High Octane: Moonshine and the Birth of NASCAR
When we think of moonshine, images of stills nestled deep in Appalachian hollers under the light of a full moon may come to mind. Moonshine has deep roots in American history and, surprisingly, is at the origin of one of America’s most beloved motorsports organizations — the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, better known as NASCAR.
Pioneers of speed
Moonshine is illicitly produced, high-proof, unaged liquor. Traditionally, it was made at night in order to avoid detection by authorities, hence its name. During Prohibition, which lasted from 1920-1933, people who worked to illegally transport alcohol were known as bootleggers. In fact, these bootleggers and moonshiners played a crucial role in the development of high-speed driving techniques and the modification of their vehicles to increase performance. Despite Prohibition laws, there was still a high demand for alcoholic beverages that these moonshiners and bootleggers were more than happy to meet.
At the same time, automotive technology was rapidly evolving. The Ford Model-T had been released in 1908 and by 1927, 15 million units had been produced. The increasing popularity and access to motor vehicles revolutionized how bootleggers were able to transport their product. By the early 1930s, V8 engines were becoming increasingly available, allowing for even more powerful vehicles to be used in the illegal transport of alcohol. With law enforcement hot on their heels, moonshiners and bootleggers were always seeking out the most cutting-edge automotive technologies and honing their driving skills to outrun authorities and protect their valuable cargo.
Moonshiners and their cars
It didn’t take long for Prohibition-era moonshiners to understand that transportation was a critical aspect of their illicit trade. The vast amounts of moonshine and illegally imported alcohol needed to be transported quickly and discreetly, often in rural areas that lacked decent road infrastructure. In this pursuit of speed, moonshiners and bootleggers began to modify their stock cars, transforming them into powerful machines capable of navigating treacherous roads and evading capture. These fearless drivers experimented with engine upgrades, suspension improvements and weight reduction, pushing the limits of their vehicles. They also had to develop the skills and techniques to quickly and efficiently make repairs to their vehicles, after all, getting a flat tire on a mountain road miles away from nowhere means you have to think quickly and rely on your skills.
Even after Prohibition was repealed, moonshiners and bootleggers continued to use these methods in order to avoid taxes and regulation on their illicitly produced product. These drivers developed advanced driving skills, pushing the boundaries of speed and maneuverability. Their cars, modified to handle treacherous terrain and outrun pursuers, became the precursors to the fast and powerful vehicles we associate with NASCAR today.
Some bootleggers became legendary figures due to their exceptional driving skills and their ability to outmaneuver the law. Early stock car racers who made a name for themselves were Raymond Parks, Lloyd “Lightening” Seay and Roy “Rapid” Hall, cousins hailing from Georgia who began running moonshine as teens. In the mid 1930s, Seay and Hall convinced Parks to use his service station to sponsor their race cars in the burgeoning stock racing scene. Parks had himself been a bootlegger — even serving time in jail for it — and was known for maintaining a pristine and highly professional service station. The cars his service station sponsored contributed to the success that Seay and Hall had in early stock car racing events, cementing their legacy as the finest stock car drivers of the time.
After NASCAR became an officially recognized organization, Junior Johnson, became a renowned early NASCAR driver. Johnson had also honed his skills by running moonshine through the backroads of North Carolina and went on to win five races in his first season in 1955 alone. He became one of the most accomplished and renowned drivers in NASCAR history, and he wouldn’t have done it without the skills he learned as a bootlegger.
The Birth of NASCAR: Bill France Sr. and his vision
As Prohibition ended, many bootleggers turned their attention to legal racing, capitalizing on their driving skills and expertise in car modifications. The same techniques that helped them transport moonshine and other illicit alcohol quickly found a new purpose in racing stock cars. These early races, often organized informally, drew considerable attention and set the stage for the birth of NASCAR.
Bill France Sr., a racer and owner of a gas station, saw an opportunity to bring organization and legitimacy to stock car racing. Throughout the 1930s, he participated in and won numerous stock car racing events in Daytona Beach, Florida. By 1938 he had assumed an organizational role in these races. Despite the disruption of WWII, France knew that there was an audience who would enjoy watching the adrenaline pumping action of stock car races and began to promote these races more heavily.
In late 1947, France invited prominent figures in the stock car racing world to meet in Daytona Beach to propose the creation of a national organization that would sanction races. On February 15, 1948, the first official NASCAR-sanctioned event was held in Daytona Beach. NASCAR provided a standardized rulebook, fair competition, and enhanced safety for drivers, marking the beginning of a remarkable chapter in motorsports history.
NASCAR's early years were marked by grassroots racing events held on dirt tracks across the United States. These races attracted a growing number of spectators who were captivated by the speed, skill, and thrilling competition. Over time, NASCAR grew in popularity and evolved into a professional sport with corporate sponsorships, dedicated racetracks, and a loyal fan base.
The Legacy of Moonshine & NASCAR: an enduring connection
The history of moonshine and bootlegging remains deeply embedded in the DNA of NASCAR with the history of innovation, speed, and competition from that era continuing to shape the sport today. From the early days of clandestine transportation to the thriving NASCAR events witnessed by millions, the connection between moonshine and stock car racing remains a cherished part of the sport's heritage. NASCAR's enduring legacy continues to pay homage to the moonshiners who carved the path of speed, transforming a once-illegal activity into a beloved American motorsport.
High Octane: Moonshine and the Birth of NASCAR