Stock cars and bootleggers the real story

Published 3:50 pm Tuesday, July 27, 2010

What is North Carolinas

favorite sport?

For lots of North Carolinians it is stock car racing the NASCAR variety. Even those of us who are not NASCAR fans take pride in a sport that we think got its start here and has been a home to many of it heroes.

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We take pride in the North Carolina moonshiners who honed their stock car driving skills by outrunning the revenuers. It is a mythical fascination like we have for the outlaw pirates on our coastal waters 300 years ago.

We worry when we read this week in the New York Times that television ratings for NASCAR in the important young men demographic (19-34 years old) declined by 29 percent last year.

Could the age of NASCAR be over?

Not likely. Not in our lifetimes.

But there may have to be some changes in our views about the history of stock car racing and our states connection to it. We may have to share credit (or blame) for the beginnings of stock car racing.

The challenge to North Carolinas claim to a preeminent role in stock car racing history comes in a new book, Real NASCAR: White Lightning, Red Clay, and Big Bill France, by UNC-Asheville history professor Dan Pierce.

Pierces entertaining discussion of the hell of a fellow, mill village, fairground red clay race track, and moonshine culture gives some credit to North Carolina for early stock car racing. But, he writes, big-time racing got its start before World War 2 in Daytona Beach and Atlanta where big crowds and big prizes drew the best drivers. In these venues an ambitious young driver and promoter, Bill France, began a career that led to his successful effort to consolidate and control stock car racing.

Ironically, it was bootlegging that led to a major shift of stock car racing to the Carolinas after the end of World War 2. Led by Atlanta Constitution editor Ralph McGill, drivers with bootlegging convictions were barred from the citys Lakewood track. But many of the best and most popular drivers had been convicted of running moonshine. These popular drivers moved to new racetracks in the Carolinas.

Bill France followed, promoting, building, and owning new tracks. Bootlegging had an underappreciated role in some of the new tracks. For instance, in North Wilkesboro, France partnered with men connected to bootlegging interests. They developed one of North Carolinas most important racetracks. The same group developed Occoneechee Speedway in Hillsborough.

Pierce tells about another underappreciated group with ties to bootlegging: mechanics.&bsp; Without a car that had been modified to outrun the law enforcers chase vehicle, even the best driver would be in trouble. The modifications to the pre-war Ford V-8 increased speed significantly. According to former Charlotte Motor Speedway President Humpy Wheeler, the V-8 became a race car in just a few days with the right hands working on it.

So, when the moonshine running drivers came to the track to race, their mechanics were key players on their teams.

Pierces story of the creation of the states only remaining major speedway and the running of the first World 600 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway is worth the price of the book.

Pierce ends his book with the retirement of Bill France in 1972. Thus, he does not cover the closing of the North Wilkesboro and Rockingham speedways, except his detailed description of how Bill France made NASCAR his familys business helps us understand why our historic connections were trumped by money.

Maybe there is some consolation. Charlotte got the new NASCAR Hall of Fame. Its first inductees, other than Bill France and Bill, Jr., are all North Carolinians: Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, and Junior Johnson.