April 11, 2008
1952 Hudson Hornet Stock Car racer. Click image to enlarge
Story and photo by Bill Vance
Stock car racing is big business, particularly in the southeastern United States where its origins are deeply rooted in the culture and history of the Appalachian Mountains: it is linked to a historical Southern pursuit: making and selling moonshine whisky.
Moonshining goes back a long way in the Southeast. In the 18th Century, the Scots and Irish began immigrating to the mountains of Pennsylvania, and soon extended their reach right down into Alabama. They brought the old world whisky maker’s art to their adopted land.
Crop yields were sparse in the hill country, and the canny mountain dwellers soon discovered the simple economic truism that more money could be made by turning corn into whisky, than by selling it as grain. Although distilling and selling moonshine whisky was declared illegal, this 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.
This whisky had to get to its eager market, and a fast car was the way to do it. Transporting ‘shine became a cat-and-mouse game between the U.S. alcohol and tobacco agents and the proud, independent and ingenious moonshiners. Therein lies the roots of stock car racing.
Running loads of illegal whisky down into Old South cities like Charlotte, Greensboro and Winston-Salem went on through the 1930s. It received a boost from Prohibition which lasted from 1919 to 1933, then really took off during the Second World War.
After the war, North American car culture exploded, especially in the South. There was newfound prosperity, and people who couldn’t dream of owning a new car during the Great Depression suddenly found themselves with good paying jobs and war bonds to cash.
While California embraced hot rods and sports cars, Appalachia went crazy over big American cars. Northern tourists returned from southern trips with tales of big shiny cars parked outside extremely modest homes. The South was liberated as never before.
But for all of its new-found freedom the mountain people still stuck to their fiercely independent nature and almost clan-like loyalty. The term hillbilly was used to describe them, although one should be cautioned about using that term in the new South of today.
The description most often heard was “good old boy,” a term that has little to do with age, but more to do with a man who is amiable, has a sense of humour and can be trusted. And what the good old mountain boys had in common was their strong independence; if they wanted to make and sell moonshine whisky, that was their business. So the illegal whisky business flourished and the agent-versus-distiller feud was raised to new levels of sophistication.
With so many souped up whisky-runners around, good natured rivalries naturally developed about whose car was fastest. Races inevitably broke out and sometimes the good old boys didn’t even know whether they were racing with an agent or one of their own.
The cars themselves were plain looking enough, but the slightly jacked-up rear ends caused by heavy duty springs and big wide tires were a dead giveaway that these were not normal go-to-church family sedans. A healthy burble from the tailpipes was another clue.
Not surprisingly, the mechanical skills that could build a supercharged Oldsmobile capable of quickly transporting, say, 100 gallons of moonshine whisky through the clay cuts and back roads of Appalachia could carry over readily to automobile racing.
Moving to the tracks was an easy and natural transfer for the brave young men who evaded alcohol agents and state troopers by piloting those drab looking cars at breakneck speeds through the hill-country nights. Depth perception, eye-hand-foot co-ordination and car handling abilities were honed to a fine edge.
Stock car racing was the only national sport that originated in the South, and with their new-found car culture they took it to their hearts. The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) was established there in 1947 to give racing some organization and credibility, and it soon became a huge spectator sport all over the South.
In the late 1950s Detroit’s automakers discovered the enthusiasm for southern stock car racing. Brand loyalties started to build up and it was soon noticed that makes like Hudson, Oldsmobile and Lincoln that were winning on the tracks were also selling better in the Southern showrooms. This was the signal Detroit needed to get into racing in a big way.
All stock car drivers, of course, didn’t come from a moonshining heritage. But many 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 resides and thrives in the Old South.