Charlotte's fall race in '65 leaves many memories
TOM HIGGINS SCUFFS
Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012
Imagine four drivers racing abreast for the win in a wild, furious finish at Charlotte Motor Speedway!
The only thing that kept it from happening on Oct. 17, 1965, was the width of the 1.5-mile track's groove. There simply wasn't enough room to accommodate a fourth car in that most memorable of Charlotte's annual autumn NASCAR races.
Adding to the excitement that fall Sunday 47 years ago was a lead pack that included iconic stars A.J. Foyt and Curtis Turner, NASCAR's "Golden Boy" Fred Lorenzen and tough, talented Dick Hutcherson.
It was a star-studded cast.
As the race wound down, three of them were often door-to-door with the fourth close behind and trying to draw even.
The fight was so fierce that the 50,000 cheering fans seemed to drown out the thunder of the engines. The drama grew so deep that some fans went limp, overcome with the excitement.
I covered every fall race in some fashion at the storied speedway from the time I joined the Charlotte Observer in 1964 through my retirement at the end of the '96 Cup season.
That sensational show remains the greatest I saw in person at Charlotte, though recollection of it is tempered by the tragic death of driver Harold Kite. He was killed in a savage crash on only the second lap when his spinning car was struck by another in the third turn.
It was Kite's first race in a comeback attempt after nine years out of the sport. Right up to the start friends had implored him to no avail to pass up Charlotte and wait for a track that wasn't so fast in order to work away the rust.
There were rumblings that NASCAR should have refused Kite's entry...
Recollection of the fabulous finish returns to mind as the Cup Series teams gather again at CMS for Saturday night's Bank Of America 500.
That sizzling showdown of long ago covered the last 45 laps and was marked by nine lead changes between Foyt and Lorenzen.
Mere inches at the start/finish line often determined the leader. Turner and Hutcherson were right there, barely beaten to the flagstand.
By a big margin, the fans seemed to favor Turner, the colorful Virginian known as the most daring charger in early stock car racing.
Turner was making a comeback of his own, having been granted a reprieve from a lifetime ban imposed by "Big Bill" France, the NASCAR founder/president who had expelled him four years earlier for leading an attempt to affiliate the drivers with the Teamsters' Union.
"I feel like a man who just got out of jail," said Turner.
On the 255th of the race's 267 laps, Lorenzen wrested the lead from Foyt. A four-time Indy 500 winner, Foyt tried to pass on the high side in the third turn with six laps to go. It didnt work. His car slipped and slid into the steel guardrail, then spun. His hopes were dashed.
Hutcherson barely avoided Foyt and Turner had to spin to do so.
The incident gave Lorenzen a slight edge, and he drove to the checkered flag three car lengths ahead of his Holman-Moody teammate Hutcherson.
Turner finished third and Foyt was sixth, a lap down.
"Have you ever seen anything like it?!" the aglow Golden Boy gushed afterward in the press box.
Few, if any, could say they had, especially at Charlotte Motor Speedway, which Turner had co-founded with Bruton Smith.
In perhaps a stroke of justice, Hutcherson won the very next week in a 100-mile race at Orange Speedway, a dirt track in Hillsborough. And two weeks later on Halloween Day Turner gave his fans a treat, scoring a stirring victory in the inaugural 500-miler at Rockingham's N.C. Motor Speedway.
Both Hutcherson and Turner are deceased.
Before Hutcherson died, and decades after the most breathtaking autumn race in the Charlotte track's long history, I asked the personable "Hutch" what he remembered best about that day in 1965.
"That's easy," he chuckled. "I remember how much I wish I had won."