How outrunning federal agents led to NASCAR racing
Prohibition was a master class in unintended consequences, good or bad.
One of those consequences is NASCAR, which is a pretty good time.
Outlawing alcohol may have seemed like a good idea at a time when saloons dominated the streets, booze corrupted politicians, and alcoholism ran rampant — but the the operative phrase here is definitely, "seemed like." It was not the best idea. It turns out Americans love a drink and will go to great lengths — and speeds — to get it.
"I blame Prohibition!"
Just as with any other business, moonshiners making illegal "white lightning" in the Appalachian Mountains and foothills needed a way to transport their goods to market, and grandpa's horse cart just wasn't gonna cut it. They needed vehicles — but not just any vehicle would do.
So, how do you get hooch from the Appalachians to thirsty partygoers in the big city without attracting undue attention? As fast as possible, of course. But there's more to it than speed: The cars have to look like your average, off-the-line vehicle. They also have to be able to haul as much product as possible. Shiners figured out the way, creating modified vehicles called "stock" cars.
Even after the official end of Prohibition, illegal distillers still needed to move product while evading authorities. They still needed those fast cars.
Just try driving one of these Ford V8 Model 18s through mountain roads at night. With no headlights. At top speed.
Bootleggers' vehicles were fitted with advanced shock-absorption systems to protect the glass jars housing their precious cargo as they sped down mountain roads. They also had the back seats removed to fit more product. Most importantly, they had souped-up engines that allowed them to beat the feds in any race when necessary.
Americans have been making illegal whiskey since the 1700s and they probably will never stop.
Prohibition ended in 1933, but the American need for speed and love for automobiles that would come to embody the NASCAR spirit lived on.
"The deeper I looked into the whole thing and the more research I did, the more liquor I found. It was just so foundational," Daniel Pierce, a history professor at the University of North Carolina told NASCAR. "I knew it played a role, but the thing that surprised me was that it was so much a part of the foundation of the sport."
Police cleaning out the contents of a bootlegger's stock car.
Even before the end of Prohibition, rum runners and bootleggers would race their souped-up, stripped-down vehicles on the roads and in the backwoods of the American South.
The sport's anti-establishment roots were very present in NASCAR's early days. At one of the earliest stock car races at Lakewood Speedway in Atlanta, at least five drivers had liquor law violations on their records. There was an uproar over who should be allowed to drive: "hoodlums" or law-abiding citizens?
That's when a race promoter named Bill France gave the people who wanted to see the bootleggers drive their cars the opportunity to do so. These once-outlawed flocked to his races — and so did their fans.
In 1947, the sport that would soon become the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series was codified by France. The first race held by the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing was on Jun. 19, 1949. Today, the driving sport's fans now number in the millions. Their drivers are less outlaw and more law-abiding, driving upwards of 200 miles per hour in some speedways... without attracting attention from the feds.
The first few generations of drivers may have had some liquor law violations on their record, but today's NASCAR drivers have helped turn a sport of "hoodlums" into a show fit for the whole family.
- Bootlegging | National Museum of American History ›
- Bootleggers and Bathtub Gin - Prohibition: An Interactive History ›
- Prohibition - Facts & Summary - HISTORY.com ›