From Running Illegal Liquor To Running Cars On The Race Track: How NASCAR Got Its Start With Moonshine

NASCAR culture
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The history of NASCAR is pretty wild compared to every other professional sport in the United States.

The beginning of the NFL, NBA, MLB and all the other pro sports we enjoy as Americans pales in comparison to all of the exciting stories behind every unbelievably colorful character that made racing what it is.

From modern legends that seem larger than life like (my favorite) “The Intimidator” Dale Earnhardt, to “The King” Richard Petty, to the pioneers of the sport like Junior Johnson, you can bet there’s more than a few crazy tales to be told about their lives.

And with crews recently discovering what they believe to be an old moonshine cave at North Wilkesboro Speedway, it feels like a good time to take a look back at how professional racing as we know it today came to be.

The Beginnings

Of course, NASCAR got its start in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains during the prohibition era, namely in the Blue Ridge areas of Georgia, Tennessee, and of course, North Carolina. It started when people were desperate for alcohol (can you blame them?) and the only way to get it was illegally and under the table.

And, there’s one specific place that you can truly credit it all with: Wilkes County, North Carolina. Back in the early 20th century, Wilkes county was known as the Moonshine Capital of the World. By that I mean, Wilkes county alone would produce 5-10 million gallons of liquor a year. From ONE rural county.

That’s a damn lot of moonshine.

So, what do you do with all that liquor in a time when it was outlawed?

You sell it.

Obviously, it was illegal during the prohibition era to possess any alcohol at all, and after that, many counties in North Carolina remained dry for decades (a few of them still are). People would set up sites deep in the hills and hollers, near running water, but under enough cover to hide their setup as much as they possibly could using trees and leaves.

Moonshining was typically done in the hotter-than-hell summers in the aforementioned southern states. Men, usually, would make the “white lightning” and sell it to people across the region. The only way of transporting it effectively, though, was to soup up regular street cars so that the drivers could get up to high speeds and outrun the police if they got caught on a run.

Young men would do just that, and usually learned the dirt roads so well that they could literally turn their headlights off and drive their route in total darkness if need be.

Since making moonshine is quite the physically taxing operation, it was typically done by multiple generations of families with recipes that had been passed down through the decades. It was not taxed at by the federal government, which is why it was illegal to make and sell for so long.

How long? Well, nowadays you can buy moonshine in stores, but I will tell you that regardless of what the label might say, that’s not the real deal stuff. Will it get the job done in a pinch when you don’t have the hookup to the local moonshiner and you want to give it a go? Sure.

But real deal moonshine, like what Junior Johnson started running, is as hardcore as it comes and you certainly will never find it in a store.

As a personal anecdote to drive this point home, I received a jar of the real-deal, non-tax-paid Wilkes county moonshine for my 21st birthday from a family member (who shall remain nameless) that either knew someone who had a hookup or had the hookup themselves (I can’t really say which).

It’s basically sat in my cabinet for years now, and I treat it as more of a souvenir than anything else… but it will knock you on your ass. Especially those cherries some jars have floating at the top, but I digress…

From Running Moonshine To Racing

Eventually, as time went on in the 1930’s, moonshiners began to race their souped up cars that were modified to carry moonshine just for fun. They’d race them at both fairgrounds, and sometimes, legitimate tracks. And they would soon discover that people, often tens of thousands of them at a time, would pay to watch them race.

Bill France, who was still a bootlegger in 1940’s and would eventually go on to found NASCAR as a professional sport, recruited moonshiners from the surrounding area to start racing professionally in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.

In December of 1947, he gathered the best of the best in stock car drivers, mechanics and owners in Daytona Beach, Florida, where leaders met and the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing was officially born. At that meeting, they established standardized rules that solidified NASCAR as an actual entity.

And the rest is history.

Many of the early drivers, notably the legend Junior Johnson, came from those moonshinin’ families and had many brushed with the law that only add to the lore of NASCAR and what makes it so unique. He was actually arrested at the still site in what was the largest moonshine operation in American history, and you can read more about that HERE.

This video also provides a little more insight on how runnin’ moonshine turned into runnin’ real deal race cars that we know and love today as NASCAR:

A beer bottle on a dock



A beer bottle on a dock