Those who knew the late Curtis Turner best said he didn’t know a lick about the mechanics behind a race car.
But they are also in agreement about one thing: Turner – one of five Class of 2016 inductees into the NASCAR Hall of Fame – sure could drive them fast.
“He’s probably one of the best natural race car drivers NASCAR’s ever had,” former Charlotte Motor Speedway president H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler said. “He just instinctively knew what to do with a race car – probably the best ‘seat of the pants’ driver that I’ve ever seen.
“He knew nothing mechanically about the car; he just knew how to drive them. He was one of those just fabulous natural race drivers that we don’t see very often.”
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Turner – who was killed in an airplane crash on Oct. 4, 1970, at age 46 – won 360 races over his career in several different racing series, including 17 in NASCAR’s Grand National division (now Sprint Cup) and 22 in its short-lived Convertible Division in 1956.
“He was among the five hardest chargers of all time,” former Observer motorsports writer Tom Higgins said. “He’s there with Junior Johnson, Dale Earnhardt, Cale Yarborough and Buddy Baker, and it would be between him and Junior for who was the most aggressive.
“There’s no telling how many races he would have won if he hadn’t run his cars into the ground. He just punished a car in an effort to win.”
However, there was more to Turner than just a hard-charging racer.
He was one of the sport’s first true “rock stars,” a driver who drew attention for his off-track antics, and drew fans to any track he was racing at.
“He was a celebrity before there were celebrities,” said former motorsports writer and publicist Bob Moore, a confidant of Turner’s. “But unlike a lot of people, he enjoyed being a celebrity. He also enjoyed having a good time.
“He had that appeal, and he had one of those personalities where he made friends easily. … He also had that flair that attracted people to the race track.”
Turner was also one of the first drivers who looked at stock car racing as a money-making business.
He was a founding partner of Charlotte Motor Speedway (along with Bruton Smith, also part of the Hall of Fame’s 2016 inductee class), and attempted to form the first NASCAR driver’s union, the Federation of Professional Athletes, in 1961.
The attempt at forming the union earned Turner a lifetime ban from NASCAR – a ban that was rescinded four years later at the urging of race promoters, who were having trouble attracting fans.
“That’s what he was – a businessman,” Wheeler said. “He knew how to make money; he lost a lot, but he also made a lot.
“He totally understood that this was a business, and that this was also entertainment – and oh, he could put on a show, which is what people liked.”
Above all, though, it was Turner’s talent and toughness behind the wheel that set him apart.
His last win in a NASCAR race – the 1965 American 500, the inaugural race at N.C. Motor Speedway in Rockingham – showed that.
“It was the hottest Halloween day on record, it was the first 500-mile race there, he was out of shape, he had a hurt shoulder … and damned if he didn’t win the race,” Higgins said.
“The attrition was incredible – cars falling out, drivers giving out – and somehow he made it. … I know it’s a cliché, but he’s one of those larger than life figures.”