With roots dug deep in the fertile soil of Appalachia, NASCAR is as utterly Southern as the moonshine from which it got its start. Today, its races take place from California to the Carolinas and its fans span continents, but the true essence of the sport is still scrupulously Southern.
When the Prohibition arrived in 1919, Americans on the hunt for illegal booze could easily get their hands on the murky stuff found in the underground speakeasies of big cities. But rural folks were hit hardest; with vast tracks of land separating suppliers and sippers, getting your hands on ‘shine was more than a little difficult. Hence, the birth of Prohibition runners: men brave enough to get behind the wheel of fast cars laden with illegal spirits and outrun the law in order to bring their thirsty customers product.
From Virginia to Georgia, but especially in the heart of Appalachia’s mountains, moonshine became widely circulated via these brazen boys. For runners, it quickly became about more than the job; they came to love the fast driving on winding mountain roads, the adrenaline rush of pursuit, and the pride that came with a win. Even after the end of the Prohibition in 1933, runners kept on runnin’, now avoiding “revenuers” who wanted to tax moonshine operations. Runners ran not only because their fellow Southerners had developed a taste for the spirit, but also because they were addicted to the rush of the race.
Of course, runners found another way to race: against each other. They took to the back roads and highways of their communities in their modified street cars, fortified to withstand rough driving and lightened for speed. These informal races were, in part, a form of practice, but the primary objective was to win the right to bragging rights and boasts. These spontaneous back-road races slowly transformed into much more: drivers became celebrities, mechanics heroes, and competitions spectator sports.
Less than a month after V-J Day in 1945, an enormous race was organized at Lakewood Speedway in Atlanta, a massive war-end celebration. Five of the drivers set to race that day had liquor-law violations on their records, prompting the interest of authorities and a demand for cancellation of the race by local teetotalers. When race day arrived, Atlanta’s mayor arrived with it, flanked by officers of the law. The promoter was forced to ban three racers (two had skipped the race altogether), but when the amassed crowd of 30,000 heard that their beloved Roy Hall was among the banned, they rebelled, and the promoter, recognizing an impending riot, rescinded his band and allowed everyone to race.
That single Georgian race served as the prelude to the inception of NASCAR. Hearing of the disorganization in Atlanta and recognizing a fixable problem was Big Bill France. France had been organizing stock car races since before the war in Daytona Beach (which was the world’s premier location for setting land speed records throughout the ’20’s and ’30’s and the national hub for racing enthusiasts). The racing aficionado believed that, with the institution of rules, organization, and a championship, the racing born from running moonshine could be turned into a true sport. On December 14, 1947, Big Bill France called his first meeting of drivers, car owners, and mechanics, and together they established standards and rules and even a name for themselves: National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing.
The first official NASCAR race took place in Daytona Beach on February 15, 1948, and one week later NASCAR was incorporated with Big Bill France as its head. In its early years, NASCAR maintained its runnin’ roots, with most of its drivers either former bootleggers or mechanics of such, most famously Junior Johnson. But as the years passed, moonshining lost its allure, NASCAR grew, and tensions between drivers and the law died down. In fact, a reunion of former moonshiners and federal agents was even established. Today NASCAR drivers are as law-abiding as the next man (or woman), but when that checkered flag drops on race day, every one of them feels that same adrenaline rush those runners were chasing long ago in the hills of Appalachia.