News & Media

Turner's dream brings creation of Charlotte track

May 24, 2012, Mark Aumann,

Driver envisioned high-banked oval in Concord and finished it despite roadblocks

Picture a driver with the on-track skills of Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards' penchant for flying and the business acumen of Tony Stewart -- and you've pretty much described Curtis Turner.

Turner -- who won his first race in 1949 -- would probably fit as just nicely with the current generation of drivers as with the newly-elected NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2013, which includes many of his contemporaries.

"After seeing what France accomplished with the Daytona International Speedway, Turner returned to Charlotte in the spring of 1959 with a crazy idea in his head: Why not build a high-banked superspeedway there?"


Turner was definitely a man ahead of his time. In an era when most racers were struggling to make a living on purse money, Turner parlayed his sales skills in the lumber real estate industry to become a self-made millionaire before he turned 35.

He flew his own twin-engine plane to races and was the guiding force behind the construction of Charlotte Motor Speedway. He was present at the 1948 meeting in Daytona Beach when NASCAR was formed. But he also ran afoul of NASCAR founder Bill France when he tried to unionize the garage area 13 years later, earning him a four-year ban from the sport.

His tombstone reads "The Babe Ruth of Stock Car Racing," and he -- along with Fireball Roberts -- were the stars of their day. Both were able to demand appearance money from track promoters, one reason why Turner only raced where he thought he could make a profit.

Credited with only 17 Cup wins, Turner added 38 more victories in NASCAR's short-lived Convertible Series. And he was considered by fellow competitors like Joe Weatherly to be the greatest driver ever to race on dirt, piling up more than 350 wins on short tracks, by best estimation.

But he was just as potent on asphalt. Consider the 1956 Southern 500, where Turner drove one of the Ford factory Purple Hogs to a two-lap win over Speedy Thompson -- earning Turner the princely sum of $11,750.

Born in 1924 near Bent Mountain, Va., Turner loved to drive anything he could get his hands on. That included the family car, logging trucks and a modified sedan, with which he transported illegal liquor. Turner was a moonshine runner throughout Virginia, much like Junior Johnson in western North Carolina -- only Turner never got caught by federal marshals.

After World War II, Turner entered his first race, finishing last in a field of 18 at Mount Airy, N.C. However, he won the next time out, and within four years, was established enough to be invited to the Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach where France laid out plans for his new stock car series.

Turner won eight races in the first three seasons of what was to become the Cup Series, but his focus wasn't always on racing. He was often seen around Charlotte, conducting business on a private phone from the front seat of his black Cadillac. And the parties he threw at his home were considered legendary.

After seeing what France accomplished with the Daytona International Speedway, Turner returned to Charlotte in the spring of 1959 with a crazy idea in his head: Why not build a high-banked superspeedway there? He owned property in Cabarrus County, and he thought he could borrow enough money for construction -- guessing it would cost around $750,000 for a track with 45,000 permanent grandstand seats.

It turned out that another group, led by Bruton Smith, had a similar idea for a parcel near Pineville. And eventually, the two groups merged -- and signed a contract with NASCAR for a 600-mile race to be run on Memorial Day of 1960. Except everything that seemingly could go wrong, did.

Construction crews soon hit granite under the top soil, what Turner estimated as nearly a half a million yards of solid rock. It required $70,000 worth of dynamite, just to blast the area in the first turn. Turner's costs neared $2 million, putting him in hot water with creditors.

A late spring snow delayed the pouring of concrete. Turner begged France to give him a six-week postponement. Then with less than two weeks before the inaugural event, the paving subcontractor threatened to pull his crews from the job site for lack of payment, requiring Turner and a friend to show up -- with shotgun and revolver prominently displayed -- to make sure the backstretch was completed.

And the trouble didn't end there. As soon as the cars finally hit the track, the surface -- which hadn't had time to properly cure -- began coming apart all the way down to the crushed rock base. Huge chunks of debris punctured radiators and put gaping holes in windshields, forcing teams to add mesh screens and rear tire mudflaps in an effort to mitigate the issue.

The race was a survival test. Roberts led the first 65 laps before his Pontiac hit debris, broke a wheel and crashed. Turner then led until the engine in his Ford expired. Tom Pistone then took over but was sidelined by a broken axle.

That put Jack Smith in front. He had a five-lap lead with 47 laps to go when a piece of debris punctured a fist-sized hole in his gas tank. He pulled off the track, helpless to do anything but watch unheralded Joe Lee Johnson -- who had run a conservative pace all day -- take the checkered flag.

The race was a success, but not financially. The track went into receivership a year later. And in an effort to repay shareholders, Turner tried to strike a deal with the Teamsters, offering them a chance to form a driver's union in return for a loan. France banned Turner "for life" -- which turned out to be four years -- and he was a shadow of his former self when he returned in 1965.

Two years after retiring from the sport, Turner got the urge to drive again and planned a comeback at Charlotte in the fall of 1970. But seven days before the race, Turner's plane crashed in Pennsylvania. He and professional golfer Clarence King were killed.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.