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Speedway project provided a wild ride

Charlotte Motor Speedway's first race was rocky, rowdy and so full of historic characters that David Poole wanted us to remember it.

- pstonge@charlotteobserver.com
Sunday, May. 24, 2009

The story begins the way a good stock-car racing story should – with a duel.

This one involves press conferences, two of them on the same spring day 50 years ago. Each is covered by a different Charlotte newspaper. Each brings news of the first asphalt superspeedway for our growing region.

One, announced by driver and magazine cover boy Curtis Turner, is a 1.5-mile oval on N.C. 49 that would seat 45,000 and cost $750,000. The other, announced by a young dirt track promoter named Bruton Smith, is bigger – a two-mile, $2 million track in Pineville that would seat 75,000 and include a football field.

Neither promoter, as it turns out, has the money to build his track. Both will grudgingly realize they need each other – especially in the year that follows, when the building of Charlotte's big speedway will endure three snowstorms, a stubborn slab of granite and, perhaps not at all surprisingly, a little gunplay. It is the story of how NASCAR was built here, not with grandeur but by ordinary men with ordinary goals – to make something a little faster, a little bigger, a little more profitable. And all of it comes with one question:

How would David Poole have told it?

He was reporting on this – his next big feature story – in the weeks before he died of a heart attack April 28 at his Stanly County home. David was excited about the story behind his home speedway's birth, had wanted to tell it for years. Now it exists in stacks of notes fetched from his laptop.

There are interviews and timelines, statistics and recollections. The storyteller in him surely had some choices to make. Every good story, as David well knew, is an answer to a parade of questions – what quotes to sprinkle in, what details to sift out. And always, the most important to ask: Why tell this story?

The easy answer? David loved history. Sometimes, when he went to races at the Poconos, he slipped away from the track to find Civil War battlefields to walk. But anyone who read David, or listened to him on radio, or sat within a five-chair radius of him, knows that he rarely settled for the easy answer.

In the first sentence of his first column as the Observer's racing writer 12 years ago, David bluntly informed readers that he didn't like the term “motorsports.” NASCAR, he explained, has always been about the people who put those motors in the car, the people who tamed those motors on the track.

He often came back to them in his stories, and some of his finest writing was about them. Maybe that was because he recognized their story most – country kids doing something they loved, chasing an adventure before anyone knew how big the dream could be.

A tale of 2 builders

So this is how we begin David's story, with people, the two people who built Charlotte Motor Speedway.

One was Bruton Smith, just 32, brash then but not yet the towering figure he would become. He was a tireless worker, one of the best dirt track promoters of his day. He drove a little himself before his mom prayed him out of it, but he was no softie – at a stocky 5 feet 10 inches tall, he was unafraid to stand up to the roughneck drivers of the day.

Then there was Curtis Turner – “a movie that was never made,” said former Lowe's Motor Speedway president Humpy Wheeler. Turner was handsome, charming and, some thought, the best driver they'd ever seen. He was the Kyle Busch of the 1950s, running full out as often as he could – except back then, remembers Wheeler, the cars couldn't handle that kind of insult. He also was a restless soul, always off on his plane or in his black Cadillac to pursue some venture. Most in the racing business mistakenly thought he was rich.

Turner sometimes ran in dirt races Smith promoted at the Charlotte Fairgrounds before crowds of 1,500 or so. They didn't care much for each other, say people who knew them. Things didn't get cozier when the idea for a Charlotte superspeedway took root.

“I started the whole thing,” said Smith, in an interview last week. “You go back to 1956, I talked to Probst Construction in Concord. They wanted to partner with me and build a speedway. I'd already been working on it, but that really lit my fire.”

“Curtis was the guy who started on the idea of a speedway on 29 outside the county line,” said Max Muhleman, then a writer with the Charlotte News and later a sports marketer here. “I would go out there with him during the conceptual stages.”

Before Charlotte, there were two asphalt superspeedways. Darlington, which opened in 1950, was the first. Daytona, which opened nine years later and could hold more than 40,000 paying fans, brought racing's version of stadium envy – suddenly, everyone had to have one.

As Daytona was readying for its 1959 opening, Smith approached Turner about doing the same in Charlotte. “He said, ‘Let's do it,'” Smith remembers. “Financing? No problem, no problem. With Curtis, anything was no problem when he was talking to you.”

But Turner, apparently, had already nodded yes to a group of other partners, including Darlington Speedway's Harold Brasington. On April 22, 1959, Turner held a news conference to announce the Charlotte Motor Speedway – “some stupid track,” Smith now says.

Smith called his own press conference later the same day. His Charlotte International Speedway would be bigger and better, and Smith flashed what he swears now is an architect's rendering of the project. Muhleman thought then that the drawings looked suspiciously like the Daytona Speedway.

Charlotte's media had a good chuckle at the dueling proposals. In that year's difficult economy, building one track was near impossible, let alone two. Smith and Turner knew this, too. Within two months, they decided to work together.

“Curtis was the magnetic CEO type,” said Robert Edelstein, the New Jersey-based author of “Full Throttle,” a Turner biography. “He would fly in, give a big smile, bring a bunch of money from some timber deal, and fly back off in search of other possible sources of capital.”

Bruton was the de facto chief operating officer, there for the day-to-day details and the grind-it-out fundraising. At one point when money was tight, he drove across the Carolinas, selling stock for the track at $1 per share. He raised $406,000.

On July 29, 1959, the pair broke ground on a patch of land just north of the Mecklenburg County line. It was a speedway that would rival Daytona, they said. Problem was, Daytona had taken more than three years to plan and 15 months to build. Bruton and Curtis wanted their first race in May 1960, just 10 months away.

Remembering the people

About a week before David Poole died, he sat at speedway-area restaurant with three former racing writers – Tom Higgins and Bob Moore of the Observer and Bob Myers of the News. They were the Mount Rushmore of N.C. racing journalists; Higgins and Poole alone covered the Observer's NASCAR beat for the past 47 years.

The gathering was supposed to be a lunchtime thing, but the afternoon slid past 3 o'clock before the men began to think about pushing away from the table. They talked some about the usual NASCAR topics – best drivers, best races. Mostly, they talked about the people – the good guys and the characters and the tales that'll never find their way into a family newspaper. “Those people always fascinated me,” said Higgins, “and they did David, too.”

Perhaps that's because David remained very much like them – easy to reach, quick to speak his mind, unafraid to offer a peek at his heart. He was, in his columns and radio work, a very intentional bridge between today and the NASCAR he grew up with.

It was a sport often frowned upon in more polite circles in those early years, with brawls in the bleachers often rivaling wrecks on the dirt. “You sure as heck didn't let your kid go to a stock car race,” remembers Wheeler. “It just wasn't the thing to do.”

But racing was, if anything, accessible. Mill folks couldn't afford much, but you could go to the junkyard for a '48 Mercury flathead engine and a Lincoln radiator, and if you could weld a decent roll cage, you'd have yourself a race car for $150.

Those cars raised dust at places like the Charlotte Fairgrounds, or Rock Hill Fairgrounds, or Robinwood in Gastonia where David Poole grew up. It was a time where most anyone could plow a field and have themselves a dirt track. At least two believed they could build themselves a fine asphalt superspeedway in about eight months.

They couldn't, of course.

Charlotte Motor Speedway's first big speed bump showed up quickly, as workers discovered large slabs of granite not far under the soil. As the late, legendary engine builder Smokey Yunick later said: “Bruton and Curtis made a giant mistake. If they'd have searched North Carolina for the worst possible place to build a racetrack, that's where they built it.”

Contractor W. Owen Flowe, upon finding the granite, decided on explosives as the solution. Each day at noon, they'd shake some granite up with a blast, often aided with some fertilizer to increase the bang. “We started drawing crowds every day to witness the blast,” Smith said. “You'd think a minute after the blast, everything would be fine. About two minutes after the blast, this rock about twice the size of your fist came back down … That would have killed somebody.”

The blasting caused such delay that by January, crews were hired and lights erected for round-the-clock construction shifts. In March, an 11-inch snowstorm put the brakes on work. Two more snowstorms blew in during the next two weeks. It was, says Edelstein, “almost biblical.”

Smith, who was at the track most every day, blames Turner for some of the delay. “He caused me a lot of problems because I was having to put out fires all the time,” Smith said. “He'd be out drinking, and he'd hire somebody to come and work at the speedway. They'd show up and I'd have to explain to them, you don't have a job and please go away.”

Said Edelstein of Turner, who died in a plane crash in 1970: “Curtis may have been, at times, an absentee father of the speedway, but I don't think he loved anyone or anything more in his entire life. And he did work on it.”

The delays contributed to an already swollen bottom line – close to $2 million in costs instead of the planned $750,000.

That's what led to the gunplay.

Let's go to David's notes:

“Contractor W. Owen Flowe, in an effort to collect money he believes he is owed, orders his crews to halt work immediately. He places bulldozers and earth-movers on the last short strip of the track surface that remained unpaved and his operators stay on their machines, refusing to move. Turner and Smith brandish weapons and force the machine operators to leave. The bulldozers are hot-wired and moved out of the way, and the paving is completed.”

Did it happen?

Smith says no. Well, sort of no. Turner did have a shotgun, he remembers. “He went over there, acting like he was somebody. A guard went up to him and took it away from him.”

The Charlotte Observer reported it a bit differently on June 10, 1960, quoting Flowe as saying Turner, Smith and a group of men held guns on his watchmen. “I told my men to go on home and not get killed,” Flowe said to the Observer.

The men left the track, and the paving was completed.

Smith will say this now: “I thought it was really great.”

The race

A moment for contradiction, please.

What drove David Poole most batty on his beat – NASCAR's situational governing, the molding of rules to the moment – is part of what charmed him about racing's early days. Haphazardness, as much as NASCAR tries to avoid it now, is the trait that links it most to its past.

That might never be more true than with Charlotte's first race. Scheduled for Memorial Day 1960, the World 600 was postponed to June 19 because of construction delays. Even that wasn't enough time for the proper curing of the asphalt, which was poured only about a month before the new race date. At the first race practice, on June 15, it was clear that everyone was in for an adventure.

“Four gravel-deep holes grew out of the asphalt in the groove on the second turn,” wrote the Observer's George Cunningham, who added: “Practically the entire surface on the third and fourth turns resembled an old lady's wrinkled face.”

On Race Thursday, June 16, Fireball Roberts took the pole with a speed of 133.904 mph, and drivers fretted about the cratering pavement beneath them. “The people want blood and I'm afraid we'll give it to them,” said “Tiger” Tom Pistone.

On Race Saturday, June 18, drivers were told they could install wire screens over the grills to protect radiators from the inevitability of flying pavement.

Finally, on Race Day, workers hustled to put up the final 400 feet of fence on the back of the track. Bruton Smith wished for the 600 to last at least 300, so he wouldn't have to give customers their money back. Also, he remembers: “I really wanted it to be something.”

It was. Tires blew frequently in the 60-car field. Fireball Roberts spun out twice. Junior Johnson tore up the homestretch fence. “I'd say there was a chunk of asphalt that weighed 5-10 pounds that hit my windshield,” Johnson remembers. “Nobody knew if they'd run the race to the end.”

Jack Smith led much of the race in his 1960 Pontiac, but his five-lap lead was erased when a chunk of track put an irreparable hole in his gas tank. Joe Lee Johnson, a 30-year-old mechanic who lived most of his life in Spartanburg, took over first for his only superspeedway win in a 7-year career. He collected $27,330.

“There were some mangled automobiles, some snorting drivers, some tears, but no blood,” wrote the Observer's Herman Helms. “Miraculously, there was no blood.”

There were, however, 20,000 cars, an estimated 60,000 fans, all going to the same place. “No one had seen anything like it,” Wheeler remembers. The story of Charlotte Motor Speedway had begun, and the story of racing was changing.

Bruton Smith would lose control of the track, then eventually get it back. Curtis Turner would get voted off the speedway's board and get kicked out of NASCAR for trying to form a union. The track itself would get saved in the 1960s by investor Richard Howard, then endure the thin years of the 1970s, then come roaring back as Lowe's Motor Speedway. David Poole would graduate from UNC, get his first newspaper job in Gastonia, then eventually come to Charlotte, where he spent 12 loud years as the Observer's racing voice.

About a month ago, David called Rob Edelstein about Charlotte Motor Speedway. Edelstein considered David a mentor, and they shared a mutual worry about NASCAR – that in the sport's perpetual search for growth, something important was getting lost. NASCAR, David believed, always was and always should be about regular folks driving cars fast – and regular folks watching them.

“For them,” David once wrote, “racing is one of their celebrations of life.”

And so he began to report the story of Charlotte Motor Speedway, because the beginning matters, and maybe because it was the beginning of his story, too.

On Thursday, 49 years after the first big race and three days before this next one, track officials and journalists gathered in the infield media center at Lowe's. There, they unveiled two plaques, including a gold-plated rectangle above the entrance.

“David Poole Deadline Media Center,” it read, now attached to his hometown speedway, now a part of its tale.

Observer staff writer David Scott and researcher Maria David contributed.

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