From Appalachia to Daytona: How NASCAR Got its Start
From outward appearance, there’s very little that Appalachia has in common with the Florida coast. In reality, however, the two regions are linked by millions of years of natural history. The quartz sand that graces the Sunshine State was once part of the Appalachian high country, carried south by eons of slow, steady erosion. This is fitting, given the way the two regions are also linked together by the history of stock car racing. What eventually became NASCAR started as the by-product of Prohibition. On October 28, 1919, Congress passed the Volstead Act, which outlawed alcohol across the United States. Though noble in its intent, the statute was a bad idea. It gave ambitious law-breakers across the country a golden opportunity to get rich by making and selling their own spirits. Nowhere was this more prevalent than in the hills of North Carolina, where moonshiners built hundreds of stills to accommodate the nation’s endless thirst for adult beverages. RELATED: 5 Great Races from Daytona 500 History [w/video]
Of course, as with any business, producing the product is only part of the challenge. Distributing it is another matter entirely. That task fell to enterprising young fellows whose recklessness was matched only by their driving skills. Some of the more famous names from the era include Junior Johnson and Willie Clay Hall. These men played a furious game of cat-and-mouse with law enforcement agents in the 20s and 30s.
The bootlegger’s trade was dealt a severe blow in 1933, when Prohibition was repealed. Many of the old moonshiners turned to legal trades like chicken farming, and the profits from brewing white lightning gradually diminished. That’s where our story switches locations to the sun-kissed state of Florida.
A Motorsports Paradise
The hard-packed sands around Daytona Beach make the area a perfect spot for high-speed driving. In 1935 Bill France arrived in Daytona to escape the great Depression, which had most of the country in its grip. Local officials were determined to turn the area into a Mecca for racing fans. With the help of local resident Sig Haugdahl, they created a 3.2 mile course that included part of highway A1A. In 1936 they sponsored a hugely popular race that lasted for 75 laps. France participated, coming in fifth.
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Despite public support, that early effort ended up costing the city more money than it raised. But the promoting bug had bitten France by this point, and he spent the rest of the 1930s setting up additional races in the area. Then the US entered WWII, and racing took a backseat to winning the conflict. France spent the war years building watercraft at the Daytona Boat Works.
After Germany and Japan surrendered, France again turned his attention to racing promotion. He eventually decided that the sport needed a single, highly effective governing body to ensure that purses were paid and basic safety rules were followed. This led to the famous meeting that took place in Daytona’s Streamline Hotel on December 14, 1947. The National Association for Stock Car Racing (NASCAR) was founded two months later, on February 21, 1948, in Daytona, where the organization’s main offices remain to this day.
And that’s how stock car racing made its way from the foggy hills of Appalachia to the sandy beaches of Florida.
Photo Credit: Daytona Beach News Journal, Hot Rod