Stock-car racing is big business, particularly in the southeastern U.S., where it is deeply rooted in the culture and history of the Appalachian Mountains. Part of the reason is its historic link to the Southern art of making and selling moonshine whisky.
Moonshining goes back in the Southeast to the 18th century, when the Scots and Irish began immigrating to the mountains of the eastern U.S. They naturally brought their old-world whisky-making skills with them.
Crop yields were sparse in the hill country and it was soon discovered that corn was much more valuable when made into whisky than it was when sold as grain.
Although distilling and selling moonshine whisky was illegal, the law was seen as an affront to the personal freedom they had come to America to enjoy. So moonshining didn’t stop, it just went farther into the piney hills. If the Deep South was the cotton belt, Appalachia was the whisky belt.
The best way to get the whisky to an eager market was with fast cars. Transporting ’shine became a cat-and-mouse game between alcohol agents and the proud, independent moonshiners. Therein lay the roots of stock-car racing.
Running loads of illegal whisky down into Old South cities such as Charlotte, Greensboro and Winston-Salem went on through the 1930s. It received a big boost from Prohibition, which lasted from 1919 to 1933, and really took off during the Second World War, when well-paying jobs spread more money around.
After the war, the North American car culture exploded, especially in the South. Newfound prosperity made car ownership possible for people who couldn’t dream of it during the Great Depression. They now found themselves with good jobs and money to spend.
While California embraced hot rods and sports cars, Appalachia loved big American cars. Northern tourists often returned from southern trips with tales of big shiny cars parked outside modest homes. The South was liberated as never before.
But for all of their new-found freedom, the mountain people stuck to their fiercely independent nature and almost clan-like loyalty. The term hillbilly became common, although one would be cautioned about using that term in the new South of today.
The description most often heard is “good ol’ boy.” It has little to do with age and more to do with a man who is amiable, trustworthy and has a good sense of humour. And what good ol’ mountain boys had in common was their strong independence.
Even though moonshining was illegal, to them, making and selling whisky was their own business. So illegal whisky flourished and the agent-versus-distiller intrigue rose to new levels.
With so many souped-up whisky-runners around, good-natured rivalries naturally developed about whose car was faster and who was the better driver. Races inevitably broke out until sometimes, the good ol’ boys didn’t know whether they were racing an alcohol agent or one of their own!
The cars were intentionally kept plain looking, but slightly jacked-up rear ends caused by heavy duty springs and big wide tires were a dead giveaway. A healthy tailpipe burble was another clue that these weren’t go-to-church family sedans.
Not surprisingly, the skills that could build and drive a supercharged Oldsmobile to haul, say, 100 gallons of moonshine whisky through the clay cuts and back roads of Appalachia could be carried over to racing.
Moving to the tracks came naturally to these brave young men who piloted those drab looking, whisky-laden cars at breakneck speeds through the hill-country nights.
Their depth perception, eye-hand-foot co-ordination and car handling abilities were honed to a fine edge.
Among the most famous was Robert “Junior” Johnson, whose family ran a prosperous still operation in Willkes County, North Carolina. After a successful racing career, in 1998, he was named the greatest driver in NASCAR history by Sports Illustrated.
Stock-car racing was the only national sport that originated in the South, and the new-found car culture took it to their hearts. The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) was established there in 1947 by racer/entrepreneur Bill France to give racing better promotion and credibility. It was soon huge all over the South.
In the late 1950s, Detroit’s automakers discovered the enthusiasm for southern stock-car racing where brand loyalties built up, with makes such as Hudson, Oldsmobile and Lincoln winning on the tracks and selling better in Southern showrooms. This was Detroit’s signal to get into racing in a big way.
All stock-car drivers, of course, didn’t come from a moonshining heritage. But many early ones did. And the skill, ingenuity and daring of those car builders and moonlight whisky runners certainly contributed to the legacy of a sport whose heart and soul still thrive in the Old South.