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By Pops' standards, it was a small party. Not like 10 years ago when he and Joe Weatherly had their Party Pad at Daytona Beach in the green-frame house near the sea—the place where moonlighting bartenders from a restaurant across the street served until dawn and the bill during Daytona's speed weeks sometimes ran to $5,000 and Little Joe used a fire extinguisher to serve drinks into flower vases ("That way you don't have to pit so often," he would say). It was not in the same class with any Christmas season at Pops' house in Roanoke, where selected people traditionally arrive the day after Christmas and stay through New Year's Day. Still, the affair last fall in Pops' Charlotte lodgings was impressive enough. When the Charlotte Speedway closed after practice on Friday, two days before the annual National 500-mile stock-car race, mechanics and drivers, friends of Pops, hangers-on and friends of hangers-on, who were attracted like gnats to the noise and lights of the rambling ranch house set on 14 acres of rough Carolina earth at 4000 Freedom Drive, started coming just about the time the red-dust Carolina sun was giving up for the day.
A small party: 250 or 300 people. Like Fred Lorenzen, the first and best of the citified button-down stockers; Mario Andretti, the best of the button-down Indy drivers; the young hot-shoes Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough and Buddy Baker; and the ghosts of Little Joe and Fireball Roberts and Bob Flock—remembrances of another era:time past, time present and a good time for all.
Some came for Pops' bonded whiskey and some stuff that maybe wasn't bonded. Others came for dancing or lie swapping and moved on from the house to the jukebox on the patio that blared country & western and, as a concession to the age, the Temptations and the Supremes. But most came for the legend: Pops... Curtis Morton Turner (see cover)...Ol' Leadfoot, age 43, height 6'2", weight 198 pounds, 357 wins, up there with the alltime best, who, unlike most legends, does not diminish upon actual confrontation, even in his own bar under fluorescent lights that make shirts and teeth stand out in a purple-white glow and bathe the pop-art bar girls on the wall behind the bar and the three sumptuous nudes on the opposite wall. Pops sits on a barstool that is balanced on two legs, with his back against the wall, looking down at the slight roll that is developing on his scrunched-up stomach.
"Gawdamn," says Pops. "Gawdamn, where did that come from? I ain't never seen that before. Looks like its full of air, like I ought to be able to cut it open and let the air out."
He is undiminished even without the Stetson that usually covers the brown shock of hair and without the dark sunglasses that hide the eyes of a man who has lived two or three lifetimes in one.
Pops does not disappoint the legend seekers. Around 11 he comes out, a gentle bear of a man, comes out on the patio and sees his doll baby, a cute, perk-nosed brunette, and kisses her gently on the forehead, and somebody shouts, "Pops, the booze is gone."
Pops turns away from his doll baby and says, "Don't worry 'bout nothin'." Pops doesn't talk from his throat; he talks from his gut, with the growl of the Appalachian hills and the trails of Thunder Road. "Don't worry 'bout nothin'. 'Nother party's startin' 'bout 15 minutes." And sure enough it does, right on until the cops come by and suggest that maybe 5 in the morning is late for so much noise.
"Gawdamn," Pops says after the cops leave. "That 'bout makes me mad." And so in a few minutes, where but one jukebox was scream ng to the bleary-eyed sun now rising, there are two. At 7 the last of the legend seekers, satisfied, leave for their motels for an hour's sleep before the track opens again.
Later, maybe in the bar again, or a restaurant, or just driving through the Carolina hills, Pops talks quietly with the people who know him best. Johnny Griffin is a friend and business associate of Turner's; Bunk Moore is a former moonshine transporter and dirt-track driver.
"Pops didn't get his nickname 'cause he's a father or nothin' like that," said Griffin. "He got it 'cause of the way he used to bump other cars—pop 'em—on the racetrack, especially on the dirt."