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Curtis Turner, A Great Driver

And the partyingest SOB in NASCAR history


With the world of NASCAR going uptown, following the money, its speedways dotting the urban countryside, it is easy to wonder if something fundamental is being lost. Not altogether, of course. There is, even now, the reassuring drawl of Earnhardt Jr. and the fender-banging competition of the sport's new lions. Still, it's different from the way it used to be. The major races have been pulled away from the smalltown tracks like North Wilkesboro, where Junior Johnson, Curtis Turner and a whole bunch of other homegrown stars turned themselves into legends before fans who were not much different than they were.

There were, back then, no air-conditioned suites full of CEOs. It was the back country world of gritty dirt tracks where hard-living alumni of the moonshining business came to show off the speed of their cars.

Author Robert Edelstein has captured it well — expertly, in fact — in his new biography of Curtis Turner, arguably the most colorful, outrageous driver of them all. By anybody's measure, Turner was one of the best — a moonshiner's son from the hills of Virginia who decided for awhile to ply his daddy's trade.

But then he discovered the slightly more legitimate world of the dirt track, where the adrenaline rush was every bit as strong. He finished last in his inaugural race, but won his second and never looked back. Before it was over, he had finished first more than 300 times, making his mark at every level and in every venue the sport had to offer.

Turner dazzled the crowds in his dirt track days, power-sliding into the turns in a ferocious, hell-for-leather ballet. But it wasn't just his grace and skill on the track that made Turner a star. It was also his charisma, the grinning, blond-haired presence of a man who was also perpetually a little boy. He was simultaneously competitive and carefree, ambitious and full of fun, and for the thousands of people who turned out to see him, he was everything they wanted to be and more.

In the 1950s, his parties in Daytona, Charlotte and other stops on the fledgling NASCAR tour achieved a renown nearly equal to the races. With his buddy Joe Weatherly, another of the early dirt track stars, Turner would often carouse until dawn on the night before a race, driving hungover if that's what it took.

"If you don't like this party, don't worry about nothin'," he once told some friends who didn't quite seem to be rowdy enough. "Another party's startin' in about 15 minutes."

It seemed to be Turner's philosophy of life. But there were also the moments of seriousness and tragedy — a marriage that ended, a bitter and unsuccessful attempt to organize a union for the NASCAR drivers, and finally the day in 1970 when he flew his airplane into a mountain.

"It was life in huge slices," said a NASCAR journalist who knew Turner well. And author Robert Edelstein, the motorsports writer for TV Guide, has written the story with honesty and skill. He has a feeling for the subject — an admiration for Turner, tempered with a dash of irony and humor — and you don't have to be a NASCAR fanatic to get caught up in this American life.

But for lovers of the sport, who see it drifting away from its roots, becoming a little more corporate and greedy all the time, this well-crafted bit of NASCAR nostalgia is sure to be a hit. It recalls a time of outrageous innocence, when a good ole boy could dream of greater things, and the dreams came true — at least for a moment — amid the roar of the engines and the shower of clay on the dirt track turns.

Edelstein understands all that as well as anybody, and without falling victim to cliché or overstatement, the ever-present dangers of the sportswriter's craft, he has given us the story of a NASCAR legend. It is, all in all, a hell of a yarn.

Frye Gaillard, a regular CL contributor, is the author of Kyle at 200 M.P.H.: A Sizzling Season in the Petty/NASCAR Dynasty.

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