty Enterprises.

Richard had been sidelined from stock car racing himself because of Chrysler's boycott of NASCAR. When he was ready to return, Lee Petty contracted long-time NASCAR car builder Red Vogt to build a Plymouth Fury for Richard to race in the Firecracker 400. For reasons unknown to me, the Pettys didn't make the trip to Daytona. Instead, Richard returned three weeks later at Bristol and then won at Nashville a week later in the Vogt-built Plymouth.

The Spartanburg race scheduled for August 14, 1965, conflicted with a drag racing event Richard in which he had agreed to participate before Chrysler's stock car racing boycott was lifted. Lee Petty and Turner agreed to have Curtis race Richard's Vogt-built, Nashville-winning Plymouth for his return to NASCAR.

Credit: Spartanburg Herald - August 7, 1965 via Google News Archive
One criticism of today's racing is that its too bland. Few legitimate rivalries exist. Everyone plays nice to placate their sponsors and NASCAR's TV image. But back in the day before corporate America and TV arrived, feuds were plentiful and often long-lasting. Turner's return to racing also had the potential of re-kindling rivalries from four years earlier.

Credit: Spartanburg Herald - August 11, 1965 via Google News Archive
Perry Allen Wood writes in his book Silent Speedways of the Carolinas:
Promoter Supreme Joe Littlejohn wanted Turner in a first-class ride for the comeback. So Joe got Curtis in the seat of Richard Petty's 1964 Plymouth Fury 43...In the dusty dusk of that sultry Saturday evening, Curtis warmed up for 15 or 20 laps in one of the most electrifying displays of speed and control ever seen on dirt or maybe anywhere for that matter. That Petty-blue Plymouth thundered down the front stretch, clawing the track as Turner cocked the car for the first turn. When he came through, the nose of that Plymouth was all that was visible from the infield. With that hemi howling, Curtis' big bare hands gripped the wheel fully at right lock...With thick red plumes of dust billowing from the right-side tires, he swung wide and tore down the back chute, choreographing it the same way in three and four...The jam-packed house roared its approval with every lap.

Time trials got underway beneath the lights in what was now a hot, sticky summer dusk...Pearson had timed in for second spot when Turner pulled on to the clay. With the same flair he had show in the gloaming, Turner ripped through his warm-up and set what looked like an excellent first-lap time. Before the PA announcer could broadcast the speed, Curtis flew into the first turn determined to improve on his previous clocking and backed hard into the old wooden fence that had been pounded on for years, with the Fury's right rear spinning back around facing the wrong way. It did not look nearly as bad as it was. Curtis fired it up and limped directly back to the crew by going the wrong way down the slope to enter the pit exit as if he had driven in the west gate. It was announced that his first lap was good enough for third on the grid, and all were sure Maurice would beat out the fender and bumper and Turner would assume his spot on the inside of row two. To everyone's horror, Fury 43 was pushed onto its trailer for the trip back to Randleman...A collective moan went up from the stands and infield after time trials when that wooden gate swung open right where Turner landed in turn one. The blue and silver half-ton with Plymouth painted in big blue letters on the side, pulling 34, rumbled, rattled and squeaked up the slope of the bank, over the rim and into the darkness. ~pp. 27-28
So when NASCAR's finest raced in Spartanburg, it ended up as much ado about nothing. After Turner smacked the right rear of the Petty Plymouth on his second qualifying lap, the team simply put the car on the trailer and left. Just another chapter in a long list of Curtis Turner head-shaking, memorable, funny moments.

Credit: Spartanburg Herald - August 15, 1965 via Google News Archive
Curtis finally made his return - probably as he'd truly planned anyway - in the Southern 500 at Darlington a couple of weeks after Spartanburg. And he did race a Plymouth. It was fielded by car owner Sam Fletcher vs. Petty Enterprises. Fletcher entered a grand total of seven Grand National races - all in 1965, and Turner was his driver for the last of those races.

By the way, check out the book Full Throttle: The Life and Fast Times of Curtis Turner if you want to learn more about this larger than life NASCAR character. Nothing in it for me - just recommending a solid book I really enjoyed.

Now if only I could score a picture of Curtis sitting at the wheel of the famed Petty Plymouth...

TMC
Edited August 13, 2014

3 comments:

  1. TMC, you are correct about the death of Fireball causing as much of a stir in NASCAR as did the death of Dale Earnhardt. Additionally, both were known and lamented world-wide. Yes, there were a lot more NASCAR fans in 2001 than there were in 1964, but then, there were a lot more people on the planet also.

    Congratulations on telling it like it was regarding Charlotte Motor Speedway. It was indeed Curtis Turner that build the speedway; Bruton Smith came a bit later. It was he that managed to bankrupt the track, not Curtis. Long, ugly story there, but every time I hear BS telling "his side of the story" I can feel fur growing on my teeth.

    Thanks!

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  2. Funny how the deal with Richard's 1965 obligations following the return of Chrysler from their boycott affected who appeared in the #43 when and where.

    I was sitting in the bleachers at the half-mile Richmond dirt track on Sunday, September 18, 1965 and the Petty car wasn't expected to run. Just before qualifying, low and behold, the #43 suddenly appeared coming into the backstretch gate on a trailer towed by the Petty bob truck.

    The entire facility shook with the fans roaring their approval. Funny thing, though - turned out to be LeeRoy Yarbrough who'd wheel the Petty blue #43 at Richmond that day, finishing 34th after crashing out.

    While living in Greensboro, NC in the early 1980s and managing the Wrangler Jeans / Dale Earnhardt NASCAR program, we attended a 2nd grade parent/teacher conference at General Greene Elementary School.

    When the very strict, prim and proper 2nd grade teacher found out I worked in racing, she allowed that she had once assisted Curtis Turner to sneak away from a party in the trunk of her car.

    It's a small world!

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    1. Dave that's an awesome story. How cool that must have been to see Petty's car come out like that and everyone go nuts. Too bad Petty wasn't driving it, it probably wouldn't have crashed out.

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