Fowler

Family will remember son and brother with tribute on Lap 317

Staff WriterMay 23, 2009 

— The 317th lap of the Coca-Cola 600 doesn't mean much to most people.

It is not the first lap, with its heady anticipation and expectant roar. It is not the 400th and final lap, with its frantic zigzags and checkered flag.

But to one working-class family, it means everything. To them, Lap 317 at Lowe's Motor Speedway is a reminder of life, death, laughter and NASCAR.

To them, Lap 317 is all about Curtis Lee Smith, a young man you have never heard of but would have enjoyed getting to know.

The family remembers Curt every year on that particular lap. They drive from Charleston, S.C., and Springfield, Ill., gathering in Charlotte to reconnect.

In the 30 seconds it usually takes to run Lap 317, they stand in Turn 2, arm in arm -- a silent pocket amid the noise that surrounds them.

On Lap 317, they quietly recall a man who has been gone now for eight years. Curt died in a 2001 car accident on an icy Illinois bridge on March 17 -- 3-17, if you write the date numerically.

More than a dozen members of the Lowe/Smith family will be attending the 600 on Sunday. They started coming in 1997 and have continued ever since.

But to understand Lap 317's significance, you first need to understand the family that celebrates it.

Mike Lowe thought of this yearly tribute. Mike is 32, an Air Force veteran who spent four months in Kuwait. He works in Charleston, where he runs the parts counter for a store that sells bulldozers and other industrial machinery.

Mike and Curt considered themselves brothers, even though technically they were stepbrothers who were not related by blood. Only six months apart in age, they both grew up in Springfield.

Mike's father married Curt's mother in 1983, and so the two of them were thrown together in a blended family from the time they were 7.

"We were tight," Mike says. "I lived with my mom and stepdad. Curt lived with my dad and stepmom. But it wasn't one of those bitter things. At any given moment, I could be at his house or he could be at mine. We all just kind of meshed."

From second grade to eighth grade, Curt and Mike went to school together. They played on the same baseball teams for much of that time. Curt was the left-handed outfielder; Mike the right-handed catcher. And they started a friendly sports rivalry that would persist all their lives.

They went to different high schools in Illinois but stayed close friends, both graduating in 1994. Mike joined the Air Force then and was stationed in San Antonio, then Fayetteville. Curt stayed home, working in a sporting goods store and then as a hospital security guard. His love for the Chicago Cubs and University of Illinois teams grew. "He was an absolute sports fanatic," Mike says.

Says Curt's mom, Susan Lowe: "Curt could talk to anybody. Young, old, whatever. He had a real charm."

By the late 1990s, the blended family had gotten into NASCAR. They watched races together on Sunday afternoons. They started a weekly NASCAR betting pool among family members, pitching in $5 apiece to assure they all had a rooting interest.

Steve Lowe Jr., Mike's older brother, had the biggest interest in cars. He had helped out occasionally on a pit crew at a local dirt track. It was Steve who came upon some tickets for the May 1997 Coca-Cola 600 at what is now Lowe's Motor Speedway.

Mike was stationed in Fayetteville at the time. Steve and a cousin drove there, and then the three of them drove to the 600. Curt didn't go -- he was too busy working.

That race, won by Jeff Gordon, was one of the strangest in 600 history. It turned out to be the Coca-Cola 499.5. The race was delayed three hours by rain, shortened by 100.5 miles and still didn't end until nearly 1 a.m.

"It was just amazing," Mike says. "We had so much fun."

Mike and Steve started to talk up the experience of the 600 with their family. And gradually, their little group sitting off Turn 2 grew. To six, eight, 10, 15.

But Curt never came. He always had something going.

Finally, in 2001, Curt agreed he would take time off from the hospital and join the brothers and the rest of his family for the 600. Curt had a fiancée by then and was taking some college courses with the hope of becoming a police officer. Life had never looked better.

The accident happened on St. Patrick's Day on an icy overpass at about 4 a.m.

Curt was driving his 1992 Jeep Wrangler over a bridge, alone, returning home to his apartment after visiting a friend. There was a red Ford Mustang in front of him. Coming the other way was a 1990 GMC Suburban.

Suddenly, the Mustang lost control and hit the bridge. Curt, trying to avoid colliding with the Mustang, lost control of his Jeep on the ice and swerved toward the oncoming Suburban.

The Suburban and the Jeep hit head-on. The driver of the Suburban was hurt, but not badly. Curt suffered terrible injuries to his chest and spinal cord. He was taken by ambulance to the same hospital where he worked, and there he was pronounced dead. According to news accounts, a Springfield police officer later testified that although Curt and the driver of the Suburban had alcohol in their systems, ice played a larger role in the wreck.

Curt's mother heard sirens wailing at around 5 a.m.

""Next thing I knew, the phone was ringing," Susan Lowe says. "They told me Curt was in the hospital and I needed to get up there. We got there quick, and they met us at the door. I knew right then, when they did that, he had passed away."

At the Coca-Cola 600 in 2001, Dale Earnhardt fans conducted their own tribute on Lap 3, staying silent throughout the lap and often holding three fingers in the air in honor of the driver who had died on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

Mike Lowe saw that and something clicked. Curt had died a month after Earnhardt did. Why not honor their brother?

So they did. "This one's for Curtis!" Mike yelled as the cars roared to the start-finish line on Lap 317. Then they held their glasses aloft and stayed silent for the rest of the lap.

Year after year, the tradition continued.

"We like to cherish Curt a little at that time every year," Steve Lowe Jr. says.

But the family members there didn't really talk about Lap 317 with the ones who didn't come -- it was a private moment.

So when Steve and Susan Lowe came for the first time in 2007, they didn't know about the tribute for their son on Lap 317 until about 10 minutes before it happened. Then Mike and Steve told them about it.

"We basically raised our glasses and then all started crying," Susan Lowe says.

"My dad grabbed me around the neck when it was over and said he and my stepmom would never miss another 600," Mike Lowe says. "And they never have."

So if you're watching the race Sunday, take a moment at Lap 317. And think a kind thought for Curt Smith, who never made it to the Coca-Cola 600 in person but comes each year in spirit.

sfowler@charlotteobserver.com or 704-358-5140

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