The Roanoker - July/August 2020 - 11

NELSON HARRIS is a former mayor of Roanoke and author of a dozen books on
the region's history. He is the minister at Heights Community Church in Roanoke
and a past president of the Historical Society of Western Virginia.

COURTESY OF THE TURNER FAMILY

Pee Wee Martin of Bassett, Jimmy Lewallan of High
Point, Ted Swain of Winston-Salem and Gordon
Mangrum of Leaksville.
Those were just the ranked drivers, but Turner
outranked them and had the hometown advantage.
He won three out of four at Victory Stadium and on
the fourth race - the one he lost to Martin - he was
on a winning streak seeking his tenth consecutive
NASCAR victory.
The crowds that summer averaged around 5,000...
far more than had ever turned out for the midget cars.
But stock cars were backwater news. The Roanoke
Times gave far more press to the soap box derby in
South Roanoke with front page photos and multiple
articles preceding the Crystal Spring Avenue race
than was ever given to France and Turner. WDBJ and
WSLS had live radio broadcasts from the derby, but
were no-shows for the stadium stock car loops. Little
wonder as over 8,000 attended the derby that summer.
City council agreed to two more races at the stadium
for late August. Turner won both. The amateur events
seemed to provide the most entertainment. At the sixth
and final race of the summer the Times reported:
" Wrecks have been numerous at all of the races and last
night was not an exception. In fact the wreck of wrecks
took place in the f irst heat of the amateur events. Roy
Alman of Roanoke turned in the No 1 'loop-de-loop' of the
year when he hit a fence in the northwest turn and rolled
his car over four times only to land on the wheels directly
in front of the west side stands some f ifty yards from where
he made contact with the railing. "

TheRoanoker.com

The wrecks, the concessions, and the crowds gave
the city council the one thing they needed to tolerate
stock car racing - money. France and Turner worked
with city officials and gained a few more years of
NASCAR racing on the stadium's oval asphalt track.
Eventually NASCAR grew beyond what the
stadium could provide and eliminated it from the
circuit. Turner, however, remained based in Roanoke.
He and his wife had a home on Laban Road in north
Roanoke County, so Turner could view something else
he liked as much as cars - airplanes. From his front
yard he had an expansive view of the air activity at
Woodrum Field. His passion for flying proved fatal
in October 1970 as Turner died in a crash with his
Aero Commander over Pennsylvania. Twelve minutes
after taking off from DuBois Airport, headed home to
Roanoke, the left engine stalled. Unable to restart it,
the plane banked and plummeted into a hillside.
Turner's funeral at Oakland Baptist Church included
his good friend France. He was interred at Blue Ridge
Gardens on Airport Road to forever rest beneath the
sounds of airplanes. His six-foot long, bronze marker
declared him the " Babe Ruth of Stock Car Racing. "
One wonders what went through France's mind as
he saw Turner laid to rest, and if he thought back to
that city council meeting where he and Turner had
to do a hard-sell on a sport with bootlegging roots.
France and Turner brought stock car racing to
Victory Stadium in 1950 and with it a summer of
loud exhausts, modified cars and high speed dreams.

ABOVE:
Curtis Turner in his home
surrounded by his many
racing trophies.

-NELSON HARRIS

	
JULY/AUGUST 2020 11


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The Roanoker - July/August 2020

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The Roanoker - July/August 2020 - Cover3
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