How Curtis Turner Roared Back After Being ‘Banned for Life’ by NASCAR in 1961

  • Curtis Turner was banned for life, along with Tim Flack, by NASCAR chairman and founder Bill France Jr. in 1961 for attempting to organize a driver’s union.
  • Turner lifted his ban in 1965, not long after the deaths of Joe Weatherly and Fireball Roberts.
  • Eventually Turner would be acknowledged as one of the sport’s 50 best drivers.

    If ever there was an example of redemption and second chances earned in NASCAR, it was Curtis Morton Turner.

    The Floyd, Virginia, native was banned for life, along with Tim Flock, by NASCAR chairman and founder Bill France Jr. in 1961 for attempting to organize a driver’s union (which ultimately failed because nearly every driver chose to stay with NASCAR ).

    However, due to the deaths of two of NASCAR’s most popular drivers – and Turner’s closest friends – Joe Weatherly and Fireball Roberts, less than five months apart in 1964, it prompted France to lift the life ban against Turner in 1965 (Flock is reinstated in 1966).

    Curtis Turner

    Curtis Turner visited the NASCAR offices in Daytona Beach in the early 1950s.

    RacingOneGetty Images

    NASCAR’s denial apparently didn’t hurt Turner, as he won his seventh race back in the series in the inaugural American 500 at North Carolina Motor Speedway in Rockingham, North Carolina in September 1965.

    Turner would eventually be recognized as one of the sport’s 50 greatest drivers in 1998 and was rightfully inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2016.

    Turner was practically a NASCAR prototype, born into a family of moonshiners, led by his father, Morton. Long before he could even qualify for a driver’s license, young Curtis was transporting cases of his father’s “shine” around Virginia. Legend has it that Turner was chased by police many times over the mountains of southwestern Virginia but was never caught, making him something of a local legend, much to the chagrin of police and “revenuers.”

    After carving out a successful career racing primarily in Virginia and North Carolina, Turner was among a select few who were invited to participate in the formation of NASCAR at the Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach, Florida. , earning 38 victories in the Convertible Division (in just four seasons) and 17 in the Grand National Series.

    Turner drove for a number of legendary teams including Holman-Moody, Wood Brothers and Smokey Unique, and set a number of records, including winning 25 races in the same year and in the same car (!!) in 1956, including a triumph in The Southern 500 in Darlington.

    Atlanta 500 Atlanta International Raceway NASCAR

    Mechanic Smokey Unique, right, helped Curtis Turner become the first NASCAR driver to reach 180 mph. barrier.

    The Enthusiast NetworkGetty Images

    And in perhaps one of the most auspicious finishes in NASCAR history, Turner was red-flagged and earned the victory despite running 19 fewer laps than the scheduled 200-lap event at Asheville-Weaverville (NC) on September 30, 1956 because he was the only car still running at the end.

    Turner was also one of the key members to design, help finance and build Charlotte Motor Speedway, which opened in 1960. Unfortunately, he and others lost their shares in the track when it was forced to file for bankruptcy. But he managed to regain some shares and remains to this day one of the few drivers who not only drove, but was also a key racetrack operator.

    In 1968, he became the first NASCAR driver to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

    Unfortunately, tragedy struck Turner’s life like Weatherly and Roberts, but instead of on a racetrack, Turner died along with pro golfer Clarence King in an airplane crash near Punxsutawney, PA on October 4, 1970.

    Go Autoweek Correspondent Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski


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