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Curtis Turner’s life embodied everything that makes NASCAR the biggest spectator sport in American history; the adrenaline rush of the races, the potential for danger at every turn, and the charismatic, outrageous personality of a winner. Turner created drama at the racetrack and in his personal life, living the American Dream several times over before he died a violent and mysterious death at the age of forty-six.
In gripping prose, and with access to the files of Turner’s widow, sports writer and author of NASCAR Generations Robert Edelstein offers the first complete chronicle of Turner’s life. From his days as a teenage moonshine runner in Virginia, through millions earned in fearless finance deals, to his incredible comeback after four years of being banned from the NASCAR circuit, Full Throttle lets you ride shotgun with the legend.
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"Rough roads make things more interesting."
As he rolls toward the gate leading out of the U.S. Naval Base in Little Creek, Virginia, Curtis Turner can see trouble. He slows to a crawl, scanning the view through the windshield. Two officers he's never seen before are standing guard, trying to appear nonchalant as they glance in his direction. A couple of Turner's buddies are usually stationed at this gate, smiling and winking while they wave him on. Turner has long paid good money — not to mention plenty of homemade liquor — to make sure of that. But these new officers: they look mighty thorough.
Turner rests an elbow out the window as a light breeze picks up. It is July 2, 1946, and Turner should have every reason to be cheerful. It's been a few weeks since the twenty-two-year-old ex-Chief Bosons Mate received his honorable discharge from the Navy after spending two years patrolling the Virginia coastline during and after the war. Things are getting more serious with his longtime girlfriend, Ann Ross. And he's back to making good money full time, doing things he loves, and keeping trouble behind him. But now he's got five hundred pounds of government sugar in the trunk of his 1941 black Ford Coupe, and if he's stopped here, his unblemished record as one of the region's most elusive moonshine runners will suffer a great blow. Lots of guys would be mighty happy to cart him off to jail.
The deal had worked out so sweetly for years now: haul liquor into the base and exchange it for sugar cobbled together by the mess staff. Sugar, a vital ingredient in white lightning, had been in such short supply during the war years; Turner's practical plan made everybody happy, especially the folks at the officer's club. This was America's free enterprise system at work, with nobody worse off because of it — the kind of move his dad might have tried years earlier and his mom would have said an angry prayer about on Sunday. But someone must have found it all out.
Nobody has closed in on Turner; they're waiting for him to make a move. While he inches slowly forward, his expression doesn't shift; he remains calm, steely blue-gray eyes unblinking, slender lips turned down, one hand on the wheel as if he's out on the town.
In a burst, he slams on the gas and charges toward the gatekeepers. At first, the two guards make a heroic, instinctive move to cover, but then think better of it and scatter. Turner crashes through the barricade as a slew of other officers race in his direction, shouting him down. The Ford's rear swerves, and Turner catches the glint of firearms in the rearview mirror. With ease he regains control and is off, but the pop of gunfire fills the night. Turner hears a low thump as a shell burrows into the soft sugar in the trunk and stops there. He ducks for a second, but he is free.
It will take a minute before anybody picks up the chase and Turner settles in for what he knows will be a long ride. Inevitably, the screech of sirens becomes vaguely audible, then grows in volume. Turner speeds straight west at better than one hundred miles per hour, toward Nansemond County, where he can pick up 460 and head for the hills.
The sirens fill the night and it's hard to figure where they're all coming from. Given the fact that they'd tried to ambush him at the base, chances are patrolmen from several different counties have been alerted. After making the turn onto 460, he arrows straight up northwest, toward Petersburg. Cresting a hill a few miles up the highway, Turner can see police lights in the distance. They're in front of him and behind him.
In a mile, Turner is right on the tail of a couple of state troopers. At this speed, there are no strategies, no quick movements to slow him down. Besides, he clearly has the best car of the night. Without lifting off the gas, and offering only a blank stare, Turner powers past the two cars, who radio ahead, attempting to set up a distant checkpoint. Some patrolmen have long gone to the same garages as the moonshine runners, to get their engines charged as powerfully. But ask the mechanics and they might say that when the fixing is done, some cars end up being slightly more equal than others.
And Turner is the kind of guy you want showing up at your garage: a soft-spoken, deep-voiced kid given to telling the kind of tale that will leave you wide-eyed. At Sweeney's Garage out near his home in Floyd, Virginia, they love the one about the time two patrol cars chased him through the backwoods of the Blue Ridge Mountains, with Turner carrying a load of whiskey in the trunk. Turner had some distance on the law and a creaky single-lane bridge lay ahead. Entering the bridge at sixty miles per hour, he pulled out his signature move, slamming on the brakes and whipping the car around, deftly screeching through a 180-degree turn with inches to spare on either side and the bridge bopping momentarily from the shock. Now facing the lawmen coming his way, Turner reached over, calmly stuck his own makeshift siren on the roof and flipped the switch. He bounded back toward the patrol cars, which gave way for what seemed like one of their own. Turner had escaped another fix.
Normally, he has nothing against the police. He'd even shown a few how the bridge spin is done, like a magician who spills only as many secrets as he needs to.
Turner leads his chase posse heading north to Blackstone, but all is not well. He is low on gas. It will now be less a question of outrunning as outlasting.
Past Blackstone, he dips over onto the much more rural highway 40. Through Eureka and Henry, and past Fears Corner he goes, whipping through the towns that dot the dirt landscape west through Virginia. The ride back home from the base to Roanoke will be more than 250 miles and there won't be enough gas to go the whole way.
But he is back in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where every bump is familiar. At another intersection, still more patrol cars give chase.
The engine knocks on an incline and when Turner rolls back downhill, all is momentarily black and somewhat still, the sirens now muted by the earth between him and the law. Once level again, he spots a familiar hidden turn-off and slams on the brakes, sliding nearly sideways, turns off his headlights and ducks left into the anonymous backwoods. Through the moonlit brush he goes, snapping the scrub pines as he cuts his way in for a moment before putting on the brakes. Turner breathes quietly, craning his neck and looking behind him. The sirens, out of sync, noisy, are getting closer and then come upon his exit from the road; and then they pass, leaving a Doppler wave that makes the cars sound harmless, like toys.
Now out of sight, he flips on his headlights, but the bulbs have been knocked out by the knotty pines in the hasty exit. He rolls forward slowly, finding himself on the edge of a farmyard. He can barely make out the sight of an awning in the darkness where he parks and shuts down the overtaxed motor. It will take some time, even a close call or two, but the sirens will eventually grow softer, leaving Curtis Turner with only his car, a pack of cigarettes and the calm serenity of a safe night in the woods. That's when the tall, slender Turner grows restless. Bring in some friends and let the liquor flow; that would be a good time.
And yet, walking through the low grass, there's something extraordinarily calming about this terrain: another place where Turner feels very much at home. For five years he'd been hauling as much liquor as he could, working at first with his dad who had been, at one time, one of the more successful home brewers and transporters in Floyd County. But Turner's introduction to the timber business went back even further, to the days eight years earlier when his father began teaching him all about tree varieties, beginning when he was fourteen. A wonderful stillness pervades the night, or maybe it's just that all the effort has brought on a certain fatigue.
Turner climbs back in the car, smokes a Camel and stares out at the night. Thoughts swirl in his head, beginning with his father's recent prescient words: stop running liquor. Morton Turner has been making this request of his oldest son, like a retired gunslinger with a long memory and a regret or two. Curtis' eyes grow heavy, and he can see his father's point, but only to a degree.
He was nine, living with his parents, sister Ruby and younger brother Darnell in Maryland while his oldest sister, Dove, stayed in school, boarding with friends in Virginia. The police came charging up the walk one evening with some questions for Morton Turner about illegal liquor and Curtis ran and ran, hunting for his father until he was out of breath. Eventually his dad told him, 'That's all right son, we haven't been doing right and we've got to pay for it," and Curtis stood and watched his father being led away. The penalty would turn out to be only a stiff fine, but as Curtis' mother pulled him into the house, the sound of the patrol car doors closing, the tires spinning on the gravel — the moment did nothing but stiffen some resolve inside of him.
"I'll never get caught," the younger Turner says out loud, in his car, on that farm in the dark.
It had always been less a decision than a simple fact of life, a lesson to prepare for any eventuality. Even if it means taking the occasional bullet in the trunk.
His father had been starting to tell him that any money he made running liquor would never do him any good. But for as long as Curtis could remember, he had every reason to believe this couldn't be any further from the truth.
As a bootlegger in the 1920s in Floyd, Virginia, Morton Turner had been a man among men. He'd buy Oldsmobiles by the truckload, have all the necessary speed adjustments made, set the springs mighty tight in the back and run the cars in a row, creating a powerful convoy, each car heavy with hundreds of pounds of liquor packed snug in the trunk. They were like wolves, running in turbocharged packs.
On any ride through the backwoods, there might be at least one or two lawmen taking up chase, leaving everybody to scatter in the dirt-flying mess and find their way back home. Some of the local police could be bought off by the more successful moonshine runners but there'd be no guarantees. Turner and a partner had once come upon two officers stopping their path on a trail. The policemen forced them to pay an additional $100 "toll" before allowing further passage. Turner's partner kept fuming as they continued the run.
"Let's go back and get that hundred," he finally said.
They did, and then tied the two cops under a bridge with their own handcuffs.
"It wasn't a game, where everybody was real nice to everybody else," Curtis would say years later. "They were shootin' real bullets."
In the 1920s, Floyd County, with 13,000 residents, had only one state policeman, one sheriff and one deputy representing the entire county. However, revenue hunters and federal agents eagerly joined the party. Liquor hauling had long been a serious business, not to mention a popular and profitable one.
"At that time," says lifelong Floyd resident and Turner family friend Bruce Sweeney, "we only had one little factory in the county, a shirt factory; women worked there. That's all, except farmers and bootleggers."
Bootlegging had been deemed illegal by the U.S. government. The sale and distribution of liquor had long been a hot button issue in the United States, with prohibition groups working to get the eighteenth amendment passed in 1920, and the government not permitting traffic of home-sold — and therefore untaxed — alcohol. But to Morton Turner, a government edict outlawing the sale of liquor went counter to his inalienable rights guaranteed by the constitution. Brew your own concoction on a stove or in a still, let the grains ferment, strain it, drain it, in time you're drinking the spirit of the south, and then making a profit from it. For many, it was a way of life and a livelihood. And there seemed to be no reason to stop doing it, especially in Floyd County and neighboring Franklin County, Virginia, where the liquor trade ran rampant in a well-satisfied system of supply and demand. Folks would say that no water runs into Floyd; it only runs out of it. Turner, like many people living in the hill country, grew indignant that the government would be so stupid as to try to control alcohol. So he did whatever he knew was right. And he was capable and willing to spread the wealth. "If somebody wanted to start their own operation, and didn't have any money, they would come to Curtis' Daddy," recalls Sweeney. "He'd get them set up."
But he'd never been content doing only one thing. Dairy farming, sawmilling and used car sales also kept him good and busy, since by then he had a growing family to support.
He had married Minnie O. Thomas on October 27, 1916 when they were both twenty-one years old, settling briefly near his family in Smartview Park, Virginia. Their first daughter, Dove, was born a year later, inside her Granddaddy Turner's store. She was only a few years old when her father and some of his workers built the two-story house on a dairy farm out on Route 4 in Floyd — a town within the same-named county — that would be the family's home for years. "They used lumber boards, about twelve inches wide for planks for the inside of the rooms," Dove remembers. "They took those boards over from the old house where they lived. We did not have paved roads, electricity, running water in the bathroom — we had a pipe from a spring that ran into a cistern on the porch."
Minnie Turner was humble and kind, generous to her neighbors and devout. At five-foot-five with thick dark hair, she was considered to be quite lovely. Inside the household, however, ironing, cleaning and other chores always needed doing and to her children, Minnie could be a stern taskmaster.
She and her husband made a handsome couple. Morton Turner stood six-foot-three, with broad shoulders, dark hair and a calm and confident demeanor. He put people at ease with his quiet manner, earning their respect as a levelheaded businessman.
"My mother was very conservative, very firm, strict, she loved her family and her church," remembers Dove. "She was the disciplinarian of my parents: 'You do this and you do that, period.' My father — everybody wanted to please him. He didn't ever raise his voice to anybody. He didn't spank the kids; my mother did that. My father would look at you, and you'd know what he meant. But everybody loved him. He was successful, and true to his word. Whatever his word was was good."
That code defined Floyd, a small mountain town of about five hundred close-knit people for whom family, respect and honor were the measure of a man; it was not unlike a rural Mafia mentality. In Floyd, as in many stops along the southern hill country, you minded your own business, helped your neighbors, settled many a deal with a handshake and then, above all, kept your word. As Curtis once told his friend, motorsports writer Brock Yates, "Where I come from, if you needed something, they would give you the shirt off their back, but if you took something, they would kill you without remorse."
Adds Sweeney, "In a county with only 13,000 people, most people knew everybody. And everybody was pretty proud."
Into this mix of speed and pride, with the sounds of hard farm work punctuated by the roar of engines, Curtis Morton Turner, blue-eyed and sandy-haired, arrived on April 12, 1924.
He was the first son in the Turner family after three girls (Morton and Minnie's second daughter died weeks after childbirth).
Almost immediately, the Turner family faced a series of transitions, shifting locations and long journeys. Morton Turner tried expanding his moonshining business into Maryland, following a migration along with many other Virginians. Sawmilling too had become more than a sideline, and he moved into lumbering to a much greater degree, finding fresh tracts of land to harvest both in Maryland and then down in northern Virginia, on the Potomac River. He moved up north, commuting frequently, and then brought his family with him to a spot outside of Baltimore in 1927, keeping the home in Virginia occupied by trusted friends Tas and Kate Janney, and boarding Dove with a local family so she could complete high school. The 250-mile rides back and forth from Maryland to Virginia were scenic and serene, except for the fuss made by the baby. Sitting in the backseat as a toddler, Curtis would get car sick.
"You're going too fast," Minnie would shout to her husband who'd grip the wheel and suppress his instincts for speed.
Morton Turner shrewdly decided to shift his balance from bootlegging to timber in the early 1930s, a business with great profit potential in the area, even during the Depression. He didn't, however, give up running moonshine.
Both professions intrigued his young son. As a small boy, Curtis trailed along with his father on many timber trips. He got past his motion sickness, frequently imploring his father to pass other cars on the road. It became a little game for the pair, a point of pride, with Morton Turner smiling sheepishly and putting on the gas. Just a little innocent fun — nothing that Mrs. Turner ever needed to find out about.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Full Throttle"
Copyright © 2005 Robert Edelstein.
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter One - 1924-1946,
Chapter Two - 1946-1950,
Chapter Three - 1947-1950,
Chapter Four - 1950-1953,
Chapter Five - 1952-1958,
Chapter Six - 1959-1960,
Chapter Seven - 1960-1961,
Chapter Eight - 1962-1964,
Chapter Nine - 1965,
Chapter Ten - 1966-1967,
Chapter Eleven - 1967-1969,
Chapter Twelve - 1969-1970,