In some places, particularly in sections of the Southeast, stock-car racing is the sport, dominating everything else. Anyone who questions this should get himself a carload of Southerners, pack a big lunch of fried chicken, barbecued ribs, bourbon and beer and park in the infield at Darlington Speedway in South Carolina—or at any other stock-car track, for that matter—on the Sunday of a big race. The excitement is felt immediately. It is as real as it ever is at Indianapolis or Le Mans.
When we began publishing this magazine 14 years ago we didn't pay a great deal of attention to stock-car racing. The sport was still in its infancy. It wasn't really born until 1947 when Bill France stopped pumping gas in a Daytona Beach service station long enough to form the National Association for Stock Car Automobile Racing, or NASCAR. Two years later the first Grand National circuit (for cars of the past three model years) was begun, encompassing eight races with an overall purse total of $40,000. In the mid-1950s the Big Three automobile manufacturers, realizing that Sunday race results had more than just a casual bearing on Monday car sales, began to pay greater attention to stock-car racing. Then, in 1959-60, superspeedways were opened in rapid succession at Daytona Beach, Charlotte and Atlanta to go with the original supertrack (c.1950) at Darlington. Now, in 1968, there will be nearly 50 Grand National races at NASCAR tracks, prize money will exceed $1.4 million and attendance at the stock-car tracks—in what used to be considered minor league towns—will surpass one million.
A good part of this popularity stems from the personality of the men who drive in this most personalized type of automobile competition. NASCAR has developed its own brand of heroes and villains—drivers with color and personal appeal every bit as strong as Indianapolis legends like Wilbur Shaw, Bill Vukovich and A.J. Foyt or Grand Prix types like Juan Manuel Fangio, Jim Clark and Stirling Moss. Junior Johnson, Richard Petty, Fred Lorenzen—these are names like Babe Ruth and Stan Musial and Carl Yastrzemski to the crowds at the stock-car races. And about the biggest name of all is Curtis Turner (page 48), who seems to epitomize the vigor and fire and spontaneous excitement of the sport. Turner is the only driver whose career encompasses the entire span of organized stock-car racing. He was competing when it was still essentially a back-country entertainment, and he is competing now when tracks are modern, crowds immense, and prizes and living high. A driver of tremendous talent and a man of great personal charm, he seemingly does things in spite of himself both on the track and off, from touring the high banks at Daytona at 180 mph (he was the fastest qualifier in last year's 500) to throwing perpetual-motion parties.
Writer Kim Chapin and Photographer Walter Iooss found this out when they were working with Turner. Iooss, recovering a semblance of equilibrium after a two-day go that included long stretches of driving, conversation, picture taking, drinking and 4 a.m. putting contests, summed it up perfectly. "Curtis Turner," Iooss said humbly, "is the original Joe Namath."
But with white sidewalls instead of white shoes.