SI Vault
 
A fading hero strikes back
Kim Chapin
October 19, 1970
Victory-starved Lee Roy Yarbrough outlasted faster rivals to win a big race for Mercury at Charlotte, N.C.
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
October 19, 1970

A Fading Hero Strikes Back

Victory-starved Lee Roy Yarbrough outlasted faster rivals to win a big race for Mercury at Charlotte, N.C.

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

Curtis Turner always used to say, "When I die, I want a whole new party to start." It was one of his standard lines, along with "having a tap" and "chopping kindling," which referred to other things entirely. And it was not inappropriate that when Turner died on Oct. 4, in the crash of his twin-engine Aero Commander on a hillside in western Pennsylvania, the traveling NASCAR circus of which he had been a part was heading for Charlotte, N.C. and the racetrack Turner had completed 10 years before.

On Thursday many of his friends—people like Buck Baker and Tim Flock, both ex-drivers, mechanics Herb Nab and Glenn Wood, NASCAR President Bill France—flew to Roanoke, Va. to pay their final respects. There was a certain devastating sadness, of course, but it was tempered by the knowledge that Turner, as Lee Petty put it, "had crammed about 75 years of living into his 46." Tempered also by the retelling of the stories about the gentle, shaggy bear of a man who had won over 350 races and had become a Southern legend long before he retired in 1968.

Junior Johnson, now the owner of Lee Roy Yarbrough's car, recalled classic duels with Turner on the short-track dirt bullrings before the days of the super-speedways. Ronnie Householder, the head of Chrysler's racing program, remembered a time in the mid-'50s when Turner and the late Joe Weatherly flew their planes to a race at Elkhart Lake, Wis. After the race was over, Turner got in his plane, taxied down the track's main straightaway and took off.

"My God," said Little Joe, "I've got to go."

"Why?" Householder asked.

"Turner's got the compass."

The services were held in the Oakland Baptist Church in Roanoke, and Turner was buried in Blue Ridge Memorial Gardens. More than 50 floral wreaths surrounded the flag-draped casket (Turner was a Navy veteran). Some of the men cried.

In Charlotte prerace preparations for the National 500 were shadowed both by the death of Turner and by what is becoming known as the annual NASCAR rules dispute. This year's version involves the Ford Motor Company, Chrysler to a lesser extent, and the subject of carburetors. More precisely, restrictive plates located inside the carburetors that limit the amount of airflow, thus reducing potential rpms and top speed of the cars.

Last August, in the interest of safety, NASCAR made the restrictive plates mandatory and limited the opening to a diameter of 1� inches. Everybody agreed the idea was fine, in theory. At Daytona the factory-backed cars had been running at speeds of about 190 mph, and at the new track at Talladega, Ala. speeds were up to 195. Nearly all the drivers and car owners thought those speeds were too high. "If we're racing side by side," said Dodge's Bobby Allison, "the fan in his seat can't tell if we're going 200 or 180 down the chutes." Besides, slower speeds would mean less engine wear and, in turn, more cars running at the end of a race.

However, the Ford people came to believe that they were being penalized unfairly. According to Charlie Gray, Ford's stock-car racing coordinator. Ford's basic engine, the Boss 429, cannot run near peak efficiency until it is turning somewhat above 7,000 rpm. At the 1�-mile Charlotte track, for example, the Ford engines would put out between 7,100 and 7,300 rpm if they were not fitted with the carburetor devices. With the plates installed, rpms dropped down to between 6,600 and 6,800.

Continue Story
1 2 3