(This is the sixth in an occasional series on iconic Ford Performance drivers through the years.)
By Team Ford Performance Correspondent
It is said that Junior Johnson wasn’t afraid of anything.
And this is what Junior Johnson had to say about Curtis Turner, a man he raced against often in the 1950s and 1960s: “I never saw anybody like him. He had no fear.”
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The stories about Curtis Morton “Pops” Turner are legion and legend. A NASCAR pioneer, he raced in the first season -- 1949 -- of what became the Sprint Cup Series. He won 17 Cup races over a career that ended almost 20 years later, and he is remembered by many as perhaps the greatest dirt-track driver in stock car racing history.
He also was the sport’s ultimate partier. Put him with sidekick, best friend and fellow racer (and winner) Joe Weatherly, and they could party until dawn Sunday morning, drive to the race track and then bang fenders with the checkered flag hanging in the balance.
Then it was back to resume the party.
The last of Turner’s 17 Cup victories came in one of the sport’s most beautiful race cars -- a No. 41 1965 Ford Galaxie fielded by the Wood Brothers. The car had a bright red body and a white roof, and it carried sponsorship from Harvest Ford in Virginia on its quarterpanels.
Turner drove seven races in the 1965 Cup season. His worksheet that year was very short because he returned to the sport late in the year after being banned from NASCAR for “life” by series founder Bill France Sr., who didn’t like the fact that Turner tried to unionize the driver corps.
Turner drove four of those races for the Woods but only one in the No. 41 Galaxie.
That race day was an unusual one for a number of reasons. The American 500 was held on Halloween. It was the first race at the brand new North Carolina Motor Speedway, a one-mile track in Rockingham, N.C.
No one knew it then, of course, but it would mark the last ride into victory lane for one of stock car racing’s greatest.
The win that day in Rockingham was particularly satisfying for both parties. Team owner Glen Wood and his brother, Leonard, had watched Turner race on short tracks in the late 1940s and quickly became fans, in part because he was from Floyd, Va., only 30 miles from the Woods’ hometown of Stuart, Va. Turner won hundreds of Sportsman-level short-track races.
In the 1950s, after the Woods had started a racing operation, Turner drove a few races for them. The renewal of their partnership in 1965 was a big moment, particularly when it produced victory in the inaugural Rockingham race.
“That’s the last race he ever won,” Glen Wood said. “We’re kind of proud of the fact that he helped us get going and we helped him win his last race.”
Turner drove the brightly colored No. 41 to a dominant day in Rockingham, leading 239 of the 500 laps in one of the most physically punishing races of the season. He beat second-place Cale Yarborough, the only other driver on the lead lap, to the finish by 11 seconds. Turner babied the car to the finish with a worn fan belt slipping over the closing laps.
Turner won at Rockingham despite breaking a rib previously in a race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“I made a little pad and welded two bars to the roll bar and mounted the pad to it so he would rest his shoulder against it instead of his side,” said Leonard Wood, the team’s chief mechanic.
That pad now is on a shelf at the Wood Brothers Museum in Stuart.
Turner raced parts of the next three seasons -- a total of 31 races -- but faded into retirement without another victory. In October of 1970, he died in the crash of a private plane in Pennsylvania. But whenever there is talk of NASCAR’s good ol’ days and the pioneering daredevils of the early years, Turner’s name soon pops up.
“We used to watch him race early on, a lot,” Glen Wood said. “He was our idol, I guess. We’d go everywhere to watch him.
“He drove quite a few times in the Sportsman division with my cars. In a race in the mid-50s at Bowman-Gray Stadium (in North Carolina), I won the pole and Curtis was behind me in our other car. In a heat race, I was chasing Lee Petty. I finally got around him, and that wasn’t easy. I had gotten about a straightaway in front of him, and I looked in my mirror and Curtis had gotten around him.
“Then I thought, ‘Well, we’re going to run one-two here.’ So I just slowed a little. Curtis caught me. All of a sudden, he ran into the back of me and spun me out. He apologized to no end for it -- said his brakes grabbed. He won the race.”
Glen Wood said Turner and Weatherly were key figures in convincing Ford to sign him as a driver in 1956. So when Ford wanted a car for Turner’s return to racing in 1965, Wood was eager to help.
“When they asked, I said ‘We’d just have to.’ He was a good friend of ours,” Wood said.
Wood said Turner, who had a reputation for pushing cars past their limits, could be tough on equipment. “You had to make it bulletproof for him because he would give it all it could stand,” Wood said.
But Wood added that watching Turner race often was a spectacle in itself.
“Curtis driving down the beach (on the old beach-road course) at Daytona was the prettiest sight you ever saw in a race car,” he said. “He’d turn it sideways 200 yards before he got to the turn. He would come into the turn with a broad slide all the way it. It was a joy to watch him run that race.
“On dirt, he was something else. His way wasn’t always the fastest way around, but he liked to show off for the crowd. He could get in a car that had never won a race and win in it.”
Leonard Wood said Turner never complained about a race car. He just drove it.
“I set the car up for Riverside (Calif.) and asked him to get in it and see how it felt,” Wood said. “He stepped one foot in the door and said, ‘She’s just right.’ ”
Turner was an avid if inconsistent airplane pilot. A daredevil in every sense of the word, he once landed his plane on a highway in Easley, S.C. and on the backstretch of Darlington Raceway.
Junior Johnson said he and his chief mechanic, Herb Nab, joined Turner on a flight from Greensboro, N.C. to Daytona Beach, Fla.
“He got up to 10,000 feet, put it on automatic pilot and went to sleep,” Johnson said. “We woke him up about 50 miles from Daytona. Imagine us sitting there watching where that airplane was going.”
On the race track, Johnson said, Turner “ran wide open. If he didn’t hit something or the car didn’t tear up, he’d win the race. He was crazier than I was. If you didn’t get out of his way, he’d knock you out of his way.”
Internationally famous driver Dan Gurney, who also raced for the Wood brothers, said he saw Turner “do things that very few people could do with a stock car.”
And, not incidentally, win.
(University of Racing offers 1:24 die cast replicas of the Icons of Ford Performance.)