Before there was NASCAR (National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing), there were ‘moonrunners.’ A guy with a souped up car with a 200-gallon moonshine tank, driving his coupe at breakneck speeds through the twisty mountain roads to deliver the ‘shine. Usually at night, and usually with police or revenuers waiting for him. Evading the roadblocks and outrunning the chase was all part of a day’s work to a moonshine runner.
Some accounts say that all early race drivers were involved in bootlegging. That is how at least most of them afforded the fastest and therefore most expensive machines–with their moonshine profits. They ran moonshine down the twisty mountain roads to people during Prohibition. The runners would modify their cars in order to create a faster, more maneuverable vehicle to evade the police. They’d remove the rear and passenger seats to make more room for moonshine, add heavy duty suspensions to the rear of the car to handle the extra weight and add a steel plate in front of the radiator. Many of these changes have influenced the design of the modern stock car.
One of the main ‘strips’ in Knoxville, TN had its beginning as a mecca for aspiring bootlegging drivers. When Prohibition was lifted in 1933, the owners of these first “racecars” watched their profitable businesses dry up. Since they had no reason to use them for “runnin’ shine” anymore and found themselves with time on their hands and a lot of money, many wanted to race their cars for pride and money.
These races were popular entertainment in the rural South, and they are most closely associated with the Wilkes County region of North Carolina. Writer Vance Packard called Wilkes County the “the bootleg capital of America” — in 1935, a raid on one house yielded 7,100 gallons of white whiskey, the largest inland seizure of moonshine ever made in the United States.
Wilkes County products were delivered throughout the area by such driving daredevils as Junior Johnson, the famous moonshiner turned champion NASCAR driver. Junior’s father Robert Johnson was one of the biggest copper still operators in the area. The older men did the distilling, the younger ones transported the moonshine, and the women “called the cows” if the U.S. alcohol and tobacco tax agents appeared.
The North Wilkesboro Speedway, opened in 1947, was the first NASCAR track.