While the fierce loyalty of stock car racing’s estimated 75 million fans may explain their acquiescence to NASCAR’s sanitized version of the sport’s colorful history, the dead-heat publication of admiring but honest biographies of driving legends Glenn “Fireball” Roberts and Curtis Turner represent an overdue literary acknowledgement of the stockers’ frequently tragic legacy and its cultural significance.
These biographies examine the short, high-speed lives of the two marquee performers of NASCAR’s formative years. Together, the books shed light upon the young racing organization’s growing pains that led to today’s sporting juggernaut, and by extension on the South in the 50s and 60s. Inevitably, the sense that NASCAR grew in eerie parallel with the progress of the integration struggle and may have been profoundly affected by it cannot be escaped.
The notion that stock car racing grew out of the bootlegging industry in the Piedmont hills stretching from Virginia to Alabama and spiritually centered in Charlotte, North Carolina is half true. NASCAR was founded in Daytona Beach, Florida, where sanctioned auto racing and record-breaking had been an annual event since 1903. The majority of stock car drivers came from the moonshining routes, but the organizing scruples and governing vision descended from Daytona’s devout racing heritage.
Daytona native Roberts and Virginian Turner, fearless competitors on the track and fishing buddies off it, were the yin and yang of this geographic rivalry, even to the point of both being tragically undone by it. Roberts, a talented engineering student and exceptional athlete was famed for his surgical high-speed ability to cut cleanly through the pack and leave it laps behind. He professionally managed his public reputation as Fireball, separating it strictly from his reserved private life, where he was known as Glenn. His erudition before the camera and his electrifying wheelmanship on the paved mile-or-longer super-speedways made him the handsome face of NASCAR as the television era dawned.
Turner delighted in the close-quartered door-banging that thrilled the crowd. In addition to racing, he simultaneously applied boundless exuberance and enterprising intelligence to juggle bootlegging, timbering, racetrack building and partying. Gifted with imperturbable confidence and astonishing skill, distinguishable activities were not the gauge of Turner’s life so much as each waking moment’s opportunity for spectacular success or flamboyant failure. His hard-charging, high-living reputation made him a rogue hero.
The regional struggle came to a head when Turner built the Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1960 in defiance of Daytona’s expanding influence. Poor planning forced him into a desperate partnership with Jimmy Hoffa’s Teamsters Union, leading to Turner’s financial downfall, his banishment from NASCAR in 1961, and the final ascendancy of the Daytonans.
The scandal sucked the NASCAR rivalry into the broader sociopolitical cauldron of the time in conjunction with other external forces that were exploiting its success. Detroit imposed its “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday” commercialism, and the media fed on the spectacle of colorful cars trading paint at outrageous speeds. The market-driven development of engine power outpaced progress in aerodynamics knowledge, safety theory and tire construction, opening a technological gap that grew exponentially as straightaway velocities reached airspeed.
Turner’s ouster from NASCAR probably spared his life as stock car racing entered its most dangerous era. “Daytona Flyer” Roberts broke record after record, so that by 1964, Charlotte was the only superspeedway he had not conquered. But having found the love of his life, the risk became unacceptable, and the Charlotte 1964 World 600 was to be the last race he would run before marrying and retiring. He insinuated to fellow racers that his heart was no longer in it, but his regal responsibility as the Superspeedway King set him on the grid this one last time. “The fans expect me to race,” is what he told fellow driver Ned Jarrett the night before the race.
The fiery Charlotte wreck that led to Roberts’s death shocked the contemporary NASCAR world as did the loss of Dale Earnhardt in 2001. Three other NASCAR drivers also lost their lives in 1964, the most dreadful year in the sport’s history.
Roberts’s devotion to his fans seems quaint, but his connection with his adoring public was both more intimate and more imperative than is expected of today’s athletes. Until the Braves came to Atlanta in 1966, the South was essentially a stocking pond for the northern professional game leagues. Many southerners had even turned away from baseball after the color barrier fell. NASCAR arrived just in time to establish stock car racing as Dixie’s own pastime with home-grown heroes.
Heroes, of course, don’t arise in ordinary times, but rather when heroism is needed. The South was in turmoil over integration and stock car racing provided a weekly cathartic release for the working-class audience. Feeling politically powerless in the face of change, the white South erected the daredevil drivers as gratuitous symbols of fearless determination. As integration advanced in the face of increasing reactionary violence, NASCAR fans goaded their heroes to defy death by ever-slimmer margins; the greater the danger, the better. Throwing bottles onto the track became common.
Roberts’s death led to major revisions in NASCAR’s engineering and safety codes. Sadly, many of those improvements had been developed before his accident but went unapproved as contrary to the “strictly stock” spirit of the rules. The loss of its superstar also led NASCAR to reinstate Turner, who returned impactfully in 1966. But with his on-track rival tragically absent, NASCAR grown out of its adolescence and southern society coming to grips with integration, Turner was anachronistic beside the genial new racing stars a generation removed from Prohibition, beach racing and Jim Crow.
Turner died while piloting his twin-engined airplane in 1970. He was widely mourned with the pervasive caveat that he was lucky to have lived so long. In 1971, Winston cigarettes became NASCAR’s league sponsor, heralding the start of stock car racing’s “modern era.” One wonders if such a self-satisfying transformation would have happened if Roberts and Turner had lived to become grand old men of the game. Similar in their admirable portions of talent and charisma, divergent in how they chose to apply them, and at any rate at the mercy of the Furies they courted, Roberts and Turner filled operatic roles for a besieged culture at odds with itself. NASCAR is the richer for their stories being told.