The 1965 American 500 at North Carolina Motor Speedway in Rockingham, the track’s inaugural race, produced one of the best racing stories of all time. A wildly popular but aging driver, back on the circuit after a four-year suspension was lifted, outran one of the sport’s aggressive young stars to get the victory that would be the final major triumph of a Hall of Fame career.
The story of that unexpected triumph began decades earlier when the driver, Curtis Turner, helped Glen Wood and his Wood Brothers racing team secure backing from Ford Motor Company, a relationship that continues to this day.
Turner was a swashbuckler on and off the track. He made and lost fortunes in the timber business. He helped build and then lost one of the sport’s cornerstone superspeedways. And he loved to party.
But when it came to driving race cars, he was one of the hardest chargers ever, the Dale Earnhardt of his day.
Turner was one of the sport’s top stars – arguably its biggest draw – when he ran afoul of NASCAR founder Bill France in 1961. Turner tried to organize a driver’s union as part of his effort to raise funds for Charlotte Motor Speedway, which he and current owner Bruton Smith co-founded.
France suspended Turner, and for four years he was left to run in circuits other than NASCAR. Fittingly, his last NASCAR ride before his suspension was aboard the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 Ford at Charlotte.
By mid-1965, fans were restless for a variety of reasons. Several top drivers, including Joe Weatherly and Fireball Roberts, had been fatally injured in racing accidents. Richard Petty was off drag racing, having left NASCAR in a dispute over the Hemi engines in his cars, engines that France had banned.
After a meeting in Atlanta between France and some of the leading track owners of the day, Turner’s suspension was lifted.
But many felt that at age 41 his best driving days were behind him.
Ford racing boss John Cowley approached Glen Wood at the Southern 500 in Darlington and a deal was struck to put Turner in a No. 41 Wood Brothers Ford.
In Turner’s first time back in a Wood Brothers car, he crashed with Bobby Isaac at Martinsville. He bounced back with a fifth-place finish at North Wilkesboro then it was on to Charlotte, the track Turner helped build only to lose his interest because of the track’s financial woes.
As the laps wound down, Turner found himself in a four-way battle for the lead with A.J. Foyt, Fred Lorenzen and Dick Hutcherson. When Lorenzen and Foyt crashed with six laps to go, Turner had to spin to miss the wreck. He recovered to finish third and told Glen Wood afterward that he felt he was in position to win.
When someone pointed out that it would have been difficult to find enough racing room to pass that many cars, Turner responded in typical fashion, Wood said. “He said, ‘well there was still some asphalt there, and there was plenty of grass.'”
At Charlotte, a rough racing surface led to the seat brace cracking one of Turner’s ribs. For the race at Rockingham, Leonard Wood fabricated a special padded brace that let Turner’s shoulder absorb much of the punishment.
The Woods went with the harder of the two tire compounds offered for that race, but still Turner qualified fourth behind pole-sitter Richard Petty.
The race turned out to be a test of man and machine, 500 miles on the one-mile track, a race that took nearly five hours to run.
During the mid-portion of the event, Marvin Panch in the Woods’ familiar No. 21 and Turner in the No. 41, held down the first and second positions.
But in the end, it boiled down to a classic battle between the aging Turner and the 26-year-old Cale Yarborough.
Many figured Turner would wear out when it counted, especially those who saw him napping on the decklid of the car during pre-race practice, recovering from a long night of partying.
Those skeptics underestimated the wily veteran.
Turner was able to build a healthy lead, and it looked like he would easily beat Yarborough. But grit from the new surface at Rockingham got under the hood and began eating away at Turner’s fanbelt.
With the fanbelt slipping and his engine overheating, Turner had to back off his pace.
“It looked like Cale was catching him, but really it was just Curtis feathering the car to take care of the engine,” Leonard Wood recalled. “Curtis was in full control. He hadn’t lost a thing during his time away from NASCAR.”
Despite Turner’s triumph at Rockingham, his NASCAR career never really got restarted.
Ford pulled back it support of NASCAR in 1966, and although Turner continued to race occasionally, he never won again.
“He was fully capable,” Leonard Wood said. “He just didn’t have the right situation or the right set-up.”
Turner, who died in a plane crash in 1970, was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2016, joining a cast of the sport’s legends including Glen Wood, who was inducted in 2012 and Leonard Wood, who was inducted in 2013.