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Did bootleggers help invent NASCAR?

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By Paul Niemann

[JULY 15, 2004]  "Bootleggers, start your engines!"

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In a story that you won't find on the official NASCAR site on the Web, stock car racing got its start with bootleggers running moonshine whiskey in the 1920s and early '30s. During Prohibition in the South, bootleggers would haul their moonshine from their homemade stills to customers at night with their cars' lights turned off to avoid detection by the law. To avoid being stopped when the police spotted them, the bootleggers modified their cars in order to outrun the police.

Eventually the bootleggers wanted something more challenging than outrunning the law, so they began racing each other with their souped-up engines. They would haul moonshine Sunday night in the same cars that they raced on Sunday afternoons. A new sport was born.

After Prohibition ended in 1933, the government placed heavy taxes on liquor sales, so bootlegging showed no signs of ending. The fact that there are dry counties in the South reminds me of the summer I spent in Florence, Ala., in 1987. On the way to work each morning, I drove past a liquor store near the county line where the sign out front revealed the store's name as Last Chance Liquors because it was the last chance to buy alcohol before entering a dry county. Driving back into the wet county each night, I'd notice that the other side of the sign referred to that same liquor store as First Chance Liquors.


"Gentlemen, start your engines!"

There are probably some NASCAR fans who think that these words are the last four words of the national anthem. NASCAR, which stands for National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, has become the fastest growing spectator sport in the country. Its modern roots go all the way back to 1938, when Bill France Sr. organized a race at Daytona Beach, Fla. France was one of NASCAR's first racers before it became NASCAR, and some of the sport's earliest racers were veterans of the bootlegging circuit.


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The sport grew in popularity, but racing came to a screeching halt during World War II. After the war, in 1947, Bill France realized that the sport needed some organization to it, with its own set of rules, regulations and records. He brought promoters to Daytona Beach to organize the governing body of auto racing. NASCAR had begun.

The first NASCAR race was in Charlotte, N.C., in June of 1949. The winner of that race was Glenn Dunnaway in a '47 Ford. Dunnaway was disqualified, though, when inspectors found an illegal part in his car's shock absorbers. The illegal part was often used to make bootlegging cars go faster, and the car had been used for bootlegging earlier that week.

Auto racing led to the development of an important invention that we all use every day -- the rearview mirror. In the early days of racing, racers had a passenger riding shotgun to let them know where the other cars were behind them. The added weight slowed the cars down a bit, but the rearview mirror solved this problem.

In a bit of irony to this story, NASCAR, the sport whose earliest participants got their start running moonshine whiskey, does not allow liquor companies to advertise hard liquor on the race cars or to sponsor NASCAR races.

[Paul Niemann]

Invention Mysteries is written each week by Paul Niemann. He can be reached at niemann7@inventionmysteries.com.

Copyright Paul Niemann 2004

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