(Editor’s note: This is the third installment of a five-part series on the earliest days of stock car racing.)
CUP: Origins Part 2 The LA Connection
CUP: Origins Part 1 - Lee Petty’s 1st Race
The late Tim Flock, a two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup driving champion from Atlanta and a former whiskey tripper, always said stock car racing was born in nearby Dawsonville. “Some bootleggers got together to see who had the fastest car,” Flock maintained. “They bet on the cars and then they raced right out in the middle of a corn field.”
The voluble Flock, who briefly raced with a pet monkey named Jocko Flocko on board his car, was often given to colorful tales as a means to get his name and sport into the newspapers.
Bootleggers might have run their own races, but loosely organized stock car races among owners betting on their vehicles had been happening since Ransom E. Olds and Alexander Winton first raced their eponymous vehicles against the stopwatch on the sand in Florida in 1902 at the invitation of the managers of the Ormond Beach Hotel. Later, flag races among those testing one another’s cars and skills were run up and down the beach – using flags to mark the turnaround point.
There are some grains of truth to Flock’s story about the origin of stock car racing as an organized sport. It first reached what could be considered an epidemic scale during the Great Depression, which increased demand for low-cost entertainment and bootleg whiskey.
The attraction to racing stock cars found several strongholds in three distinct territories in the East in the late 1930’s. To the north was the mile oval and big grandstand of Langhorne in Pennsylvania. At the southern boundary were the shores of Daytona, scene of the Beach & Road Course. Midway in between stood the mile oval at Lakewood in Atlanta with its large hillside grandstands.
Although they were not necessarily the first to host competition for what were essentially street cars, these tracks had some things in common beyond being dangerous due to high speeds. Each comprised a major venue hosting races of 100 miles or more in length. All were close to large concentrations of Americans of Scottish-Irish, German or English descent and they were located in territories known for bootlegging.
As historian David Hackett Fischer documented, in addition to whiskey-making skills the Scottish-Irish transplanted a culture of honor to the Appalachians, including a warrior-like attitude that readily embraced violence in defense of territory. In the early days of settlement, the German and English immigrants in the Appalachians and adjoining lands further bolstered the Scottish-Irish culture by embracing it as a means of survival in an unforgiving environment.
When stock car racing arrived in the 1930’s, the issues surrounding the individual honor so prized by the Scottish-Irish pervaded the circumstances of the races. Amidst the bellowing cars, individual rank and territory were often in dispute. Danger was always at hand, violence never far away.
The sport quickly came to represent the sort of defiance that was a constant element of the Scottish-Irish culture of honor, which also helped drive the bootlegging trade. Stock car racing also sustained this culture’s emphasis on loyalty to kin and fondness for legend – the kind wrought by strength in the face of adversity and carried from one generation to the next by storytelling.
The presence of bootleggers who were defiant of the law and central authority such as Atlanta’s Raymond Parks, who entered cars at Daytona, Atlanta and Langhorne built by the legendary Red Vogt on Spring St. in Atlanta, was part of the gate appeal at these tracks. But the bootleggers alone were not sufficient to generate the full fields required for a race. Numerous cars were needed to meet the demands of ticket buyers, who expected a racing show and not just a hippodrome exhibition. Plus, promoters relied on entry fees as a way to help pay the purse.
For individuals, the idea of being able to get in a car and beat an entire field of drivers was in itself an act of defiance. In this sense, a promoter counted on what Richard Petty so aptly described from what he saw when accompanying his father to racetracks later in the 1950’s: “Everybody thought they could out drive somebody.”
But bootleggers such as Parks were hard to beat. He not only had whiskey trippers behind the wheel, but had Vogt building the engines and tuning the chassis as well. In addition to building race cars, Vogt built the bootlegger cars as well as those being used by government agents to catch them. “I built the cars for the Revenuers on one side of the garage and I built the cars for the bootleggers on the other,” he said. “The bootlegger cars were always faster because the government always had regulations for its cars.” The bootleggers also paid better – in tax-free cash.
The tracks of Atlanta and Langhorne shared some racing heritage. Each hosted the barnstorming tours of the Indy cars in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. Daytona’s hard-packed sands, meanwhile, were the scene of land speed record attempts by purpose-built cars from the turn of the century. But daredevil Frank Lockhart’s death in pursuit of 225 mph and increasing danger in the ensuing years gradually ended such gambits in the mid-1930’s.
In 1936 the city of Daytona turned to hosting stock car races to boost tourism in north Florida’s wintry months, taking a page not only from its own speed-driven history but from the well attended races on the oiled-down dirt at Mines Field in Los Angeles, cheek-by-jowl to the Pacific and already in operation for two years. Although Mines Field would soon close due to the death of promoter William Hickman Pickens, the excitement created in Daytona once Bill France took over the organization of the races in 1938 then spread to Lakewood and Langhorne.
These three tracks in the East were like a fulcrum that gave the sport of stock car racing its tipping point. The fans turned out at the relatively large venues to see the “frammin’ and bammin,” as it was later described by Dale Earnhardt Sr. Along with the mile oval in Ft. Wayne, these tracks formed a loose-knit circuit. Despite the Great Depression they demonstrated the drawing power and appeal of a wild new sport, unlike anything else in America.
Events in Detroit comprised one of the primary fuels behind the sudden surge in interest in racing stock cars. By the mid-1930’s Detroit had begun producing cars with sturdy, integrated fenders in place of the more flimsy add-ons found on cars like the Model T. Contact between the fendered cars that began to appear in the mid-1930’s on dirt ovals proved a literal hit with fans. Above all, Ford’s introduction of the flathead V-8 was generating impressive speeds by the relatively heavy cars.
Despite the economic times, the auto factories were avidly pursuing a vast, yet-to-be-tapped market with ever cheaper production line cars throughout the 1930’s, which helped feed the racing fever that was evident across America due to a boom in cheap used cars. Chevy, for instance, introduced a lightweight Standard model in 1934 for $450. But it was Ford, which had sold 2 million cars equipped with its powerful flathead V-8 by 1936, that was the biggest catalyst due to its aftermarket performance parts business.
The Fords with larger trunks and interiors, heavy duty rear leaf springs and powerful V-8 engines accelerated bootlegging literally, because for the first time whiskey trippers could build machines capable of out-running anything else on the road. Bootleggers who could drive cars loaded with over 100 jars of moonshine flat-out on dirt roads in the middle of the night inevitably became aces on dirt track ovals. Car builders and engine tuners got better, too, as a result of the influx of cash from bootlegging.
Lloyd Seay won the first stock car race on Atlanta’s one-mile dirt track at Lakewood in 1938 driving a ‘34 Ford Roadster – the same model of car driven by the winner of the first race at Mines Field. The Ford was purchased on a used car lot by fellow bootlegger Parks shortly before the race. (Seay and Parks thus saved their more valuable bootlegging machines from damage or detection by law enforcement.) “If he hadn’t won that race, I might not have ever got the racin’ fever,” said Parks, who would be a mainstay in stock car racing for over a decade. Both men were from Dawson County north of Atlanta, a mountainous region heavily populated by Scots-Irish descendants.
Seay won that first Atlanta race in the open-topped car driving one-handed for all to see. Whether he faked an injury to one arm and was just showing off, it was the first of many impressive displays of car control, which also included cornering on two wheels in Daytona.
Stock car racing’s first driving legend, Seay (pronounced “see”) didn’t survive long enough to ever race in NASCAR. Six and a half years before the sanctioning body’s first race, he was shot through the heart and killed. On the verge of being declared the national champion by the AAA in 1941 after winning six of ten races on tracks of a mile or more in length at Langhorne, Ft. Wayne, Atlanta and Daytona, Seay met his demise in a moonshine dispute with a vicious and probably jealous cousin. The two fought over the issue of who would pay for a load of sugar, more a matter of honor than money. Seay died at the age of 21, the night after he won the big Labor Day race at Lakewood.
Known as “Big Bill,” France was a contemporary of Seay. He started as a driver soon after surreptitiously borrowing his father’s Model T to run “hot laps” on a board track in Laurel, Md. Not long after building an Indy-type car using a canvas body placed over the running gear of a Model T – perhaps taking a page from the book of Indy hero Lockhart – France sold his gas station in Washington, D.C. and moved to Daytona to get closer to the automotive action there.
He ended up driving in the city’s first two stock car races, then took over Daytona’s fledgling beach race from the city in 1938. He continued as a driver, often piloting a third spare Ford for Parks, whose regular drivers were Seay and Roy Hall, another well known Dawson County whiskey tripper.
Despite the fact quite a few of France’s victories as a driver came aboard the cars of bootleggers like Parks, who had cash to burn and the best mechanics, he always portrayed himself as a struggling good ol’ boy once he became an organizer.
“I enjoyed seeing people come to the races with more money and better equipment than I had,” he said of his pre-war racing days. “I enjoyed beating people like that.”
The canny France understood the fundamental appeal of stock car racing beyond the universally compelling honor of getting to the finish first by being the smartest mechanic, the fastest and bravest driver. At its core, stock car racing was the powerful suggestion of an American dream. A farmer, mechanic, lumberjack, plumber, mill worker or oil field roughneck could find freedom and independence from the workaday world in racing. And beat the status quo.
In this sense, the appeal of stock car racing to working class Americans cut across regional boundaries and was universal.
The participation of African-Americans further underscored the sport’s universal appeal. Dewey Gadsen, a black competitor respected by his peers who claimed to be Portuguese and went by the name of Rajo Jack to calm racial tensions, won the 200-mile race at Mines Field in 1936, a story typical of the self-reliance and opportunity represented by stock car racing and its low barrier to entry compared to the expensive Indy cars.
Likewise, after World War II many an humble farmer, mechanic and other blue collar workers won stock car races in the 1940’s and 1950’s at local dirt tracks across America on the basis of mechanical know-how, guts and the talent to keep a car balanced at speed.
France, meanwhile, eventually came in first in the race to organize stock car racing into a national championship.
CUP: Origins Part 2 The LA Connection
CUP: Origins Part 1 - Lee Petty’s 1st Race
(Next: The Southeast becomes the crucible of stock car racing.)
Jonathan Ingram has been writing full-time about the world’s major motor racing series and events since 1983 for newspapers, magazines and web sites.
John can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org