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
Invention Mysteries is written each
week by Paul Niemann. He can be reached at
© Copyright Paul Niemann 2004