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Bootleg whiskey fuelled rise of stock car racing

Devoted NASCAR fans started turning up at the Wyant Group Raceway a full six hours before the start of the feature race on Wednesday, July 25.

They each paid almost fifty bucks for tickets to the NASCAR Pinty’s Series Velocity Prairie Thunder Twin 125 Races. Early-birds arrived to stake out the choice seats, view the competitors’ time trials, buy race-day souvenirs and pretend they’re at the big glamorous track in Martinsville, Virginia instead of the still-very-nice-but-on-a-slightly-humbler-scale one near Martensville, Saskatchewan. By mid-afternoon, still at least a couple hours before racetime, the stands were packed solid.

Hard to believe, but stock car racing wasn’t always a flashy high-profile sport.

In fact, its roots are a little on the shady side; dating back to the 1920s and 1930s, when fearless drivers in fast cars ran moonshine on dark nights along winding roads.

In the southern United States during the Prohibition Era, illegal moonshine whiskey provided a much-needed cash flow for poverty-stricken Appalachian communities.

Transporting cases of homemade hooch to market was a challenge. In an article at history.com, Christopher Klein documented how NASCAR racing legends Junior Johnson, Curtis Turner and others honed their driving skills at a very young age. The backwoods boys also figured out how to soup up vehicles’ engines, to squeeze every last ounce of speed, and also reinforce the frame and suspension.

The high-powered bootleggers’ cars were indistinguishable from a regular vehicle; also known as a “stock” car; that came straight out of the factory. Their mundane appearance was designed to allow them to blend in with every other vehicle on the road.

It was only on “business” trips that these modified rockets on wheels were let off the leash.

NASCAR competitors tune up prior to the race in Saskatoon July 25

Eventually, “stock cars” came to mean a heavily-modified production vehicle, that was actually anything but stock.

Ironically, noted Neal Thompson, author of ‘Driving with the Devil: Southern Moonshine, Detroit Wheels, and the Birth of NASCAR,’ teetotaller Henry Ford did more for the bootlegging business in the years following Prohibition than anyone else. Ford banned drinking by his workers, but his V-8 engine, introduced in 1932, was a moonshine whiskey-runner’s dream-come-true.

“With the Ford V-8, suddenly there was an engine that was a match for their profession,” wrote Thompson. “It was fast enough to stay one step ahead of the law, rugged enough for the mountain roads and had a big enough trunk and back seat to squeeze in moonshine.”

Anytime you’ve got two fast cars and two hotshot drivers, you’ve got the makings of race. It wasn’t long before bootleggers started racing their whiskey cars at local fairgrounds and racetracks. To nobody’s surprise, people flocked to the tracks to watch them showcase their driving skills. The first big stock car race was held in 1938 in Atlanta in front of 20,000 fans. The top drivers in those days, naturally, were convicted, or about-to-be-convicted, bootleggers.

After the second world war, racing promoters wanted to clean up the sport’s image, so they banned drivers with a record. Fans were not pleased, and protested by staging a near-riot until the bootleggers were reinstated.

In 1947, fed up with the race promoters’ phony campaign to whitewash the sport’s origins, a top stock car driver named Bill France called a meeting in Daytona Beach, Florida, and invited all his old bootlegging friends to create the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR). The notable thing to come out of this meeting of guys who made a name for themselves by bending the rules, was, ironically, a set of standardized rules.

Over the years, NASCAR’s bootlegging beginnings faded into distant memory, as corporate sponsors came on board and the sport morphed into the family-friendly circus it is today.

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