Social History: NASCAR’s earliest days forever connected to bootlegging…
Bootlegger speeding away. Perfect training ground for NASCAR.
The stories would be very nearly clichéd, if they weren’t at the same time oh-so true.
If you’re even remotely familiar with NASCAR lore, you know the tales. A bunch of dirt poor good ol’ boys who lived anywhere from Virginia on down to Georgia had no other choice to survive than the illegal whiskey business. They souped up their cars to haul their bounty, and then ran from the law like their behinds were on fire.
And because, well, heck, boys will be boys, they wound up racing each other on the local highways and byways. Then, somebody got the bright idea to cut a crude track out of some cow pasture somewhere, and the rest, as they say, is history. Junior Johnson was the most famous bootlegger to make a name for himself in NASCAR, of course, but he darn sure wasn’t the only one.
No, back in those days, back before there even was a NASCAR, it would have been easier to name the racing folks who weren’t involved in moonshining in some shape, form or fashion than those who were. Drivers, mechanics, track owners … you name it, and they were into it.
“Junior” Johnson was a member of the first class of inductees into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, and when it came time to set up a still for display, Junior showed up ready to work. He had, after all, quite a bit of experience in that particular area.
“It gave me so much advantage over other people that had to train and learn how to drive,” Johnson once said of hauling liquor. “When I sat down in that seat the first race I ever ran, it was a backseat to what I’d already been through. I had did all them spinning deals sideways and stuff like that. It just made my job so much easier than anybody I had seen come along and go into it. Never, ever, did I see a guy who could take a car any deeper than I could and save it, as long as I raced.”
Bill France, Sr. – William Henry Getty France Sr., also known by Bill France Sr. or Big Bill, was an American race car driver. He is best known for co-founding and managing NASCAR, a sanctioning body of United States-based stock car racing.
Really, there’s no way around it. NASCAR’s roots are soaked to the very tips in moonshine, and in the last few years, the connection has been examined in at least two excellent books — Driving with the Devil: Southern Moonshine, Detroit Wheels, and the Birth of NASCAR (Broadway 2007) by Neal Thompson, and Real NASCAR: White Lightning, Red Clay, and Big Bill France (The University of North Carolina Press 2010) by Daniel S. Pierce.
An associate professor and chair of the history department at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, Pierce was at best disinterested in the sport before his 1994 baptism at Bristol. It was then and only then that the academic started investigating the phenomenon that is NASCAR. He, too, discovered the myths and mysteries of the sport’s moonshine-fueled birth and found them fascinating.
“I started doing research on NASCAR, and obviously one of the important questions I wanted to look at was the whole role of moonshine,” Pierce said. “I pretty much assumed that what I was going to find was that it was something that had been mythologized and overblown, that there was Junior Johnson and a few other people that were involved in the early days.
“That was my expectation, but the deeper I looked into the whole thing and the more research I did, the more liquor I found. It was just so foundational. I knew it played a role, but the thing that surprised me was that it was so much a part of the foundation of the sport.”
Bootleggers needed cars with speed.
Pierce’s list of pre and early NASCAR participants who’d been involved in bootlegging to at least some extent grew almost daily.
“The thing that started to hit me was that all the great drivers from the early days — all of them — were,” Pierce said. “People look at Junior Johnson, and he’s really kind of the end of the line. Going beyond that, I was looking at people who were early mechanics. Those guys weren’t necessarily involved in bootlegging, but a lot of them made their living working on bootleggers’ cars.
“Early car owners, Raymond Parks being the most famous of them, they were bootleggers. The thing that really surprised me was one of those things that was hiding in plain sight, that nobody talked about, was how many of the early promoters and track owners were people involved in bootlegging.”
It’s almost quaint these days to be associated with the sport’s infamous past. There’s even a reunion featuring retired moonshiners and the former federal agents who once chased them that’s hosted every year by Terri Parsons, widow of the late, great Benny, at their winery in Wilkes County, N.C.
1956 marked the first NASCAR race.
Parsons was never involved in the moonshine trade, but the same most definitely cannot be said of Wilkes County, Johnson’s old stomping grounds.
Such backwoods shenanigans have become an accepted part of NASCAR’s history, but that wasn’t always the case. Far from it, actually. Less than a month after V-J Day ended World War II once and for all, organizers put together a big extravaganza race at the old Lakewood Speedway in Atlanta.
No less than five drivers entered who had liquor-law violations on their records, causing some locals to pounce on the “hoodlums” and insist that the event be canceled. The Atlanta Constitution ran editorials denouncing it, and Atlanta’s mayor showed up on race day with law enforcement officials at his side.
The promoter relented, and initially banned three of the five — two didn’t bother showing up — from racing that day. But when crowd of 30,000 was left in a near riot over the possibility of not getting to see the popular Roy Hall race, the promoter again reversed course and allowed everybody to take the green flag. Of course, Hall won the race and flamed the flames of controversy even more. Eventually, the ban did go into effect.
The fiasco, according to Pierce, helped open the door for a new up-and-coming promoter. The new guy’s name? Bill France. Big Bill. Bill Sr. And, eventually, NASCAR founder.
“This is actually how Bill France really got going as a promoter,” Pierce concluded. “He’d been promoting in Daytona Beach, but there was really a void there because the best drivers in stock-car racing at the time couldn’t race at Lakewood Speedway. Bill France knew all these guys. They trusted him. He was good friends with them, and so he was able to get these guys to come and then he started promoting races in the Carolinas and Virginia.
“That really gave Bill France a big boost, because he could deliver these bootlegger drivers. I think it’s one of the most important stories in the history of NASCAR, because really, that makes possible what Bill France did. It created an opening for him.”