While the 18th Amendment outlawed alcohol, it didn’t decrease Americans desire for it. And it certainly didn’t diminish entrepreneurs interest in filling the void of Prohibition. Most know that while drinking was outlawed for a period of time in our country, people continued to find ways to get their hands on alcohol. What most don’t know is that without prohibition – and the bootleggers running their illegal moonshine – we might not have the NASCAR racing we love today.
So here’s the story behind prohibition and NASCAR.
The need for speed
In 1920, our country enacted the 18th Amendment, officially banning the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic. The prohibition lasted until the end of 1933 when the amendment was repealed. For thirteen years, Americans had to rely on illegally produced “moonshine”, “hooch” or “white lightning” for their supply or alcohol. For those producing the illegal drink, production was only half the battle. Once a supply was ready for sale, bootleggers, as they were often called, had to figure out how to transport the alcohol without getting caught by law enforcement.
Across the country, bootleggers had to make modifications to their automobiles to stay ahead of the law while transporting illegal alcohol on back roads in the dark of night. This involved modifying the engine for greater speed and removing the floorboards and seats to store as many cases of liquor as possible. They also modified the suspension to handle the weight of the cases and added a dirt-protecting plate in front of the radiator. The souped-up automobiles were then able to outrun the authorities.
Aside from a faster car, bootleggers needed sharp driving skills to drive at faster speeds without an accident and maneuver the roads, which were often dirt, gravel and single-lane back in the twenties. They even needed to be able to drive effectively in the dark without using their headlights!
Post-prohibition and the V-8 engine
In many places, the moonshine business continued to thrive even after prohibition ended. Dry counties meant many Americans still couldn’t go to the store and purchase alcohol. As well, the government instituted heavy federal taxes on alcohol that many bootleggers didn’t want to pay – especially since they had built their businesses from scratch without the help from the government.
Henry Ford’s V-8 engine – introduced just before the end of prohibition – helped bootleggers continue evading the law after 1933. While they had experimented with different cars over time, the modified cars were never quite fast enough. Then Ford came along and unintentionally created the perfect moonshine delivery vehicle. Mechanics found that they could easily trick-out the V-8 engine to get a bit more speed…and this made all the difference in outrunning the law. Some even used the most powerful V-8 they could buy at that time: an ambulance engine.
Interest in watching cars race
Not surprising, with all these fast cars around, bootleggers eventually decided to start racing each other. After all, they’d been racing each other on the backroads for years, trying to get their product to customers before the next guy. During the 1930s, the drivers discovered that people would come from miles around and pay money to watch them race each other around tracks at fairgrounds and race tracks. This created the beginning of stock car racing. But it wasn’t just the bootleggers who had a stake in racing. Also involved in the industry were others who had ties to alcohol, including mechanics, car owners, promoters and track owners.
The first person to assemble a formal racing team was Raymond Parks, who made a fortune bootlegging. By the late 1930s, Parks had drivers winning big races at Atlanta’s Lakewood Speedway. After racing took a break during World War II, Parks and others resumed where they had left off. NASCAR became an official organization in 1947.
Bootleggers who became famous drivers
One of the most well-known names in racing who started as a moonshine runner was Junior Johnson. His ancestors had been making moonshine since the days of the Whiskey Rebellion in the late 1700s. Growing up, there were so many cases of moonshine stacked in his house that he had to crawl over them just to get into his bed! Johnson discovered his driving talent when running moonshine as a teenager. He saw moonshine running as his training for eventual racing. Johnson began racing after prohibition and continued as a successful NASCAR driving through the 1960s.
Robert “Red” Byron was another moonshiner who became a famous driver. Byron was part of Parks racing team and won the first NASCAR race at Daytona Beach in what else but a modified Ford V-8. Other well-known drivers who started in moonshine include Carl “Lightning” Lloyd Seay, “Rapid” Roy Hall and many, many others.
Johnson told the BBC, “If it hadn’t been for whiskey, NASCAR wouldn’t have been formed. That’s a fact.”
Johnson was jailed a year after he began his NASCAR career for running an illegal whiskey still. He was pardoned for the crime 30 years later by President Ronald Reagan.
You can’t say Johnson wasn’t right about NASCAR. We’ll never know for sure. But NASCAR fans should be thankful for the blip in our country’s history that gave way to the sport we all love!