The South’s Prohibition History and Rise of NASCAR

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   

Fathoming the Mysteries of “Ghost” Docks and Finding a Bit of Hollywood

Fathoming the Mysteries of “Ghost” Docks and Finding a Bit of Hollywood

—August 14, 2016

I discovered the strangest dock I have ever encountered several decades ago just outside of Greenville, North Carolina in a small pond deep in the woods near my step-grandmother’s farm. And when I say “small” I’m talking quarter acre at most. So small that you could traverse its length in a canoe with a couple of strokes of the paddle. So small that the dock, which only extended about seven feet over the water, seemed like it ended right in the middle of the pond. And ended to what purpose would be the question, as the pond was too small for boating and one could easily fish every part of it by casting from any one spot on the shore—that is, if that dock hadn’t been in the way.

The dock essentially proved to be a complete nuisance to fishing the pond, as its apparent age and dilapidation precluded any thought of walking out on it to drop a line. Thus, it was in the way, and its possible role as serving as cover for a lunker bass or two also proved worthless, as the only bites I got that afternoon were from the herds of deerflies that assaulted me in successive, increasing waves. Given the difficulty of reaching the pond, apparent lack of any fish, and abundance of hungry deerflies I never went back.

While I did not have a term for such structures back then, I now call docks that serve no readily apparent purpose “ghost docks.” And the only purpose I have been able to come up with for that particular dock is that perhaps it had been a good fishing hole at one time, but whoever fished it had been especially afraid of snakes. That notion only came to me in hindsight when I gained a healthy respect for snakes after coming face to face with a mating pair while fishing a different pond…but that’s another story. 

In my adopted home up here in Nova Scotia I have encountered quite a few ghost docks over the years. With more than 4,600 miles of coastline and at least 3,800 coastal islands we have a lot of docks. Generally, wherever one sees a dock there is a nearby or adjacent house, cottage, boathouse, seafood processing facility, or some other variety of human construction. But sometimes there is just simply a dock.

These ghost docks are usually found on remote islands or out-of-the-way, hard-to-reach sections of the shore, and cause seafarers such as myself to wonder, what is the purpose of that dock? Why is that dock there when it seems to serve no other purpose than to provide easy access to a deserted island or barren stretch of rocky seashore?

These are rhetorical questions because I do not know the answers, but I always speculate as to the purpose. I generally assume that newer looking docks built in especially picturesque locations have been built by landowners who dream of eventually building a cottage at the site. I tend to believe that older looking ghost docks were built by coastal fishermen as perhaps a waypoint at which to take a break or clean fish between home port and the fishing grounds. And the really ancient looking structures in the remotest waters call to mind the rum-running that significantly bolstered the local fishing industry’s earnings in the 1920s and ‘30s.

A ghost dock at one of my favorite anchorages along the coast morphed over the years from “spirit” to “working.” The anchorage is located in a gut between Taylor and Moore’s Islands roughly 20 nautical miles northeast of my home waters, a perfect distance for an overnight stay when cruising for a two-day voyage, or as a first-night stop for an extended voyage up to Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore. The gut provides excellent protection from wind and waves, and despite being only about four miles from the tourist-trap destination of Peggy’s Cove, feels “ends-of-the-earth” remote—the granite cliffs, boulders, spruce strands, wildflower fields and scrub brush seemingly showing little change from 2,000 years ago. We generally see few other boats when there, and have never had to share the anchorage overnight with other boats, excepting friends cruising in company on their own boat. And while Taylor Island has become quite popular with rock climbers in recent years, their occasional presence is unobtrusive and they are hardly noticed during our walks around the island. 

The ghost dock was present on my first “discovery” of the anchorage back in 2003. It was almost more platform than dock, and rather unremarkable other than the fact that it was not connected to anything else related to man. It was also located on the much smaller and much less interesting Moore’s Island. I assumed that it was just a place for local fishermen to rest or wait out a storm, though we never saw anyone tie up to it.

Nothing changed about the dock until we arrived five years ago to find that it had been rebuilt or refurbished, and seemed more like a dock than a platform on stilts in the water. But again, I did not give much thought to it.

The next year found the dock connected to a staircase ascending the granite slabs some 100 feet to the island’s primary plateau. Ah, now this was interesting, and so, for the first time ever we landed on Moore’s Island. The stairs were well built and sturdy, and someone had been willing to spend some serious coin to ease access to the plateau, which, while having nice views over Dover Harbor, had nothing over the views from the ridges and plateaus of Taylor Island. It seemed like a nice picnic spot, but other than that we hardly gave the dock and stairs another thought after returning to our boat.

Until the next year, when we saw that the stairs ascended now to a small house. While I was slightly put off by the thought of a house looming over one of our favorite anchorages, its placement and design made it seem inconspicuous. As I had an architect friend on board with me, we had to do some snooping, and he was especially impressed by the quality of the home’s design, build and materials, all of which he deemed of “European” style and exceptionally expensive.

I’ve been back five times since it was built, and the home does not mar our enjoyment of the anchorage. It’s owners are always absent and the house seems to be receding into the landscape.

There’s a last bit of information I can convey regarding the evolution of this particular ghost dock: A year ago I started doing movie reviews of films shot on location in Nova Scotia. While1920x1920 watching the movie “The Weight of Water” I was struck by one particular scene featuring Sean Penn cavorting with a bikini-clad Elizabeth Hurley on a 50-foot sailboat anchored in a gut between two ruggedly beautiful islands. While Ms. Hurley in a bikini was definitely worth the re-watch, during that second viewing I realized that the action was taking place at my Taylor Island anchorage. Sure enough, a little research proved the film crew spent quite a bit of time there, and I now believe that the original ghost dock I found when I first went there had been built by the film crew, perhaps as a camera platform and/or for use by a supply boat.

I suppose that I will next have to figure out the mystery of the absent homeowners…but then again, I’ll be just as happy if I never meet them there.

—Published August 4th by