Smith had similar dreams. Even as a very young man, he successfully challenged France’s domination of stock-car racing in the region through his Charlotte-area promotions under the rival NSCRA umbrella. The NSCRA gave NASCAR and France serious competition — especially in Georgia, South Carolina and the Charlotte area — in the late ’40s and early ’50s until the Army drafted Smith during the Korean War. By the time Smith returned from the service, France had effectively broken the NSCRA, and the competing series had gone out of business, with the tracks that hosted its races and the vast majority of its star drivers now in the NASCAR camp. Smith began promoting races in the Charlotte area under the NASCAR umbrella with a good bit of success. However, he also saw himself as a peer of France’s, and the construction of a major speedway in Charlotte would prove his bona fides as a major player in the sport.
Although Turner and Smith had grandiose visions for what their projects could do for their sport, for the Charlotte area and for themselves, they had much more in the way of dreams and pure chutzpah than they had in capital and other resources required to complete such a project. As Turner biographer Robert Edelstein observed, both Turner and Smith were “playing poker with less-than-stellar hands.” Both soon realized that the odds of success for their individual projects were much lower than if they partnered. While neither cared to share the limelight with the other, they decided to pair up and focus their efforts on a tract of land to the northeast of Charlotte just over the line in Cabarrus County.
Turner and Smith began a frantic chase for money to finance the project in the summer and fall of 1959 as the duo announced that they would hold the first race at the track — an unprecedented 600-miler — the same day as the Indianapolis 500 in 1960: Sunday, May 29. Both hit the road selling stock in their corporation, “literally,” as Humpy Wheeler recalled, “out of the trunks of their cars for $1 each.” The corporation also made commercials and sent out mailings advertising its stock. The mailings in particular drew the attention of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Turner also sold several tracts of timber to finance construction and, ever the creative and outlandish businessman, even pursued schemes to commercially produce rockets to send satellites into space and explored the possibility of selling advertising on the margins of U.S. currency.
Problems arose almost as soon as construction began in late 1959. One of the wettest on record, the winter of 1959-60 turned the site into a sea of mud and considerably slowed construction. The biggest setback came, however, when what the core-drill report termed as scattered “boulders” turned out to be “half a million yards of solid granite.” Immediately, the cost of excavating the site rose from 18 cents a yard to $1.00 a yard, “TNT not included.” “If they’d searched North Carolina for the worst possible place to build a racetrack,” mechanic Smokey Yunick recalled, “that’s where they built it.”
At this point, however, they had put too much money and prestige on the line to turn back. While Smith tried to keep the contractors moving — often with empty promises that they would be paid soon — Turner flew around the country calling in favors, selling stock and timberland and trying to get loans. As Edelstein observed, Turner began “a unique practice of exhausting desperation: He’ll write paychecks on a Friday evening and then spend the weekend in a mad flying rush around the country, collecting money to cover checks and be at the bank the moment it opens Monday morning.” At one point as the race date approached, contractors threatened to cease work until Turner and Smith paid their debts. Turner flew to Memphis, where he got a “Mafia guy” to give him a “phony cashier’s check” made out to Turner for $250,000 and drawn on the fictitious “Bank of New York.” “It was a nice lookin’ check,” Turner recalled. Turner took the check to a meeting with contractors, allowed them to examine it, but told them that he would not pay them until they completed their work. The ruse worked, and the contractors resumed operations. The delays did force Turner and Smith to ask NASCAR to move the date of the race to June 19, but it looked as if their gambles might pay off.
However, one week before scheduled qualifying runs, excavation contractor Owen Flowe threatened to shut down the entire operation. He had his men move heavy equipment onto the track, blocking paving of the last section, and refused to move it unless Turner and Smith paid $600,000 owed to his company. A phony cashier’s check would not do the trick this time, and Turner and Smith did not have the money; they had even struggled to come up with money to place in escrow to guarantee the $106,775 purse, a NASCAR requirement. In the most audacious, and most dangerous, of their gambles yet — one right out of stock-car racing’s wild and woolly bootlegger past — Turner, his brother Darnell, Smith, Acey Janey and driver Bob Welborn confronted Flowe and his workers armed with shotguns. While Turner and Smith held the men at bay, Darnell and Janey hot-wired a Caterpillar tractor, and Welborn used it to push the equipment off the track. They set up lights and an armed guard for the night to prevent further sabotage, and the next morning contractors completed the paving.
While the track was ready for racing, Bill France threatened to pull the plug unless Turner and Smith came up with the remaining $75,000 in prize money for the escrow account. Turner flew to Lynchburg, Va., where he persuaded a banker friend to lend him the money on a three-day note “guaranteed against gate receipts,” and Turner and Smith turned over a check for the NASCAR-record purse to Pat Purcell on the Thursday before the Sunday race. NASCAR officials rushed the check to the bank to make sure it cleared before the race.
As drivers began to test their cars in preparation for the Thursday, June 16, qualifying runs, the track began to come up in large chunks — particularly in the 24-degree banked turns — a result of both the haste in finishing it and attempts at cutting costs. Reporter George Cunningham of The Charlotte Observer argued that after Wednesday practice the track “looked like a post-invasion Okinawa.” Turner’s buddy Joe Weatherly weighed in with his tongue-in-cheek assessment that the track was “just like the guy who built it [Turner], rough as hell.” After qualifying, Tom Pistone observed cynically, “The people want blood, and I’m afraid we’ll give it to them on Sunday.” The pole-winning qualifying run by Fireball Roberts at better than 134 mph, however, helped build excitement for the coming race. Turner qualified third in a Holman-Moody Ford and desperately hoped to win the race, not only for the publicity it would generate but also for the prize money he could recoup and pay to creditors. More bad news came on Friday’s second round of qualifying when “at least 20 cars had windshields shattered by flying rock from holes in the track.” Drivers and reporters speculated that the race would never go the announced 600 miles. Buck Baker observed, “The places that have been weak are getting worse. I think we’ll be real lucky to get in 300 miles Sunday.” Possum Jones — who hit one of the track’s holes and bent a sway bar designed for a 2-ton truck — predicted that if it did go 600 miles “the winning speed won’t be 100 miles an hour. They’ll be plenty of action, though, with 55 cars trying to dodge holes and win a race at the same time. Gosh, if I’d known all this I’d built my car for dirt instead of asphalt.”
Despite all the obstacles, the race went on as scheduled. In preparation for the track conditions, drivers tried to do whatever they could to protect their windshields and radiators from debris. Cunningham reported, “Mechanics were busy installing added safety precautions on all cars to guard against the expected flying rocks which are anticipated from track holes. Shields were mounted on the hoods to deflect rocks from the windshields, fender flaps were installed behind rear wheels and wire screens were put over the grill work to protect the radiator and motor.” Lee Petty cracked, “Most of the cars looked like army tanks.” On another front, Turner had to post a $20,000 bond in a local court to hold off an attachment order placed on the property two days before the race by an advertising agency that claimed the speedway owed it $10,000. On the day of the race, the headline of the lead story in The Charlotte Observer sports section read, “600 Reality Today, If Track Holds.”
The adverse publicity, however, did not seem to deter fans as they jammed Highway 29 in both directions Sunday morning. Although the numbers did not reach the predictions of promoters — 80,000-100,000 — or even the announced numbers of 78,000 by one account and 60,000 in another given out by Turner and Smith, probably 35,000 showed up, enough paying customers to at least satisfy the most immediate demands of creditors. Turner stuffed $75,000 from gate receipts into a milk can and had an aide fly it to Lynchburg the next morning to pay off the bank loan he had secured for the purse escrow account.
The race itself was not the classic that Turner and Smith hoped would secure their and the track’s future, though fans who loved to see crashes had their fill. As many had predicted, the race turned into a virtual “demolition derby” or “obstacle course race” — both descriptions used by the Observer in headlines. Fortunately, none of the accidents involved serious injury, and the race did not turn into the bloodbath predicted by Pistone. Johnny Wolford lost control on the 10th lap and caused a three-car pileup involving Cotton Owens and Johnny Allen. Polesitter Fireball Roberts led much of the early going but lost a wheel, hit the fourth-turn guardrail and slid into the infield. Pistone led a number of laps but retired with a broken axle. It looked as if veteran Jack Smith would cruise to victory, as he led by five laps with only 48 to go. However, a large chunk of pavement knocked a hole in his gas tank, handing the lead to journeyman Joe Lee Johnson, who won by four laps. Only 23 of the 60 cars that started made it to the finish line.
The aftermath proved almost as ugly as the race itself. In a bizarre move even for NASCAR, officials disqualified Richard and Lee Petty, Bob Welborn, Junior Johnson, Paul Lewis and Al White for making “an illegal pit entry” by cutting across the infield. The disqualification cost the Pettys more than $6,000 and dropped them from first and second in the point standings to fourth and fifth. Bruton Smith decried the decision, particularly since the infractions occurred early in the race and NASCAR had black-flagged none of the alleged violators. “We at the Speedway think it is ridiculous to disqualify a man for such a minor thing.”
Press reports of a “near-riot involving an estimated 6,000 surging, yelling spectators” at 3 a.m. in the infield the night before the race did not help with Turner and Smith’s public-relations problems, especially when the incident involved the arrest of two teenage girls, a “negro band,” rocks thrown through a police cruiser’s windshield and threats by police to use tear-gas bombs. The news of the goings-on seemed especially ironic at a time when the Observer featured daily front-page accounts of local evangelist Billy Graham’s Washington, D.C., crusade, where he preached, “We Americans have committed every sin in the book and broken every commandment of God.” Indeed, if Charlotte’s respectable sorts were not convinced of the truth of Graham’s statement, they only had to look to their new local speedway to witness the breaking of probably nine of 10 of those commandments — there were no reported murders.
The Turner-Smith era at the speedway lasted for only two more races, the National 400 held in October 1960 and the second World 600 in May 1961. Both races were a relative “parade of blowouts and crack-ups,” with only 25 of 50 cars finishing the October race and 25 of 55 finishing in May. The National 400 featured a near fatal accident when Don O’Dell suffered a puncture wound in the neck when his Pontiac hit Lennie Page’s spinning Ford. Fortunately for O’Dell, Chris Economaki was taking pictures for National Speed Sport News near the scene of the accident; he rushed to the car and used his shirt to apply direct pressure to the wound until an ambulance arrived. Richard “Reds” Kagle was not so fortunate in the World 600. His car hit a guardrail that had been improperly installed. When the guardrail sheared off, it cut into the car, causing severe damage to Kagle’s left leg, which surgeons later amputated.
Even though the track earned close to $400,000 with the second World 600 and its preliminary events, the speedway still owed more than $800,000 to creditors, who became increasingly impatient. Businessmen James McIlvaine and Henry Morgan, who held a second mortgage on the property, threatened to foreclose on the track and put it up for auction unless Turner and Smith resigned and the board of directors put new management in place. After several days of behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing — with differing accounts and competing allegations from Turner and Smith allies still flying around — the board fired Turner as president in a 4-3 vote. It retained Smith as director of promotions, but he lost his position and seat on the board when the track filed Chapter 10 bankruptcy.
Determined to regain control of the speedway at all costs, Turner made his riskiest bet yet: He tried to organize NASCAR drivers under the Teamsters Union. William Rabin, an accountant and lawyer hired to handle financial affairs for the speedway, had introduced him to union officials. Rabin had a number of wealthy and influential friends and clients, including Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa. Prior to Turner’s ouster, Rabin and Teamsters Vice President Harold Gibbons offered him an $800,000 loan if he agreed to lead an effort to unionize drivers. Turner refused, but after losing his position, he called Gibbons to see if the deal was still good. Gibbons put him together with Teamsters organizer Nick Torzeski, who headed an effort to organize professional athletes under the affiliated Federation of Professional Athletes. NASCAR drivers would be the first major group brought under their umbrella, or so the Teamsters hoped.
Turner had a fertile field in which to sow the idea, as NASCAR drivers had plenty of complaints. France’s dictatorial powers and the seeming capriciousness of many of his decisions topped the list. Few drivers had not experienced some sort of penalty from NASCAR, with the catch-all charge of “actions detrimental to auto racing” frequently coming into play to cover any penalty NASCAR and France wanted to assess. In a 1959 Charlotte News article on France’s unquestioned power within NASCAR, reporter Max Muhleman quipped that since deposed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista had moved nearby, “now there are two dictators in Daytona Beach.” France seemed intent on demonstrating the accuracy of Muhleman’s assessment when he flew his airplane to Charlotte and unsuccessfully attempted to convince the editor of the News to fire the reporter.
The rising expenses of racing and the lack of correlation between gate receipts and race purses also drew the ire of drivers. As NASCAR Grand National racing grew in popularity and with the withdrawal of the factories — at least from open sponsorship — racing became more expensive for drivers and owners. “Ten years ago, NASCAR was paying $4,000 purses for 100-mile races,” Turner complained. “Then it cost $3,000 to build an automobile. Today, NASCAR is still paying $4,000 purses for 100-mile races. But it costs $6,000 or $7,000 to build a first-class automobile.” Observer reporter George Cunningham estimated that a 1961 race at Bristol, Tenn., attracted 25,000 fans who paid on average $8 a ticket to produce gross revenue of $200,000. “Forty-two drivers divided a purse of $15,000, which included about $4,000 put up by manufacturers.” The industry standard in auto racing had long been that the purse should comprise 40% of the gate. When Marshall Teague as NASCAR’s first secretary and treasurer tried to get the sanctioning body to meet the standard, France suspended him from racing and relieved him of his position. “We weren’t making no money,” Tim Flock observed. “We were only getting a thousand dollars for first place in most races. They were probably paying about 7% of the gross.”
Drivers also became increasingly troubled about inadequate insurance coverage, especially given the inherent danger of the sport. When Bobby Myers crashed head-on into Fonty Flock’s stalled car at the Southern 500 at Darlington in 1957, he had little to show for his long career as a NASCAR driver. “When my dad died, he didn’t have any insurance, didn’t have anything,” his son recalled. “I can remember someone bringing a bucket of change into the house. NASCAR gave us whatever they could collect in a five-gallon bucket. So the day after my dad got killed, we moved in with my grandmother and lived there.”
Poor track conditions concerned many drivers. Ned Jarrett noted that “the promoters made very little effort towards the care of the tracks.” Dirt tracks often had huge holes, mud and blinding dust. “Dust … was our worst problem, in one form or another.” Richard Petty recalled, “When a race started, there was always mud, because they had just watered the track down. You’d have to reach outside the car and try to wipe it off the windshield. Then by the time you’d run 50 laps, it got so dusty you couldn’t see a thing. There was as much dust on the inside of the windshield as there was the outside, so you had to wipe off on both sides. You finally just had to take your goggles off, because the dust would get on the inside, and you’d sweat and that turned it to mud. My eyes were as red as the clay for two days after a race.” Drivers fared little better on many of the paved tracks, as the first World 600 and the ongoing problems with the Charlotte track proved, although Curtis Turner could not exactly complain about that.
When he first approached drivers about joining in August 1961, he found an eager and willing audience. He told his fellow competitors that union membership would bring higher purses, “a pension plan, death benefits, health and welfare benefits, a scholarship fund for children of deceased members, strong and meaningful complaint procedures and assurance of adequate safety conditions.” Within weeks the top drivers in NASCAR — including Fireball Roberts, Tim Flock, Ned Jarrett, Junior Johnson, Glen Wood, and Rex White — signed union cards. “The way Turner explained it to me, it sounds like a good deal for drivers, car owners and racing in general,” Wood told a reporter. “It will only cost me $10 to find out. I have been at races before when drivers would want to strike because of a low purse and a large crowd.” The only major holdouts were three-time Grand National champion Lee Petty and his son, rising star Richard, primarily because of their antipathy for Turner, Lee Petty’s bitterest racetrack rival. Despite the unwillingness of the Pettys to join, the union movement appeared unstoppable.
Turner and the Teamsters, however, had underestimated the determination and force of personality that Bill France would bring to opposing the union and protecting the sanctioning body he had birthed, nurtured and owned. The Glen Woods of racing soon found out that union membership would cost them much more than $10. Although France had grown up in the Washington, D.C., suburbs and lived in Daytona Beach, Fla., in his years promoting races in the Piedmont South he had learned a great deal about control of labor from the region’s mill owners. Indeed, the NASCAR boss employed practically every tried and tested method of keeping unions out, from threats and intimidation, to “yellow dog” contracts, to accusations of communism, to blacklisting.
When Turner went public with the union, France immediately flew to Winston-Salem to confront drivers before the Aug. 9 race at Bowman Gray Stadium. During an hour-long meeting he announced, “Gentlemen, I won’t be dictated to by the union.” Before he had “this union stuffed down [his] throat,” he swore he would shut down all the tracks in which he had a direct interest, plow them up and plant corn. He also pledged that no known union member could work in his organization. “And if that isn’t tough enough, I’ll use a pistol to enforce it. I have a pistol, and I know how to use it. I’ve used it before.”
France banned union members from competing in the next scheduled Grand National race at Asheville-Weaverville Speedway. He pointed out the problems unionization would produce: “If you unionize, any support from the factories will be withdrawn. And all of you car owners if you hire a mechanic, as you will, then you’ll have to pay him time-and-a-half on Saturday and double time on Sunday.” He argued that drivers were not employees of NASCAR but “independent contractors” and therefore responsible for their insurance and pension. France defended his actions by arguing that banning the union was a safety measure: Union drivers might threaten nonunion drivers during a race, coercing them to join. “A Fireball Roberts or a Curtis Turner will drive alongside you on the track and say, ‘Hey, you signed up yet?’ I’m not going to allow that to happen. I’m protecting NASCAR drivers by not letting union members compete.” Finally, he dropped a bombshell when he revealed that Turner and the Teamsters planned to bring pari-mutuel betting to NASCAR racing. “As far as pari-mutuel betting is concerned, we know it won’t work with auto racing. Auto racing is a clean sport. We’ve never had a scandal. And I will fight any pari-mutuel attempt to the last tilt.”
According to Turner biographer Robert Edelstein, Turner and Tim Flock stood listening to France’s tirade outside an open window. At one point France averred that if a union was such a good thing then he’d join himself. Turner reportedly slid a union card through the window and said, “Here’s your application.” France shut and locked the window.
France offered drivers a chance to sign cards nullifying their union membership and proceeded to set up a special grievance board of drivers, promoters and car owners to deal with complaints. Almost all the drivers who had joined the union immediately pledged their allegiance to NASCAR and dropped out of the FPA. “I joined this union. And I’ve been thinking about it ever since,” mused 1960 Grand National champion Rex White at the time. “Drivers have legitimate beefs. And the drivers want a fair deal and more money. But let’s let this board France has appointed decide what’s good for racing, not some union.” When asked if his offer of amnesty applied to union officers Turner, Roberts and Flock, France replied, “Maybe. Just maybe. If they make an affidavit and swear on the Bible.”
France also launched a public offensive and issued a prepared statement that characterized his fight against the union as a defense of the nation and the Constitution. “A recent newspaper story suggests that I might be some rootin’, hootin’, shootin’ cuss, waving a pistol and itching to shoot up anyone who might disagree with me. Honest, I’m nothing like that. But I am an American who believes our constitution and our laws — and that bearing arms to repel invasion is a part of our great American Heritage.” To reporters, he clarified what he meant by repelling invasion: “I don’t think people realize the seriousness of this Teamsters move. There is only one promise I’ll make. And that is that I will always do everything I can to keep them from taking over the country. The ultimate aim of that man that’s heading the Teamsters [Jimmy Hoffa] is to control the country.”
In defense of the union movement, Roberts fired back: “Curtis and I fully realize just how far we have our necks stuck out. We know our careers in auto racing are at stake, but we’re not backing down. We’ve made no demands, made no moves other than to try and sign up drivers for the union. We must have grabbed Mr. France where it hurts, though, from all the things he’s said in the papers.” If drivers looked at how France tried to strong-arm the union leaders, Roberts continued, they would realize that their best interests lay in supporting the union. He argued further that affiliation with the Teamsters would give the FPA the leverage and backing needed to gain concessions from NASCAR that all the drivers agreed they needed.
France, however, marshaled his forces and overwhelmed the already weakened opposition. His longtime relationships with track owners — particularly those former bootleggers with whom he had built the sport — paid off as most jumped to his, and NASCAR’s, defense, both literally and figuratively. Clay Earles recalled a particularly tense period: “I went to every race … the Frances were afraid to go to the races. Back in that day the Teamsters Union had a real bad name. They had some rough people. And so I went to every race fully dressed [packing a gun] though they never did confront me.” Perhaps most important, Earles spoke on behalf of his fellow promoters to the drivers: “We cannot afford to run under a union. We can’t afford to have a race scheduled and have you people strike on us. That’s going to put us out of business. And if it puts me out of business, it puts you out of business.”
France traveled to Washington with Darlington track owner Bob Colvin and allegedly received assurances from an assistant attorney general that NASCAR was on solid legal footing. “Drivers are individual contractors according to the entry blanks they sign,” Colvin told reporters. “There is no form of union for individual contractors. We will have the FBI at Darlington for the Labor Day Southern 500. The law states that pickets, etc., for independent contractors are illegal and anyone participating in such or trying to stop the race will be liable for prosecution.” Colvin noted no irony in his and France’s desire to prevent union organizing at a Labor Day race.
The death knell for the movement sounded when Fireball Roberts succumbed to pressure, resigned as FPA president and severed ties with the union. The day after publicly defying France, he took a slow drive from Charlotte to Asheville, site of the next race. On the way, he made his decision: “My motives in the FPA were quite clear. I simply wanted to better the positions of race drivers, car owners, myself and racing in general. I can see now that by affiliating the FPA with the Teamsters that we could possibly accomplish more harm than good for racing. I feel if I do anything to hurt the least man in racing, I will be doing a disservice to my fellow drivers who have been my friends for 15 years. And I’ll have no part of it.” France welcomed his most popular star back into the fold: “I think in future years Fireball will regard this move as the best thing he ever did for sports in America.”
With Roberts’ defection, Turner and Flock stood alone against France. Turner’s gamble had failed, and as his biographer observed, he and Flock were “like the last two players in a round of poker that has become too rich for everybody else’s blood.” The NASCAR president banned both from NASCAR racing “for life.” They tried to hold out and filed a number of lawsuits against the organization, seeking injunctions to prevent their being blackballed. The courts dismissed all their petitions, and the ban stood. Bill France had won. Any factory owner could look with pride at the manner in which he defeated the union effort.
The race held at Asheville-Weaverville Speedway in the midst of the controversy demonstrated many of the problems drivers faced. Word of a possible confrontation between France and Turner attracted an unusually large crowd of more than 10,000. Though neither showed, the race generated a major confrontation of its own. About 60 laps into the 500-lap race, holes began to appear in Turn 4 of the recently paved track. “The holes soon became gaping monsters,” observed Asheville Citizen-Times reporter Bob Terrell. When Bunk Moore hit one on lap 208, bounced off the outside wall, careened into a temporary pit area, smashed through the pit wall, hit a pickup truck and injured a spectator in the process, officials threw the red flag, temporarily stopping the event. While track workers tried to sweep up debris and make repairs, Pat Purcell, executive manager of NASCAR, called all the drivers together. He informed them that because of track conditions the drivers would run only 50 more laps and left them with the reassuring thought: “I hope you can make it.” Officials failed to tell the spectators that they had shortened the race.
When the flagman threw the checkered flag at lap 258, pandemonium broke out. Four thousand enraged fans blocked the track exits to prevent the drivers from leaving. “I paid five bucks to see a 500-lap race. Somebody owes me some laps or some money,” one member of the mob demanded. “Fist fights broke out in the crowd,” Terrell observed. “Someone was thrown in the lake at the western end of the infield, and two persons who attempted to quiet the crowd were heaved bodily from the track over the pit wall.” Part of the mob hoisted a pickup truck and placed it across the exit road, trapping drivers and crews inside the track for 3 ½ hours. Sheriff’s deputies called to the scene failed to disperse the crowd. Finally, 6-foot-6, 285-pound Pop Eargle, a crew member for car owner Bud Moore, approached the ringleaders to get them to let the drivers go. When one of the leaders jabbed him in the stomach with a 2-by-4, “Eargle grabbed the big piece of wood and whacked the mobster in the head.” Shortly after this incident, the crowd allowed the drivers to leave. Local hospitals treated four individuals for injuries incurred in fights, and deputies arrested three members of the mob. As they finally headed for their homes, the drivers had to wonder whether they had not made a big mistake in failing to back the FPA.