By Pops' standards, it was a small party. Not like 10 years ago when he and Joe Weatherly had their Party Pad at Daytona Beach in the green-frame house near the sea—the place where moonlighting bartenders from a restaurant across the street served until dawn and the bill during Daytona's speed weeks sometimes ran to $5,000 and Little Joe used a fire extinguisher to serve drinks into flower vases ("That way you don't have to pit so often," he would say). It was not in the same class with any Christmas season at Pops' house in Roanoke, where selected people traditionally arrive the day after Christmas and stay through New Year's Day. Still, the affair last fall in Pops' Charlotte lodgings was impressive enough. When the Charlotte Speedway closed after practice on Friday, two days before the annual National 500-mile stock-car race, mechanics and drivers, friends of Pops, hangers-on and friends of hangers-on, who were attracted like gnats to the noise and lights of the rambling ranch house set on 14 acres of rough Carolina earth at 4000 Freedom Drive, started coming just about the time the red-dust Carolina sun was giving up for the day.
A small party: 250 or 300 people. Like Fred Lorenzen, the first and best of the citified button-down stockers; Mario Andretti, the best of the button-down Indy drivers; the young hot-shoes Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough and Buddy Baker; and the ghosts of Little Joe and Fireball Roberts and Bob Flock—remembrances of another era:time past, time present and a good time for all.
Some came for Pops' bonded whiskey and some stuff that maybe wasn't bonded. Others came for dancing or lie swapping and moved on from the house to the jukebox on the patio that blared country & western and, as a concession to the age, the Temptations and the Supremes. But most came for the legend: Pops...Curtis Morton Turner (see cover)...Ol' Leadfoot, age 43, height 6'2", weight 198 pounds, 357 wins, up there with the alltime best, who, unlike most legends, does not diminish upon actual confrontation, even in his own bar under fluorescent lights that make shirts and teeth stand out in a purple-white glow and bathe the pop-art bar girls on the wall behind the bar and the three sumptuous nudes on the opposite wall. Pops sits on a barstool that is balanced on two legs, with his back against the wall, looking down at the slight roll that is developing on his scrunched-up stomach.
"Gawdamn," says Pops. "Gawdamn, where did that come from? I ain't never seen that before. Looks like its full of air, like I ought to be able to cut it open and let the air out."
He is undiminished even without the Stetson that usually covers the brown shock of hair and without the dark sunglasses that hide the eyes of a man who has lived two or three lifetimes in one.
Pops does not disappoint the legend seekers. Around 11 he comes out, a gentle bear of a man, comes out on the patio and sees his doll baby, a cute, perk-nosed brunette, and kisses her gently on the forehead, and somebody shouts, "Pops, the booze is gone."
Pops turns away from his doll baby and says, "Don't worry 'bout nothin'." Pops doesn't talk from his throat; he talks from his gut, with the growl of the Appalachian hills and the trails of Thunder Road. "Don't worry 'bout nothin'. 'Nother party's startin' 'bout 15 minutes." And sure enough it does, right on until the cops come by and suggest that maybe 5 in the morning is late for so much noise.
"Gawdamn," Pops says after the cops leave. "That 'bout makes me mad." And so in a few minutes, where but one jukebox was scream ng to the bleary-eyed sun now rising, there are two. At 7 the last of the legend seekers, satisfied, leave for their motels for an hour's sleep before the track opens again.
Later, maybe in the bar again, or a restaurant, or just driving through the Carolina hills, Pops talks quietly with the people who know him best. Johnny Griffin is a friend and business associate of Turner's; Bunk Moore is a former moonshine transporter and dirt-track driver.
"Pops didn't get his nickname 'cause he's a father or nothin' like that," said Griffin. "He got it 'cause of the way he used to bump other cars—pop 'em—on the racetrack, especially on the dirt."
"Hell, yes," said Bunk. "That really separates the men from the boys, runnin' in that mud and around them potholes. That ol' groove changes every lap. The first time ol' Freddy Lorenzen run at Concord he went into them turns and just kept goin' straight. He got lapped in 18 laps and never did come back. Lawd, was he embarrassed. Ned Jarrett, when he retired and took to managin' Hickory, he paved it 'cause he couldn't drive dirt and his crowds went from six, seven thousand to eighteen hundred just like that."
"Anybody can drive Daytona if they've got enough nerve," Pops said. "On asphalt you can drive with two fingers, it's always the same. On asphalt, turn the wheel left just slightly and drift a little. On dirt, then you gotta snap left to break the rear end loose, then sharp right into a reverse lock and plow through them turns."
"Yeah," Bunk said. "And keep them rear wheels always diggin'. But it ain't never the same two times around."
It was no accident that Turner's last two wins came at the Lakewood Speedway, a well-carved, one-mile dirt track in Atlanta which, after a 15-year shutdown, was successfully revived last summer, thanks mainly to the presence of Turner. In a three-week period he won two races in modified stock cars (common cousins of the factory-backed Grand National racers) and, when the third was rained out, he and his doll baby just got in his little Chevelle and slipped and slid around in the mud for the fun of it, Curtis wearing the Stetson and the shades and a big happy grin.
Carolinians tell the story of an incident at Lakewood shortly after World War II, when southern stock-car racing was making the painful transition from informal races in worn-out cornfields to what is now the high-banked, high-speed NASCAR circuit. In the late '40s it was not uncommon for drivers to transport a load of moonshine into Atlanta, or other cities at the delivery end of Thunder Road, on Friday, race on the weekend, load up with sugar for the stills on Monday and head for the hills. Near the end of a Lakewood race one afternoon, the first-place driver, who had dropped his 'shine and was ready to load up his sugar, suddenly got a series of frantic but puzzling signals from his pit crew. Finally, as the low sun cast flickering shadows through the red-clay dust rising from the rutted racecourse, he understood. The revenooers were waiting in the pits with an arrest warrant. A few laps later he took the checkered flag and kept on going—around the first turn, around the second and right through the wooden guardrail on the third, onto a backwoods road and safety. Depending on the storyteller, the driver was Junior Johnson, Robert Mitchum or Curtis Turner.
A little laugh rumbled up to Pops' throat. "Naaw, that wadn't me. That was ol' Bob Flock. But we all started that way—Speedy Thompson, Red Byron, Buck Baker and the Flocks, all three of 'em."
Like them, Curtis had the heritage. He was born in 1924 on a small farm in Virginia, and his father, Morton, was one of the biggest moonshine operators in Floyd County—manufacturing, transporting, the whole works.
"Daddy ran it and made it," Turner said. "He'd buy a whole boxcar load of Oldsmobiles—unload 'em right at the railroad siding—convert 'em and run 'em in caravan, five or six at a time. He figgered somebody'd always get through.
"Daddy was kinda quiet, but his partner was a mean sonofabitch. One time they was makin' a run and got stopped at a roadblock and paid off the cops $100 to let 'em keep goin'. Then they got back in the car and kept goin' down the road and everything was real quiet. Then daddy's partner got to fumin' and finally he said, 'Let's go back and get that hundred.' So they did, and tied the two cops under a bridge with their own handcuffs. Don't believe any of this stuff about how it was a game 'n' all, and how everybody was real nice to everybody. They was playin' for keeps and shootin' real bullets."
"You remember when your daddy first knew you was goin' to be a race driver?" Johnny Griffin said. "You was about 8 or 9 and every time you'd ride with your daddy and see a car on the road in front of you, you'd say, 'Pass him, Daddy, pass him.' "
Turner was 10 when he made his first run. "I'd just learned to drive," he said. "Fact is, this was the first time I'd ever driven alone. I got in my daddy's car to go to the warehouse and get a load of liquor and had the people workin' for us at the warehouse load it up. I was drivin' along a dirt road, ol' nice country road. They'd closed the car up and put about 100 gallons of liquor in it and everything was goin' along all right, and comin' back up the road back to the house I come up behind a damned mailtruck and hell, I forgot which side I was supposed to pass on. So I went around him on the wrong side and run up a damned bank and wound up against a fence."
What he was learning on the back roads served him well just four years later. At 14 he dropped out of school and went to work in his father's sawmill, earning 10¢ an hour as a water boy; at 16, having learned to pass on the left, he was transporting liquor regularly at $50 a keg, was making his own a year later, and by the time he was 18 had saved enough so that he owned three sawmills and several thousand dollars' worth of equipment.
"In the mountains you grow up in a hurry," said Johnny Griffin. "Eighteen's an old man."
And already he had picked up a precocious sort of business acumen. Other sawmills cut their timber and sold it immediately; Turner waited for the right price. "I cut so much and everybody was wonderin' how I could cut so much without sellin' and still meet the payroll," Turner said. "Well, I had to make runs every night to make the payroll, but damn, I did."
During World War II Turner served in the Navy and switched from running moonshine to running tires from the naval base at Norfolk back to his friends in the hills. After the war he went back to running moonshine but now he was getting run, too. At the end of one trip he escaped a roadblock by making a 180° forward spin on a two-lane road—a technique which, if he didn't invent, he at least perfected as an occupational necessity—then turned on his "police" siren and red light to get past other cops coming up on him. But after he was home safe he found three bullets embedded in the gas tank of his '42 Ford coupe and a fourth in the back of the driver's seat.
He chuckled and smiled a bit. "My last run? It wadn't too long ago," he said. "Runnin' was a lot of fun. You enjoyed it. Aside from the money you made you felt like you got by with some-thin' or accomplished somethin'. And usually you got run a time or two by the po-lice. You get a feelin' after you haul a load of liquor similar to what you do when you win a race. That's the whole thing. Hell, that's where I got my practice. You have to run good, otherwise you get caught. Of course you always took the back roads, and the handlin' was just like a dirt track. Youngsters comin' on now have a harder time than we did 'cause they can't do that no more like we used to. You learn in a week at my drivin' school what you learn in a year on the racetrack."
The National School of Safe High Performance Driving—Curtis Turner, director—is a natural outgrowth of Turner's racing involvement and interest in business. A week's course costs $500. Located at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, the school is designed for anybody whose job demands fast driving, like ambulance drivers and Turner's old friends, the police, prospective race drivers or just anybody who wants to learn how to handle a car at turnpike speeds or above and, in emergencies, spin a car with control and dexterity. The school is also a typical Turner venture, boldly begun, a money-loser now but with excellent prospects of being a success. A second school has opened at Phoenix, and a third is planned for Oklahoma City.
Turner's reason for the school is simple enough. "It's something I've always wanted to do," he said. "I just got an idea for it one day, and here it is." That, in essence, is how Turner's business mind works. He is quick and diverse, and if you give him a subject he'll throw all sorts of ideas on it back at you. In 1958, when the first satellites were streaking across the skies, Turner spent $40,000 attempting to persuade government officials to let him develop a private satellite-communications system. A few years later, in other hands, the idea became TelStar. And once he tried very hard and very seriously to get permission to print advertising on the white margins of U.S. dollar bills, at a time when he happened to need $25 million.
In times of need Curtis has often turned to timber. "One day in 1950 I bought a mountain for $30,000 and decided to put a road up into it, so I could develop the land," he said. "They told me I couldn't do it for less than $20,000, but hell, I did it in 30 days for $2,500. Just after that a man offered me $85,000 for the whole thing. Easiest money I ever made. Right then and there I decided to get out of the sawmill business and into timber."
Since then he has sold two million acres of timberland, amounting to 6% of North Carolina's 31.4 million acres, and is now thinking of ways to buy virgin timber in Central America; always restless, threatening to retire from racing after every big timber deal, then going broke, then making another fortune and going broke again.
I don't really think I'd be happy if I wasn't in some sort of trouble, in timber, racin' or elsewhere. I've made several fortunes, I guess, even saved a little bit now and then, but it don't last long. It's just like drivin' a race or writin' a story or anything else; once somethin's done, it's over. It's behind you and you can't ever get it back. I get itchy and start lookin' for somethin' else. I got an overhead of about $15,000 a month, and my auditors went over that one time and figured where I could cut that down to $10,000 or so, but hell, man, that $5,000 or $6,000 what I like to live on. Livin' ain't no fun unless you got that. Gayle Warren, one of my instructors, keeps tellin' me I've thrown away more money than most men make in a lifetime 'n' that if I make $100,000 today it'll be gone tomorrow, and I guess he's about right. In the timber business you got a payday only once, twice a year, but Lawd, it's a good one: $50,000, $100,000, $200,000. But if you make $25,000, you need $50,000. If you make $50,000, you need $100,000. I always need more than I got; I never know where my money's comin' from next, but it always turns up. Maybe I could be a success in somethin' else, a broker or lawyer or somethin'. I put two corporations through the Securities and Exchange Commission. I even went respectable for a couple a years—operated a juke-box business—but it didn't last long. I got too restless. But timber's all I really know, and those damned trees have always come through for me. Satisfied? No, I'm never really satisfied. Are you? Oh, some things give you temporary satisfaction, and these are the things you can be proud of. The satellite thing—it was the first time on record a private citizen had ever thought of somethin' like that. President Kennedy stole it, and now it's TelStar. It cost me $40,000. I'm proud of the Speedway, even though they kicked me out of it. It's mine and they can't ever take that away from me.
The years Turner took building his track, the Charlotte Speedway—a treacherous, 1½-mile banked, dogleg oval—and the subsequent bitter aftermath, were the most turbulent of his life. The location, 10 miles northeast of Charlotte on U.S. Highway 29, was logical, because the Carolinas in general and Charlotte in particular were the hub of stock-car racing. There were drivers, tracks and crowds long before anybody had heard of Daytona Beach, Atlanta, Riverside or any of the other recent interlopers, and Turner tackled the project in his own inimitable way. "I started buildin' a racetrack," he said. "One day I was driving down the road and just decided to build a racetrack. I hadn't planned it or anything. I had the piece of ground where the track is today, so I built it."
The financing of the $2.3 million speedway by Turner's group was border-line to begin with, but the original operation probably would have survived except for a faulty core-drill report. "I had the financin' worked out until we hit rock," he said. "The core-drill report said that it was boulders, so in the contract for movin' dirt I also got the boulders moved for 18¢ a yard. But instead of hittin' boulders we hit about half a million yards of solid granite. That cost a dollar a yard to move, plus the dynamite. Cost $70,000 worth of dynamite just gettin' through the first turn, and whole thing cost a half a million dollars more than it should have."
To make good his various contracts, Turner scratched and clawed and pulled off a variety of business deals. He got huge loans from friends in the timber business, including one for $350,000, borrowed $50,000 from Champion Spark Plugs, and even bought a bank. It was a small bank, so small, in fact, that it could only loan a maximum of $12,000 to an individual. Curtis loaned himself $75,000. The auditors didn't find out about that until 18 months later.
Most of the loans were to meet the weekly payroll. Turner would sit down on Friday and write $50,000 to $75,000 worth of checks with absolutely no money in the bank, then spend Saturday and Sunday rounding up the money any way he could before the banks opened on Monday.
He was always just a little short. Two days before the track opened for practice for the first race—the World 600 on June 19,1960—the dirt-removal contractor was still an unbeliever and demanded an immediate $75,000 from Turner. To back up his demands he moved all of his heavy equipment out on the track in front of the paving machine, which had about 100 yards to go on the back straight, and threatened not to move it and plow up the track if Turner didn't pay. So, in the last vigilante action in Cabarrus County, N.C., Turner and a CMS director took shotgun and pistol in hand and backed the 16 heavy-equipment drivers up against a wall while Turner's men removed the equipment and finished paving the track under the glare of lights.
Three major races were then run at the track, and each one moved Turner's corporation closer to solvency, but not quickly enough for some of its directors, and in the summer of 1961 Turner approached the Teamsters Union for a loan of $850,000. At the time the Teamsters were attempting to set up the Federation of Professional Athletes, and Turner elicited a tentative promise of the loan in exchange for a promise on Turner's part to help organize the NASCAR drivers and mechanics. He did so with such gusto, with the help of Fireball Roberts, Buck Baker and Tim Flock—three of the best stock-car drivers ever—that within a month he had signed applications from nearly everyone. Curtis had also drawn a list of reforms that included everything from pension plans to a more equitable purse distribution. Then NASCAR President Bill France, himself no amateur at power plays, stepped in. He issued a statement saying, in effect, that race drivers shouldn't organize and, further, that it was illegal because they were independent contractors and not salaried employees. At Winston-Salem, N.C. on Aug. 9, 1961 he presided over a stormy meeting of drivers and mechanics.
According to the Charlotte Observer, France said: "Gentlemen, before I have this union stuffed down my throat I will plow up my track at Daytona Beach.... After the race tonight no known union member can compete in a NASCAR race."
"France let 'em all in to the meetin' but me 'n' Flock 'cause we was doin' the organizin', but they had a window open so I stood there by the window listenin'. So they was all talkin' and France said, hell, he said, if it was as good as I pretended it was and had all the benefits I said it had he'd join himself. So I was outside the window and I raised it up then and handed him a card through the window and said, 'Here's your application.' Then they closed the window on me. From that meeting on it was just lawyers and lawsuits."
In short order all of the drivers except Turner and Flock, who was ready to retire anyway, backed down, and France barred them both. Turner filed for reinstatement under the Florida right-to-work laws but got nowhere, and when he learned the Teamsters couldn't have loaned the money anyway—to a group it was attempting to organize—he dropped the suit immediately. France still refused to reinstate him. He had a tarnished reputation (he had been falsely accused of stealing $40,000 from the Speedway Corporation) and was $400,000 poorer. Meanwhile, the board of directors, in a series of dazzling moves, ousted him from control of the Speedway.
The NASCAR suspension lasted four years, but finally, on Sept. 30, 1965, France yielded to the pressure of major track promoters who wanted Turner back and reinstated him.
Curtis quickly showed that four years on the sidelines hadn't hurt at all. His first major race was the 1965 National 400, ironically at the Charlotte Speedway, and that wound up being perhaps the best race in the history of NASCAR. After 395 miles the leaders were A. J. Foyt, Fred Lorenzen and Dick Hutcherson. They were running three abreast and had been for several laps. On the banked turns you could not have separated them with a photo-finish camera. And right there in fourth place, play-in' possum, was Pops.
But with one lap to go, Foyt, who was outside, got carried too deep into the No. 3 turn by Lorenzen, or maybe went there all by himself, and all of a sudden he was on loose gravel and heading for the outside guardrail. "I couldn't tell which way he was goin'," Pops said later, "but he was headin' for the wall and I knew in a minute he was gonna be comin' back down right at me, 'n' rather than take the chance of tearin' the car up I just slowed up. If I'd a stayed on it—and coulda missed Foyt—I coulda still probably got to the flag." Turner finished third, but two Sundays later he won the first race ever held at the North Carolina Motor Speedway in Rockingham, the newest of the South's ambitious oval superspeedways.
In January 1966 he headed for California to settle a grudge he had with the Riverside Raceway. Two years before the demanding road course had killed Little Joe Weatherly, the stubby, curly-haired, pug-nosed and pugnacious Virginian who had been Turner's closest friend. Turner's car was slower than the one driven by Dan Gurney, who had won the Riverside 500 the three previous years, but by thinking hard and drafting harder, Curtis moved up to second—tight behind Gurney. On lap 39 Gurney led Turner into the Esses, a series of three quick turns. At the second wiggle, instead of turning left, Turner went straight off the road, into a ditch and up the side of the ditch. He catapulted past the rather surprised Gurney and slammed back down on the track. "It was the first time," Gurney said, "anybody ever passed me airborne." Turner led for another 90 miles but then his gas cap fell off and had to be replaced, and the extra time in the pits cost him the race.
When Pops started racing—in those Carolina cornfields—prize money was as unofficial as the tracks. The drivers showed up, the spectators showed up and the hat was passed. Thirty dollars, maybe 40, was a big payday, and there was always more money bet in the stands than put in the purses.
"The drivers, they all carried a stick with them," Johnny Griffin said. "There wasn't no fence to keep the spectators away from the drivers after the race, and if somebody bumped the money favorite there was always trouble. Hell, after a race first thing Pops would do is get in the trunk of his car. He could hardly get out for all the broken glass around it from bottles thrown by the spectators.
Fights were frequent. Lee Petty clubbed Turner with a tire iron in one dispute, and once a driver named Bobby Meyers came after Turner with a billy club. Pops pulled out a .32 pistol and said, "Bobby, if I was you I'd lay that club down."
"Curtis, old man," said Meyers, "I'm just lookin' for a place to put it."
"It wadn't nothin' to win three, four races a week back then," Turner said. "We used to run five races a week when NASCAR was just gettin' started. We always run on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights and Sundays, and then we got to runnin' a lot on Mondays."
Turner first met Weatherly in 1951, and together they became the first legitimate heroes of stock-car racing—the Gold Dust Twins—when they raced the first factory-supported (by Ford) cars NASCAR had. They were better than Fireball or Ol' Buck or Red Byron Herb Thomas, Buddy Shuman or even Tom Wolfe's last American hero, Junior Johnson. Turner won the Southern 500 in 1956, the year he was named NASCAR's Most Popular Driver, an award he could have taken nearly every year; in 1954 he won 22 races in 38 starts on the old convertible circuit, a one-year record unmatched until Richard Petty's 27 Grand National wins in 1967. But it was the style, not the statistics, that made the legend grow, whether Curtis was racing side by side with Little Joe or Fireball on the old beach course at Daytona—going deep into the north turn around the pylon, a rooster tail of sand kicking out so high the cars would be out of sight and there was no way they could straighten out in time and they might wind up in Jacksonville or someplace before they did—or just slipping and sliding around with just a little fender tappin' here and there to make sure everybody knew Pops was around, with all those boys in the grandstand sipping their bourbon from brown bags and whooping and hollering for Ol' Lead-foot, gawdamn; or popping Lance Reventlow in a sporty car race, of all things, and making Reventlow so mad that he said, "Curtis Turner is a ruffian and, I might add, a common ruffian."
"Ol' Joe, we run together quite a bit," Turner said, "got drunk together, partied together. One night after a race Joe 'n' I was about tuned. We got two U-Drive-Its. So Joe 'n' I goin' down this four-lane road and he just come over and hit me with that U-Drive-It and just stepped on the side of it and when he did I cut over, cut all the way over, and I come back and hit him. And then we'd spread apart and get on the shoulder, one on one 'n' one on the other and come back and hit just as hard as we could. Just tore those U-Drive-Its all to pieces. But they was still runnin', and when we got to the motel where we wanted to stay that night Joe just kept his engine wide open and went straight into the swimming pool—the deep end. Got him out—this was about midnight—and we didn't even have no room there 'n' we just started openin' doors and found one that was unlocked. I noticed a suitcase 'n' we went in there and gawdamn, about 3 o'clock in the mornin' somebody beatin' on the door. We had it locked, night latch on the door, and the next mornin' we got out of it; never did know whose room it was. Haven't been able to rent a U-Drive-It down there since."
They were just as unpredictable on the racetrack. There was the time Weatherly filled Turner's water pouch, which drivers sip from during a race, with mint julep, and every time the caution light came out they'd get side by side and sip together out of that thing. It was the only time two drivers started a race cold sober and finished half drunk.
Ol' Joe, he was forever cuttin' up. We was racin' at Wilkesboro, North Carolina, 'n' he hit me real hard. Knocked me over in the boondocks, got by me. So I hit Joe, I hit him good and when the race was over Joe comes up and I knew somethin' was wrong, 'cause instead of gettin' mad he was jokin' and carryin' on. He had his motorcycle there 'n' he says, "Hey Pops, jump on. Let's go get a chaser." So I jumped on with him and he got goin' on that thing. We was drivin' on them ol' dirt roads, slidin' sideways and every which way on that thing and I'm beggin' him to slow down and tryin' to get off and finally he says, "Pops, you promise you won't never hit me that hard again and I'll stop and let you off," and I says, "Little Joe, I promise I never will hit you again."
He wasn't doin' but about 60 miles an hour when he got killed. I was at Indy listenin' to the Riverside race 'n' I couldn't hardly believe it. He'd crashed before at a hunnerd 'n' sixty and nothin' happened. He was real superstitious though, especially 'bout green and No. 13. He was on Flight 13 to Los Angeles, stopped at Gate 13, qualified 13th, qualified at 113 mph, and was on his 113th lap and had $13 in his pocket. When the car hit it threw his head out the window and his head hit the wall. Car wasn't tore up much. Ol' Joe was just about gettin' ready to quit racin'. He told me he planned to quit pretty soon.
Naaw, you don't ever think about it—death. If you started thinkin' about it, you'd quit. You're not even aware of it, you just don't think about it.
"Don't let any driver tell you he's not scared," Bunk Moore said. "The night before a race they're all prayin' for rain."
I mean, it's just like goin' down the highway here. People gettin' killed every day on the highway, but when you're drivin' you don't think about gettin' killed. After you been doin' it for so damned many years, it's jest another day's work.
Damn. There's 400 ways that little bastard could have made a livin' but I don't guess he'd been happy doin' anything else.
If they weren't making a shambles of a racetrack, a motel or a Party Pad, they tried awfully hard to do it in the air. Weatherly was an excellent seat of the pants pilot, but he never bothered to learn much about navigation. He would start out for somewhere and follow rivers, railroad tracks or just pull out a road map and follow the highway. Turner and Weatherly took off from Winston-Salem one time in separate planes, headed for Roanoke, but when Turner landed there was no sign of Little Joe. When he didn't show up a couple of hours later, Pops began to get worried. Just about the time the Civil Air Patrol was going searching, Weatherly sputtered into the airport. "Where you been, Joe?" Pops asked.
"Damn, Pops," Joe answered. "I was just followin' Highway 221 into town when I come to a detour and I took the detour and got lost."
Turner, who has logged 14,000 highly creative hours in the air, does use instruments, but just now he is grounded. Last summer, flying from Atlanta to Charlotte, he set his plane down on the main street of Easley, S.C. to get a bottle of whiskey from a friend's house. Unfortunately, when he taxied to the house he discovered it was right next to two churches that were just letting out from Sunday services. "About then I got to decidin' I'd made a mistake," Pops said, and wheeled the twin-engine Aero-Commander back onto the highway and prepared for takeoff. On the way there he hedgehopped several cars and clipped at least one aerial, panicking a deputy sheriff who later told the FAA, "I was just driving along minding my own business when I looked up and here comes a gawdamned airplane!" Then came the intersection.
It was a nice enough intersection, but had a stoplight suspended from heavy wires right across what was now Turner's runway. An Aero-Commander's third wheel is in the front and consequently its tail stands tall, and to accommodate this situation, as Turner later explained in one of the grand quotes of aviation history: "I had to raise my wheels so's I could fly low enough to get under it."
He finally got up, but severed a telephone cable and phone service to Easley in one fell swoosh, and when he landed at Charlotte his license was as good as gone.
With the Daytona 500 coming up on February 25, Turner is looking for a different kind of transportation—a fast stocker something like the one in which he qualified fastest last year. Some reports have put him in a Smokey Yunick racer, but after what happened at the Atlanta Raceway last April, Smokey isn't about to build a car for Curtis. During practice Turner had one of the most spectacular mishaps ever seen at a racetrack—in a car prepared by Yunick. "I don't guess we ever will know what happened," Turner said. "I was comin' off the fourth turn—Cale Yarborough was runnin' behind me 'n' the car was handlin' perfect—and all of a sudden somethin' happened and it just turned to the right. Cale, about the only thing we got to go on, he said the car was settin' perfect and all of a sudden the right rear corner dropped down almost to the pavement. I hit the concrete retaining wall and went up in the air. They estimated it was 20 foot high, and when the car come down it come down on the nose and went end over end two or three times, then rolled, rolled right over Cale 'n' didn't touch him. All you're thinkin' about is waitin' for it to stop. You know, there's a dead silence when the car's goin' through the air. You can hear a pin drop. I was goin' through the air, so there's just a dead silence—the ignition is cut off—and you got your eyes shut 'cause of flyin' glass so you don't know when your car is stopped or if it's still goin' through the air. Well, I heard that dead silence 'bout 13 times, and I think I'm still hittin' but the car's stopped and I'm still there bracin' and still holdin' on for life, 'n' I heard somebody say, 'Get out. It's on fire.' Then I opened my eyes and I knew it'd stopped. So I got out and walked to the hospital."
He wasn't hurt, except for a few bruises, but Smokey said right then, more to keep Pops off the track than anything else, "I'm not gonna build the car that kills Curtis Turner."
So Pops is still looking for a ride.
"I'll be there with somethin'," he said, and probably he will be. Even if he is not, though, it will never be said that he did not finish just as he always ran—with style.
Turner slides a Pontiac into the north turn of the old beach-road racecourse at Daytona, leading another Pontiac. Coming off the seaside run, he would slide for what seemed 100 yards, and in the '50s it was a much loved act.
At home in Charlotte, one site of his marathon parties, Turner pours Cokes for friends at bar over which spirits have flowed in mind-boggling quantity.