Racing legend Curtis “Pops” Turner learned to handle a car outrunning revenuers. He once said he was 10 years old when he transported his first solo carload of moonshine.
By all accounts, Turner drove and lived at full acceleration until his death in a plane crash in 1970. He was 46.
Born in Floyd County on April 12, 1924, Turner lived much of his adult life in the Roanoke Valley. A news story in 1956 described him as “a veteran daredevil race driver from Roanoke, Va.”
His oldest child, Margaret Sue Turner Wright, said she is surprised every time a longtime resident of the Roanoke Valley tells her they know nothing of Curtis Turner and his racing legacy.
“I’m trying to break through that,” Wright said. “I’m trying to get people to be aware of him.”
She said her father got the nickname “Pops” because of his reputation for popping — or bumping — competitors’ cars on the racetrack to move them out of his way.
On Saturday, Collinsville resident Linwood Pendleton, 72, was one of several racing enthusiasts who paid tribute to Turner during the third annual Blue Ridge Racers Reunion at the Virginia Transportation Museum. Pendleton said he saw Turner race at Martinsville Speedway and other tracks.
“He was flat out and wide open,” Pendleton said. “He had nerve many others didn’t have.”
Turner made the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine’s issue of Feb. 26, 1968, which referred to him on the cover as “King of the Wild Road.” The story inside focused, in part, on Turner’s legendary partying and suggested that his sunglasses hid “the eyes of a man who has lived two or three lifetimes in one.”
Biographies of Turner have included “Curtis Turner: NASCAR’s First Bad Boy;” and, “Full Throttle: The Life and Fast Times of Curtis Turner.”
Peter Harholdt lives now in Florida but grew up in Roanoke, where he knew Curtis Turner through Margaret Sue. He said Turner once bought an old Greyhound bus and had plans to convert it into a tour bus. Harholdt recalled riding the bus around the Roanoke Valley in a sort of rolling party with Turner driving.
He said he saw Turner race at Starkey Speedway and elsewhere. Turner earned his status as a skilled and fearless racer, Harholdt said.
“Every driver from the period, when they talked about their ability, it was almost always in comparison to Curtis,” he said.
A newspaper article described Turner in August 1970 as a “living legend in the South.” He died just a few months later when his personal plane crashed in early October into a hillside near Punxsutawney, Pa. Golfer Clarence King of Roanoke, a friend of Turner’s and a longtime pro at Blue Hills Golf Club in Roanoke, also died in the crash.
Saturday’s event included a parade through downtown Roanoke that featured restored or replica race cars from decades ago.
Ervin Brooks, 57, drove a 1969 Ford Torino he said is a replica of the car raced by his father, the late NASCAR driver Earl Brooks of Lynchburg. He said his father told him that Turner once flew his plane so low at a racetrack that it blew dirt into the engine Earl Brooks had torn down for repairs.
In 1959, Turner and partner O. Bruton Smith helped build the Charlotte Motor Speedway, but financial difficulties plagued both Turner and the speedway in its early years. Turner told Sports Illustrated that construction costs soared when excavators hit granite.
Turner has been a nominee every year since 2010 for the NASCAR Hall of Fame. He is nominated again for the 2015 class of inductees. Voting will occur May 21.
He was once banned from NASCAR by its founder, Bill France, for trying to recruit fellow drivers to join a union. The lifetime ban lasted about four years. Turner was reinstated in 1965.
Wright said Friday that her father and France later settled their differences and she does not believe that their long-ago conflict has hindered Turner’s chances of being inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Harholdt said he’s not so sure there hasn’t been some lingering fallout.
“I’m lobbying to get him in the Hall of Fame,” he said. “He’s been slighted and we’re going to fix that.”