Left Turns - Where Did It Start?
NASCAR... always turning left. Except for a few rare instances on the road courses or “Rovals” it’s all left-hand turns. It’s Left Turns when you’re competing and even a “hard Left Turn” when you exit the competition and go to the garage.
Left Turn, Left Turn, Left Turn...
Left turns are such a part of the sport, folks who don’t understand oval racing use it as a jab to poke fun at us. NASCAR’s Left Turns are even a part of ventriloquist Jeff Dunham’s routines.
Have you ever wondered just where all this turning left came from? I believe you can thank William Whitley for that.
William Whitley... wasn’t he one of the early bootleggers who started racing before there was a NASCAR?
Wait, didn’t William Whitley lay out the beach course at Daytona for Big Bill France?
William Whitley... didn’t he promote races around Spartanburg after the war?
He wasn’t part of the organizational meeting at the Streamliner when NASCAR was formed, was he?
No, you won’t find William Whitley in any photos. William Whitley lived long before cameras. His likeness can only be found in paintings.
He never knew the Frances. He didn’t know anything about automobile racing or even automobiles. They wouldn’t come around until about 70 years after his death.
But among the many things William did know, he knew about building tracks. He knew about race promotion and he knew racing-horse racing.
Other things he knew about was fighting savage Indians on the Kentucky frontier. As a veteran, a Revolutionary War veteran, he knew he had a great disdain for all things British. I doubt King George III was on his Christmas card list.
William and his wife Ester settled near what is now Crab Orchard, KY. There at the end of the Wilderness Road, they built the first brick house in the Kentucky frontier. It was a three story structure. The brick was made on the site, the pattern a distinct Flemish Bond. Above the front door was his initials-W. W. Above the back door was his wife’s, E. W.
“Sportsman Hill” Home of William Whitley
His home was a quite a structure for the time. Outside a grand home... inside a frontier fortress, specially designed to withstand the dangers and conditions they faced at that time. High first story windows hindered intrusions as did the iron bars built into the exterior doors. It was double walled to prevent fire from spreading quickly within. The third story provided a much needed vantage point to detect on-coming threats. Inside were hidden safe rooms and a secret passage to a spring cave system below where horses, supplies, artillery and additional armaments were stored. The cave system even had a secret entrance that provided an unseen escape route.
In his book, The Winning of the West, Theodore Roosevelt wrote, "My opinion of the William Whitley house is it is the center of religious, political and social life of the Transylvania region and also the Wilderness Road."
It was quite a place.
That’s interesting but what’s that got to do with stock cars turning left? Good question! Bear with me a few more lines as we’re getting to that.
After William and his wife Ester (she was known as quite the sharpshooter) along with the local militia had beat back the attacks of the hostile Native Americans, it was time to build a more normal life. William built on his land he named “Sportsman Hill” one of the first horse racing tracks in the “New West”.
It was different. William situated the track so the races were visible from the house (and you thought Bruton Smith was the first to put condos at a track). Unlike many tracks on the Colonial East Coast, which were straight (NHRA-National Horse Racing Association?) William made his “Sportsman Hill” track an oval. Because of his intense dislike for the British, he wanted his track to be nothing like theirs, the exact opposite so to speak.
So instead of turf, his track surface was clay, the first in the country. Instead of turning right, circling clockwise like those across “The Pond,” the horses at “Sportsman Hill” turned left when they got to the end of the straightaways.
William turned out to be quite the promoter as well, as races at “Sportsman Hill” were huge, well-attended, lavish affairs. Held each fall, racing began at dawn. At the end of the event, all in attendance were treated to a huge breakfast spread. Racing there was quite the event and William’s changes established the horse racing traditions in what would become the United States-traditions that carry on today.
Later, when automobiles came on the scene, it wasn’t long before they began to race. When their racing moved from open roads to the local tracks they continued to use the traditions from their four-legged counterparts, thus making the Left Turn an automobile racing tradition.
So the next time you watch a race and you see the competitors all turn left at the end of the straightaway, or a broadside around a hard-packed clay track, or hear a jab from someone who just doesn’t understand and thinks it’s all about one thing, just remember that it was Revolutionary War and Indian War veteran, the “Guardian of the Wilderness Road”, William Whitney who started those traditions, making him the “Father” of the Left Turn.
William Whitley – “Father of the Left Turn”
Now, I wonder if Big Bill France got his original name for the Xfinity Series from Whitley’s track at “Sportsman Hill?”
Let me get back to you on that one!