Bootlegging and NASCAR: From Moonshining to Racing
I live within a stone’s throw of Asheville, NC, which is known for being one of the great beer capitals of the world. This scenic mountain community boasts more than 70 locally produced microbrews, many of which I have had the pleasure of sampling – in moderation, of course. Asheville is almost exactly the same distance (100 miles or so) from Bristol, TN, home of the NASCAR Bristol Speedway, and Wilkesboro, NC, the place where famed bootlegger Junior Johnson was born. This is only fitting, as the racing association’s history is tied inseparably to those brave, reckless souls like Johnson, who mastered racing skills while outrunning the police on winding mountain roads.
Asheville and the surrounding area are square in the heart of Appalachia, a place known both for its spectacular beauty and its grinding poverty. Locals in these parts have long found ways to cope with the region’s lack of economic opportunity, however. In the 30s and 40s the favored method was to set up a homemade distillery, or “still,” deep in the hills and start cranking out tax-free corn whiskey.
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Law enforcement took a dim view of this particular enterprise, forcing its practitioners to labor after dark by the light of the moon; hence the term “moonshine.” As with any business, however, manufacturing the product was only part of the challenge. Getting it to the customers fell to bootleggers like Johnson, who were both master mechanics and insanely reckless drivers.
Johnson’s favored car was a 1940 Ford with a flathead V8 that he supercharged himself. "We didn't back down in doing whatever we could do to make them cars faster," he said in a 2006 interview for Hot Rod. "You didn't have no top end on 'em with a supercharger. That thing would just keep gettin' up. It had the power to take it where the road was so narrow, you couldn't imagine how fast that thing was a-runnin'."
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In the 1950s and 60s moonshine lost most of its appeal. This was largely due to politicians in many formerly “dry” areas, who realized it made more sense to sell spirits legally than to force them underground. As county after county legalized alcohol, Johnson found himself without a trade.
The problem solved itself when he and several of his former colleagues began racing for the newly formed National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, which was formed by promoter and reputed former bootlegger Bill France in 1947. It turned out that all those years of evading the police were the perfect training for out-running competitors on the track.
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Johnson drove for NASCAR from 1953 until his retirement in 1966. During that time he drove in 313 races, winning 50 and placing in the top five in 121. Later in his career he became a team owner, helping drivers like Bill Elliott and Cale Yarborough get their start.
Nowadays large portions of Appalachia are free of the mass poverty that once plagued them. NASCAR plays a huge role in the region’s newfound prosperity, though moonshiners and bootleggers have all but disappeared. Things are a lot calmer in the back country nowadays, but for some reason they’re not quite as fun.
Image Sources: Cruiselinehistory.com, Pintrest,