Once rock and boulder laden, the hilly 550 acres that belonged to North Carolina’s first-elected governor, Nathaniel Alexander, and hosted George Washington in its placid fields, now serves as Charlotte Motor Speedway’s home. However, its connection to moonshine doesn’t rest with its location, but rather with one of its original owners, Curtis Turner.
By the time Turner and Bruton Smith joined forces in 1959 to build their 1.5-mile dream race track, Turner was already known for his colorful lifestyle. Born in April 1924 in Floyd, Va., Turner grew up fast, as was common during the Great Depression. One of four children, Turner hauled his first load of moonshine at age 9. His ability to elude the revenuers on the narrow, dirt mountain roads quickly made him a legend and honed the driving skills he would eventually use in his Hall of Fame racing career.
Turner always enjoyed telling a story about a U.S. Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms agent who unsuccessfully attempted 39 times to catch him hauling the illegal white lightning or moonshine. However, Turner was eventually apprehended by a federal agent staked out near his father’s house. Turner maintained it wasn’t a fair arrest because it violated the “rule” that existed between the moonshine runners and the revenuers. That “rule” was you were safe if they didn’t catch you on the road. However, Turner didn’t argue the arrest. He paid the $1,000 fine and received a two-year suspended sentence.
When Turner was asked about those early days, the man who always enjoyed a party and often lived on the edge, responded, “Those were hard times back in the hills, and you did things you shouldn’t in order to get by. I’m not proud of my past, but I am proud of the future I made for myself. I’ve made a few fortunes, but I like to live good.”
Always a fan favorite, Turner competed in Charlotte Motor Speedway’s inaugural 600-mile race despite being one of the track’s executives. He qualified a Holman-Moody Ford third for the 1960 event but completed only 154 of the 400 laps before a faulty head gasket relegated him to a 39th-place finish in the 60-car field.
By the time Turner’s driving career concluded in 1968, the NASCAR Hall of Fame member had won 17 races in NASCAR’s Cup Series and 38 in NASCAR’s short-lived Convertible Series. His most successful year in the Convertible Series was its inaugural season – 1956 – when he enjoyed 22 victories in 42 races. During those hard racing years, he earned the nickname “Pops” because of the way he and his friend Joe Weatherly would bang fenders in a race’s later stages. It was a tactic the two Ford drivers called “popping.”
Turner’s partner in the construction of Charlotte Motor Speedway was Bruton Smith, who also had a tough life in rural America but was never involved in the moonshine business. Turner was nearly 3 years old when Smith was born near the small town of Oakboro, N.C., in Stanly County. Growing up on a cotton farm instilled a strong work ethic in Smith. His family always had plenty of food, but never any money. That fact played a key role in Smith’s desire to become a successful businessman.
When Smith and Turner began building Charlotte Motor Speedway, they discovered they needed to remove granite, not rock, from the property, sending the cost skyward. By the time the speedway was completed, they were more than $800,000 in debt. That amount had risen to more than $1 million by December 1961. Speedway management avoided a foreclosure sale, but the track was placed under Chapter 10 of the Federal Bankruptcy Act costing the two men control of the speedway.
By the time Smith regained control of the speedway in 1975, Turner was dead, the victim of a 1970 plane crash in Pennsylvania. Once Smith regained ownership of the track, he never lost his beloved speedway again. When Smith died in June 2022 at age 95, his son Marcus was overseeing the property that was under the corporate umbrella of Speedway Motorsports Inc.
- Contributed by Deb Williams