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CUP: Origins, Part 5 – Take Car, Keep Mule

(This is the fifth and final installment on the early days of RacinToday’s NASCAR and stock car racing.)

Beyond the competitive elements of honor and defiance plus the inherent violence of motor racing, why was stock car racing so popular in the Southeast and its predominant populations of Scot-Irish, English and German descendants? The sport proved to be a revolution and a counter-revolution at the same time.

The southern racers exemplified the commitment to rural values in a world moving towards urbanization. The racers simultaneously stood as an ironic greeting to the new world with their pursuit of a machine-driven sport.

Loyalty to the land had long been the lynchpin of southern rural life. Along with dishonor, the worst kind of pain was being moved off the land, which for so long had brought freedom of spirit, physical and emotional salvation, something worth fighting for. Over the course of several centuries, the independent men who populated the region in the Southeast cleaved by the Appalachians were quick to sign up for various wars in defense of that land in numbers far out-weighing other regions.

This attachment to the land began to come under threat from the changing lifestyles brought on by the gradual mechanization of the 20th Century. A new age of machinery brought new promise in terms of mechanical horsepower on the farm or jobs elsewhere, but it raised the often unwelcome spectre of change. First there were newly built paved roads, then hydroelectric power followed by the factories. And people of means running the factories who didn’t have to rely on a good mule.

“Race cars I can take or leave, but I’ll own a mule ’til the day I die,” said Junior Johnson, the famed bootlegger and racer who grew up on a farm in Ingles Hollow, N.C.

The devotion to mules by Johnson, who was plowing in bare feet behind a mule when his older brother Fred asked him to drive a race car for the first time at the nearby North Wilkesboro Speedway, sums up the conflict embedded in the arrival of mechanization of the 20th Century in the Southeast.

This new age was different from the familiar hunkering of a freight train surging against the distant horizon or the mail train careening down the fixed iron rails. There was a crouching permanence as well as regular paychecks at hand with the mills that held a man from dawn to dusk in the whirl and clatter.

There was also another sound in the air, one that promised mobility as well as loyalty to the land, a dazzling elixir. Down through the changes came the wailing engines of the bootlegger, popping rocks like bullets from beneath the tires and leaving a telltale coat of dust on clapboard houses while skirting the law on back country roads.

By living in the country and racing to the city with a load of moonshine, the bootleggers demonstrated it was possible to have the best of both worlds. When Lloyd Seay was hauling one of the South’s finest crops to Atlanta, the husky cry of his flathead Fords could be heard throughout the pine-studded hills of Dawson County. Racing at breakneck speeds down dirt roads with expert bravado in the 1930’s, he let it be known a motorized man could have land and freedom, money and gobs of horsepower.

A little more than a decade later, Johnson was roaring out of Wilkes County in North Carolina. “I’ve had cars that run so fast on a straight road that it looked like it was two foot wide, on down the road, you know,” recalled Johnson, who said his bootlegging cars were faster than anything he drove on a race track because there were no rules.

With mobility, the land and the means to survival had new possibilities. Not long after country preachers railed against the first automobiles while citing the Book of Joel, this new ethos was reinforced by those who dared to race stock cars on dirt ovals.

While building NASCAR into a national series of races that determined a champion in post-war America, time and again France relied on drivers and teams from the Southeast to produce starting fields that sustained ticket sales. The outlaw appeal of the numerous bootleggers among the drivers and car owners in the 1950’s helped boost the gate for France and other promoters, who also recruited them.

In this decade, shothouses flourished in many southern cities, as well as bars serving “hooch” disguised as bonded whiskey and speakeasies where illegal gambling with slot machines was often regarded with a nod and a wink by police, many of them post-war veterans like the patrons. Bootlegging remained a very profitable business long after Prohibition, the end of the Great Depression and World War II.

The first multi-car team owner Raymond Parks, in fact, was so concerned with making hefty sums of money from the illegal liquor trade and numbers running that he quit racing in NASCAR after the 1950 season in order to maintain a lower profile at a time when commissions were being appointed by politicians to investigate bootlegging in major cities in the Southeast.

The list of car owners for the race winners from the early 1950’s carries the names of many who were involved in the businesses of tax-free liquor and the penny-ante gambling known as the numbers beyond Parks. In Atlanta alone, men such as Frank Christian, Ted Chester, Buckshot Morris and Frank Strickland were known to be involved in such shady businesses in addition to winning races as car owners in NASCAR. Well known race car drivers involved in the whiskey trade included Johnson, Buddy Shuman, Curtis Turner, Buck Baker, Gober Sosebee and the Flock brothers: Bob, Fonty and Tim.

In the 1953 NASCAR season, the sanctioning body’s fifth year, winning car owners in eight of the 37 Grand National races were associated with rackets and six of the winning drivers had started their careers in the bootleg trade.

In many respects, stock car racing legitimized the bootlegger’s chase because it produced the same excitment, danger and mythical appeal. As the creator and enforcer of the rulebook, all sanctioning bodies, including NASCAR, played the ironic role as the legal authority.

The widespread treatment in books, stories and movies of the connection between southern bootlegging and NASCAR helped sustain the myth that the combination of the two gave birth to stock car racing. More accurately, the bootleggers gave impetus to a form of racing that started in the 1930’s well ahead of NASCAR’s creation, a phenomenon that was also taking place elsewhere in the country and in the absence of bootleggers.

In the Southeast, the bootleggers were symbolic of the defiance toward a central authority, which was at the heart of the Scots-Irish culture of honor. In this sense the whiskey trippers were a necessary ingredient to stock car racing’s popularity with fans. As a ready source of cash and equipment they were large-scale contributors in terms of car counts as well.

But the presence of bootleggers was not sufficient to build stock car racing into a regional powerhouse and later a major league sport. There was something more universal about the mythical appeal of the bootlegger.

Defiance was inherent in racing – the belief by any one man that he could outrun an entire field of drivers. At the time stock car racing first came along during the Great Depression and its aftermath, many an inhabitant in the South and elsewhere was in need of a reminder that independence and survival against long odds drew the utmost admiration.

Fans drawn to stock car racing admired and identified with winning drivers like three-time champion Lee Petty as well as the soft-spoken two-time champion Herb Thomas, each a farmer who had decided to go racing. By the end of the 1950’s, the majority of drivers and car owners in any NASCAR field of the 1950’s were of similar backgrounds to Petty and Thomas, some of whom were deeply religious and anti-alcohol.

There were other conflicts with central authority beyond the making of white lightning. While hastening the checkered cloth, this affordable form of racing told the factory bosses and their company towns to pack it up, knocked the foreclosing agent on his ear, put the tenant landlord out of mind and hailed the winning driver who stood for defiant, unalloyed individual freedom. In this sense, it didn’t matter if the driver or car owner was a bootlegger.

For participants, stock car racing was a way up and out without having to leave behind the rural or small town life common to so many of the NASCAR participants.

In addition to Thomas and Petty, the other driving champions of NASCAR’s premier Grand National circuit in the 1950’s were Bill Rexford, a journeyman from New York, Baker, a bootlegger turned bus driver from Charlotte, and Atlanta’s Tim Flock, the only other driver with known bootlegging connections to win a title.

NASCAR founder “Big Bill” France understood he had tapped into something very large and very American in the sport of stock car racing. But he worked hard at the business fundamentals as well. Just as he succeeded against rival promoters on his home turf, France also created a better business plan versus existing promoters in other regions, some of whom became allies. France offered sufficient purses, some insurance, some consideration for safety and year-end payouts according to the points standings.

France eventually risked virtually all the profits earned during the 1950’s – roughly $500,000 – in the funding of the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway, which opened in 1959 at a cost of $2 million. Stock sales in the private corporation, loans and advance ticket sales helped bridge the gap. “When the track opened he was bankrupt,” recalls his son Bill France Jr. “he just didn’t know it.”

From the first race that was so close it took three days to decide Lee Petty had won it, the track was a success and France eventually paid his debts. Daytona’s high-banked asphalt was subsequently imitated by other track builders all over the country clamoring to bring France’s high-speed show to town.

Ultimately, the superspeedway era put NASCAR head and shoulders above all other stock car sanctioning groups. After half a cenutry, the Daytona track continues to stand as a living monument to the ethos of speed, danger, endurance and defiance first established in the tumultuous stock car racing days of the 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s.

As with all sports, longevity and popularity result from universal myths that resonate across a broad spectrum as a result of competition. In the case of stock car racing, that meant more than an outlaw’s defiance of the shotguns and legal power of the Federal government.

The appeal complemented but was not restricted to the culture of honor prized by the Scots-Irish and bootleggers. That’s why stock car racing existed in various parts of America long before NASCAR was formed and why France found fertile ground beyond the strongholds such as Langhorne, Atlanta and Daytona for his concept of a national championship.

The desire to defy, rise above, or speed past the many road blocks posed by the status quo, which often included long days of labor and excessive demands on individual freedom, was common in the work-a-day world. Working class fans, more than a few willing to celebrate their own defiance in all manner of transgressive wildness and indulgence on race weekends, could identify with drivers in this pursuit.

From the beginning all fans could also see in the spinning circle of cars the migratory mystery and wanderlust so familiar to the descendants of the Scots-Irish, the Anglo-Saxons and the Germans. There was the white-knuckled thrill of running a thousand miles an hour, to re-cast the lyrics of Depression era singer Jimmy Rodgers. Like all great journeys, the participants and fans never knew in advance how straining to the limit in a machine would turn out for each driver, a cautionary tale in the modern industrial world.

There was honor in the dangerous struggle and the spiritual consolation of a journey that always brought one back home, or for some poor souls an honorable death at least. This form of racing combined both evangelical and pagan elements in its appeal.

That explains how kingly, protective driving heroes like the teetotaling Richard Petty will enter the NASCAR Hall of Fame in the inaugural class alongside the defiant Johnson, son of North Carolina’s biggest bootlegger.

The other three inaugural inductees are seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt Sr., founder France and Bill France Jr. The latter took over NASCAR from his father in 1972, moving the sport from the inaugural superspeedway era into the modern era of major league status.

In order to capture the early days, the NASCAR Hall will have a special section reserved for pioneers including Atlanta’s Parks.

Ironically, in a sport so closely tied to tax-free liquor, the new $195 million Hall of Fame in Charlotte will be paid for with a hotel-motel tax. An expected 400,000 a year are anticipated to visit the Hall to engage the tale of NASCAR’s history. True to the sport of stock car racing, the fans will arrive from all over America.

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 jingram@racintoday.com