On Nov. 15, 1992, at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Richard Petty ran his last Sprint Cup race, Jeff Gordon ran his first one, and that same race saw Alan Kulwicki beat Bill Elliott to win the championship in a title battle still considered by many to be the sport’s best ever.
The same thing was true of the Oct. 31, 1965 race at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham.
The American 500, held 50 years ago today, was the inaugural event at that track. It also was the final appearance on pit road for Ray Lee Wood, one of the original members of the famed Wood Brothers team. And the victory went to Curtis Turner, a wildly popular driver who had only recently returned to the sport after being suspended for trying to organize a drivers’ union.
Turner, at 41, was considered by many to be over the hill as far as driving. But Glen Wood, who first was attracted to the sport of auto racing by Turner and had been friends with him for years, thought otherwise.
The Woods first ran Turner at Martinsville Speedway, where he was involved in a crash with Bobby Isaac. Next up was North Wilkesboro, where he finished fifth. From there the team ran Turner at Charlotte, where he finished third.
At Rockingham, crew chief Leonard Wood had to fix a special brace to help Turner deal with the pain from ribs cracked from racing on a rough track at Charlotte.
That made the race even more dramatic as the 500-miler boiled down between the aging, hurting Turner and 26-year-old Cale Yarborough.
Many at the track that day figured Turner would wear out when it counted, especially those who saw him napping on the decklid of the car during pre-race practice, recovering from a long night of partying.
Instead, the only weakness came from grit from the racing surface, which began eating away at the fan belt on Turner’s No. 41 Ford, which was running as a team car to the No. 21 of Marvin Panch. (The Wood Brothers crew serviced both cars that day and wound up taking two of the top three finishing positions as Panch finished third.)
Over the final laps, Turner had to slow to keep the engine from frying, and Yarborough moved in, but Turner held him off to take the victory.
“It was the old man against the young sprout, and the old man won,” Leonard Wood recalled.
“It turned out to be the last win he ever had, and it was in our car,” Leonard Wood said.
It also was the final trip to Victory Lane for Ray Lee Wood. Earlier that year, while at Indianapolis Motor Speedway helping Jim Clark win the Indianapolis 500, Wood had felt the call of the Lord. He felt that he should begin spending his Sundays serving the Lord instead of changing tires on his brother’s race cars.
He decided to finish the 1965 season before ending his career as a tire changer, and the Rockingham race wound up being his last one, which was fitting given that he and Turner were fast friends during their racing days.
Wood often rode home from races in Turner’s airplane so he could be back at work Monday morning with his grading business. And while Turner had a reputation of being a hard partier and Wood did not, the two got along famously.
“Curtis was something else,” Wood said in a 2010 interview. “If he liked you, you really had a friend.”