From 1920 to 1933, federal law prohibited the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” in the United States. This dark period of American history is known as “Prohibition.”
Even though alcohol was illegal, the U.S. didn’t become a nation of teetotalers during Prohibition as entire illegal economies sprang up to satisfy the continuing demand for alcohol. During the 1920s, bootlegging, speakeasies, and distilling operations flourished. Plus, Prohibition had the unexpected consequence of greatly expanding organized crime as the mob became heavily involved in keeping Americans well-lubricated.
During Prohibition, alcohol was smuggled in from other countries or produced by secret distilleries. Getting smuggled or illegally produced alcohol to speakeasies or individual drinkers required transportation. That’s where bootleggers came in.
A “bootlegger” is someone who makes, sells, copies, or transports goods illegally. According to Britannica, “the word apparently came into general use in the Midwest in the 1880s to denote the practice of concealing flasks of illicit liquor in boot tops when going to trade with Native Americans.”
Transporting alcohol during Prohibition was risky. In order to evade the authorities, bootleggers needed cars that looked ordinary on the outside but were modified for greater speed and better handling to outrun authorities. These cars had souped up engines, modified suspensions, and grippy tires to enhance performance. And all but the driver’s seat were removed so that more cases of liquor could be transported. Plus, the bootleggers needed to develop “sharp driving skills to speed and maneuver along dirt, gravel, single-lane, and occasionally, paved roads after dark and at times with their headlights turned off.” Source.
As you might imagine, these high-performance bootlegging cars were pretty fun to drive, so even before Prohibition ended in 1933, racing these cars on makeshift tracks became a popular pastime. And thus, “stock car” (or an ordinary-looking race car) racing was born.
The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (or NASCAR) was created Bill France, Sr. and held its first race in 1948 at Daytona Beach. Many of the early NASCAR drivers were former bootleggers who developed their skills evading authorities while transporting moonshine. Somewhat surprisingly, the NASCAR website proudly notes that “In the first decade or so of NASCAR racing, the transportation of illegal liquor in the South was huge business, and a lot of the sport’s early stars drove, owned or built moonshine cars.” And NASCAR notes that an inaugural member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Junior Johnson, was a noted “moonshiner” who “was never caught on the road with a load of moonshine” due to his driving skill and engineering abilities. Junior Johnson once said, “Moonshiners put more time, energy, thought and love into their cars than any racer ever will. Lose on the track and you go home. Lose with a load of whiskey and you go to jail.” True.
Here’s a sort of related story. About 15 years ago, I went to a NASCAR race with a friend who was a huge racing fan. Going to a NASCAR race is an all-day affair, so my friend told me to bring my own food and that he’d supply the beer (Busch, of course). When we pulled out our food while sitting in the stands, my friend exclaimed,
“Jennings, what is that food??!!!??”
Me: “it’s vegetarian sushi.”
Him: “You can’t eat sushi at NASCAR! In fact, in the entire 60-year history of NASCAR which has included hundreds of millions of attendees, I bet you are the first person to EVER eat sushi at a NASCAR event. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone doesn’t just kick your ass for fun!”
My friend didn’t invite me to any other races.