Whiskey's Road to NASCAR
May 25, 2023 –––––– Neal Thompson
In 1965, author Tom Wolfe introduced the world to a chubby-faced NASCAR racer from North Carolina named Junior Johnson. The fearless ex-con bootlegger honed his driving skills as a teen moonshine runner and won 50 races at southern racetracks throughout the 1950s and ‘60s. Wolfe’s story for “Esquire”—titled “The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. Yes!”—called Johnson “the lead-footed chicken farmer from Ronda.”
While researching a book about NASCAR’s moonshine-soaked roots, I met Johnson at his home in North Wilkesboro back in 2002. He gifted me a mason jar of his moonshine, three plums soaking inside. To this day it sits on a shelf, a token to the entwined histories of southern moonshine and stock car racing. Johnson, who died in 2019 at 88, had explained to me the relationship between his twin careers, “Moonshiners put more time, energy, thought, and love into their cars than any racer ever will. Lose on the track, and you go home. Lose with a load of whiskey, and you go to jail.”
Johnson knew what he was talking about: his father had spent years behind bars, and Junior served two years in Chillicothe prison in Ohio. (Ronald Reagan pardoned him in 1986.) But long before Junior’s daddy introduced him to the family business, the seeds had been sown for the uniquely American partnership between whiskey and wheels.
It all started with taxes.
Immigrants from Scotland, Ireland, and elsewhere had brought their whiskey-making traditions to America, but in the Appalachian hills they found it difficult to grow the barley, rye, or potatoes they’d long used for their mash. With help from the Native people (whom they later chased off the land) they learned how to grow corn and distill that grain to make “white lightning” and “mountain dew.” Later they’d age the corn liquor in charred oak barrels to create bourbon. Turning corn into liquid became a Southern tradition, both a craft and a business. By the 1800s, corn whiskey sustained southern life— it was used for currency, medicine, antiseptic, and anesthetic.
But Uncle Sam wanted his cut. Taxes imposed on distilled spirits (initially to pay off Revolutionary War debts) led to protests and the years-long Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania in the late 1700s. Later, anti-tax attitudes were especially strong in the South, reaching full boil with the 1862 creation of the Internal Revenue Service, which sought to raise funds for the Civil War.
Bootlegging peaked during the 13 years of Prohibition, but even after Repeal in 1933 it remained a lucrative business. Many regions throughout the South chose to remain “dry,” where the sale of alcohol was and still is illegal. So was selling untaxed moonshine. But many Southerners maintained a preference for homemade stuff over the bonded whiskey sold in shops. And with a gallon of corn liquor selling for as much as $20 during the 1930s, moonshiners could earn hundreds a week—far more than they might on the family farm or at the local mill.
The IRS introduced the Alcohol Tax Unit in 1934 and hired agents to fight the thriving homemade whiskey business. Meanwhile, Henry Ford had introduced an affordable mass-produced V-8 coupe that Southern moonshiners adored. And that’s when the cat-and-mouse game between moonshiners and revenue agents got faster and more violent. Young men like Junior Johnson learned to drive at age 13 or 14, gallons of whiskey packed tightly in the trunk. “Where I lived, if you didn’t make whiskey, you didn’t have bread to put on the table,” Johnson once said. Liquor agents chased these bootleggers through the red-dirt hills of Alabama, Georgia, and the Carolinas.
By the late 1930s, moonshiners and their mechanics had learned how to modify their whiskey cars, strengthening the suspension and boring out the engine’s cylinders, turning Ford’s V-8s into machines capable of going 100 miles an hour or more.
In time, the bootleggers started racing. Initially, these races were impromptu contests in a cornfield or cow pasture. Then they became features at rodeos and county fairs. There were no professional sports in the former Confederate states. (The Atlanta Braves would be the first, in 1966.) That meant young men were hungry for competition and fans were eager for a sport to root for and call their own. “Stock car” races were supposed to feature off-the-lot, unmodified passenger cars, but the early race cars were anything but “stock.” Many were highly specialized bootleggers’ cars, and moonshiners were the sport’s first and best racers.
With names like Smokey, Red, Soapy, Speedy, Crash, Legs, Fonty, Gober, Bad Eye, and Cannonball, the early racers of the 1930s, into 1940 and 1941, were a motley crew. The races got bigger, faster, and more dangerous. Tens of thousands would turn out at Atlanta’s Lakewood Speedway, at the 3.2-mile Beach and Road course at Daytona Beach, Florida, and at Charlotte Speedway, which was created by two bootlegging brothers.
In 1938, a moonshiner named Smokey Purser won the Labor Day race at Daytona Beach. The race’s organizer accused Purser of using a moonshiners’ trick to modify his car and disqualified him, then awarded the victory to the runner-up: himself. That man, Bill France Sr., would go on to help create an organization to oversee the unruly sport, which was interrupted by World War II but came roaring back in the late 1940s.
In December 1947, Bill France invited many top racers and mechanics to his hometown of Daytona Beach for a series of meetings at the Streamline Hotel. There they created the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR), and elected France as the new organization’s president. He and his family would end up owning the entire sport, and in his pursuit of family-friendly races for “plain, ordinary working people” France tried to wash the moonshine clean out of NASCAR. He decided it was bad for business for his stars to be law-breakers and ex-cons.
Although Junior Johnson brought moonshine back into the sport in the early 1960s, corn whiskey’s influence is long gone. After Johnson stopped racing, the last known moonshiner-racer was arrested in 1972. Some NASCAR fans bemoan the loss of that rough edge from their sport, which has gone mainstream and nationwide, becoming a multibillion-dollar enterprise whose racers are millionaire celebrities. But there’s no denying the lasting impact southern moonshine has had on stock car racing.
“If it hadn’t been for whiskey, NASCAR wouldn’t have been formed. That’s a fact,” Johnson told the BBC in 2013. (He’d later create a legal moonshine company called Midnight Moon.) NASCAR seems to have finally acknowledged the debt owed to the bootleggers: The NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte now features a bootlegging exhibit with an authentic copper moonshine still— built by Junior Johnson himself.
Neal Thompson is the author of “Driving with the Devil: Southern Moonshine, Detroit Wheels, and the Birth of NASCAR.”