The South’s Prohibition History and Rise of NASCAR

—April 2, 2019

Along with celebrating life’s best moments with drinks and friends, we here at the Southern Drinking Club thoroughly enjoy learning about history, especially when it focuses on the South and/or drinking. When one considers the history of drinking in the U.S., however, nothing captures the public’s imagination more than America’s failed 1920-1933 effort to ban it—that is, Prohibition.

While Prohibition represents a broad-based story, with components touching upon just about every aspect of American life at that time, the first thoughts that come to most people’s minds when the word is mentioned today are Chicago gangsters, bootleggers, rumrunners, and speakeasies. In short, Prohibition tends to be billed primarily as a northern history, with scant participation from, or impact on, the South. Part of this is undoubtedly due to the fact that much of the South was already “dry” when Prohibition was enacted, though it’s also likely due in some part to Yankee propensity to co-opt history.

And sure, Yankee big-city gangsters of that time, along with border-crossing bootleggers and rumrunners, make for exciting history, but the South’s Prohibition history was equally exciting, and perhaps more relevant in its impact on America’s overall historical evolution. Not only did many big Southern cities have their own bootlegging gangsters—plenty of gangster-style shootouts and the like in New Orleans, Houston, Mobile, Tampa, and Tallahassee during Prohibition—but Southern moonshiners and bootleggers had been battling state and local government agents for years prior to the enactment of national Prohibition.

We Southerners just don’t like being told what to do, and long resorted to moonshining in the face of local, state, and then national efforts to stop us from enjoying a drink. And while rumrunning is historically associated with running it down from Canada, rumrunning from the Caribbean into Southern ports had been turning Southern entrepreneurs into millionaires for decades before that form of smuggling was needed up north.

In short, while more and more cities, towns, counties and states in the South went dry in the decades before Prohibition, that level of aridness was dry in name only. The only thing national Prohibition did was enhance the Southern moonshine business and number of Southern entrepreneurs engaged in it. Oh, and it also brought about the rise of the great Southern sport of stock car racing,  which is now watched by millions around the world under the banner of NASCAR.

With national Prohibition leading to such an increase in business, Southern moonshiners had to spend more and more time on the road getting their fine product to market. And while they had long had to contend with local and state efforts to stop them, this only intensified with the addition of the Feds. Southern moonshiners got a big edge in the cat and mouse game with Ford Motor Company’s introduction of the V-8 engine. which provided moonshiners with the “perfect moonshine deliver vehicle.” As noted by Neal Thompson, author of “Driving with the Devil: Moonshine, Detroit Wheels, and the Birth of NASCAR, a V-8-mounted Ford “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 the moonshine.”

That Ford V-8 may have been an innovative Yankee invention, but Southern boys love to tinker and moonshiners across the South put their ingenuity into V-8 modifications that would give them even more speed to elude Johnny Law during deliveries. These deliveries undoubtedly became easier with the end of national prohibition in 1933, though they were still needed as many state and local governments opted to remain arid with regard to booze.   

Southerners also liked to compete, and at some point in the mid-1930s moonshiners started racing their delivery vehicles against each other at local fairgrounds and improvised tracks. These early stock car races drew in the crowds, which led local entrepreneurs to start planning races with paid attendance and cash purses for the winners. By 1938, stock car racing was pretty much established across the South, with numerous dedicated racing tracks that drew in crowds by the thousands.

Not only had many of these pre-NASCAR drivers trained by running moonshine, but “a large percentage of the early mechanics, car owners, promoters, and track owners had deep ties to the illegal alcohol business,” say Daniel S. Pierce, in his book, “Real NASCAR: White Lightening, Red Clay and Big Bill France.” In fact, Raymond Parks, the first person to establish a professional stock car racing team, had made a fortune in running moonshine in Georgia and  his investment in a professional team was likely used in part to launder some of his ill-gotten gains. His racing team drivers were some of the top moonshine runners in North Georgia, and his primary mechanic was known as “the bootleggers’ mechanic.”

The intersection of moonshine running and stock car racing is perhaps best evidenced by a stock car race held at Atlanta’s Lakewood Speedway in September 1945, when police intervened to ban five drivers from racing due to their prior moonshine running convictions. The 30,000 fans did not take kindly to this police action, and in the face of what was about to be an ugly riot, the police relented and a top moonshine runner won the race.

Bill France, the founder of what was to become NASCAR in 1947, did not have a background in moonshining, though he was an avid recruiter of moonshine runners during his initial efforts to standardize stock car racing. In fact, many of the teams involved in the first official NASCAR races in the late 1940s had deep ties to moonshining. According to the aforementioned Neal Thompson, moonshine money was instrumental in sustaining NASCAR through its early years.

In the early 1950s, though, France made a concerted effort to bury NASCAR’s moonshine connections as part of an ultimately successful effort to make NASCAR more family friendly. Any connection between NASCAR and booze was pretty much then lost until 1972, when Canadian-based Carling Brewery sponsored a rookie driver with its Black Label brand. And, since then, NASCAR’s association with alcohol has primarily revolved around beer, but now you know that NASCAR was initially fueled by moonshine and driven by Prohibition.     

In honor of the South’s Prohibition-related heritage that led to the rise of NASCAR, we suppose we should offer a NASCAR-themed cocktail recipe . . . .

Easy! Grab a beer and bottom’s up. OK, but for those of you with more refined tastes, we offer the following:

The Green Flag

Fill a tall glass with ice and add:

  • 2 Oz premium vodka
  • 1/4th Oz melon liqueur (or any green-tinted liqueur, really)
  • 1 Oz white cranberry juice
  • 1 Oz Sprite
  • 1//2 Oz lime juice    

Garnish with lime and enjoy!

The Red Flag

Half fill a cocktail shaker with ice and add:

1 Oz premium vodka

1 Oz white rum

1/2 Oz Red Bull

1/2 cup of cranberry juice

Mix for 30 seconds, pour into a chilled Martini glass, and savor!      

—Originally published in March by the Southern Drinking Club   

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