12 May 2014 06:25

Moonshine and Stockcar Racing

Today's NASCAR is a family sport with a fan base of 75 million loyal fans which is growing bigger and more mainstream by the day. It is also a multibillion-dollar business and a cultural phenomenon that transcends class and gender, but dark secrets lurk in NASCAR's past.

In NASCAR mythology, much of the early racing is tied up with moonshine-running, the delivery of a home-brewed whiskey distilled from corn, potatoes or anything that would ferment. By the 1930s, bootleggers were running moonshine out of the foothills of Appalachia and into the major cities. It was a good business, largely because it sidestepped the most pressing economic concern of any alcohol producer: taxes. And to avoid paying taxes, moonshiners had to avoid the law.

A traditional moonshine-running car had some basic qualities. From the outside, it was designed to look as common as possible so as not to attract any unwanted attention. Simply speaking, it had to look "stock", but under the hood and in the inner-workings of the vehicle, the cars were anything but. In addition to a supercharged engine, moonshiners also installed heavy shocks and springs in their cars so that when they were carrying a heavy load of liquor, the car would not sag, a tell-tale sign for the police that were heavily patrolling the countryside. But when the law was closing in, the car had to be ready to shift, and the driver had to know how to handle all that horsepower.

Big Bill and Bill Jr

Legendary stories abound of bootleggers whose empires grew during American Prohibition and continued to thrive well after Repeal, and of drivers who thundered down dusty back roads with moonshine deliveries, deftly outrunning federal agents. The car of choice was the Ford V-8, the hottest car of the 1930s, and ace mechanics tinkered with them until they could fly across mountain roads at 100 miles an hour. For bragging rights, drivers held informal races to determine which runner was fastest. By the end of the 1940s, these contests had become an organised sport, largely due to the efforts of one driver, Big Bill France.

Big Bill organised a meeting of drivers, car owners and mechanics at the art-deco style Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach, Florida, on December 14, 1947, to establish standard rules for racing. There and then the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (Nascar) was conceived. Two months later, on February 15, 1948, the first official Nascar race was held on the beach in Daytona, Red Byron taking the title in his Ford. A week later, Nascar was incorporated, with Big Bill appointed as its leader.

A huge part of the appeal for fans of this burgeoning sport was the fact that, in many cases, the racing cars were the same brand of car that they themselves drove. Of course, under the hood, the racing cars shared very little resemblance to those on the showroom floor, but the exterior fostered a connection with the common fan.

Furthering this mythology is the fact that many of the early were themselves former or current moonshine runners. This perception was heightened when Tom Wolfe wrote a feature story on Junior Johnson – a NASCAR star who had been a legendary moonshine runner – for the March 1965 issue of Esquire magazine titled "Junior Johnson Is the Last American Hero. Yes!" The article focused on NASCAR's association with bootlegging, cementing the connection in the minds of many who did not know much about the sport.

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