For years, there have been accounts of Curtis Turner landing his plane at various tracks and even on streets in small towns across the country. Here's the proof ... Turner is shown here landing his plane on the frontstretch at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the mid-1960s. (Jerry Overman)
CURTIS TURNER, DAREDEVIL PILOT
by Rick Houston
Curtis Turner was once the Babe Ruth of NASCAR, in two very distinct ways.
On the track, like Ruth, Turner was the best of the best. In Grand National competition, the native Virginian scored 17 wins. He fared even better on NASCAR’s Convertible circuit, with 38 victories in 79 starts, including 22 of 42 in 1956. He was aggressive … the former moonshiner could make a car sing on dirt.
Away from the track, however, both men had a mystique about them that almost defied explanation. Did Ruth really call his infamous home run in the 1932 World Series, or is it just another legend? Did “The Bambino” actually promise to hit a homer for a dying child?
Did Turner really land his plane at race tracks? Well, actually, yes he did, and now there’s proof in the form of photographs discovered in the archives of lensman Jerry Overman. The photographs show Turner landing his plane at Charlotte Motor Speedway, a facility co-founded by Turner, with a crowd of onlookers in the stands. Another shot captures Turner in the cockpit of the aircraft alongside Richard Howard, who helped bring the track out of financial ruin in the mid-1960s.
In the cockpit of his plane, Turner talks with passenger Richard Howard. (Jerry Overman)
“We all know Curtis Turner was the original ‘bad boy’ of NASCAR racing for various reasons,” said Don Smyle, who oversees the Overman archive, during the fourth episode of the Spun Out And Half Turned Over podcast. “There’s always been this legend about him. … You’ve heard a great deal said about the fact that he used to land his plane in the infield at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“To most of us, that seems incredibly impossible. So this legend has grown over the years. Recently, in looking through Jerry Overman’s collection, I came across several images taken inside Curtis Turner’s plane as he and Richard Howard were flying to see a car that Smokey (Yunick) had built for him. There’s also a series of images of Curtis landing his plane at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the infield. So that legend is true.”
Turner was well-known for his devil-may-care attitude in the air. Veteran motorsports journalist Bob Moore remembers a January 1966 incident in which he and Glen Wood flew with Turner to Ford’s annual racing awards banquet in Dearborn, Mich.
“The weather was horrible that day,” Moore remembers. “It was snowy and quite windy. I didn’t think Curtis would even attempt to fly to Dearborn since they were turning away flights in Detroit. But he said, ‘No worry, we will be OK.’ So off we go from Charlotte. It was far from a smooth ride up to Detroit.
“Several times, Glen told Curtis that he didn’t think it would be a good idea to try and land because of how hard it was snowing and how windy it was. Once again, Curtis said, ‘Don’t worry, I can land this baby in any type of weather.’ The air traffic controller tried several more times to get Curtis to turn around to no avail as Curtis began his approach to land.”
To this day, Moore can remember the scene before him … or the complete lack thereof.
“You had trouble seeing five feet in front of you,” he continues. “But Curtis landed the plane as if the sun was out and there was not a breeze. Naturally, both Glen and I were elated when the plane came to a halt a few feet from the terminal for private planes. Curtis just smiles and said, ‘I told you not to worry.’”
Turner and friend Clarence King were killed in a plane crash near Punxsutawney, Pa. on Oct. 4, 1970.
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