Neal Thompson, author of Driving with the Devil: Southern Moonshine, Detroit Wheels, and the Birth of NASCAR, read at the 2008 Carolina Literary Festival over in Burnsville, NC this past weekend. We caught up with Neal to get a quick overview of the wild world of early moonshiners and stock car drivers.
Appalachian History: Could stock car racing as we understand it have emerged from, say, New England, the Midwest, or California, or is there some specific Southern cultural attribute(s) that is indelibly connected with it?
Neal Thompson: I’d argue strongly that the varied mix of elements that led to the creation of stock car racing could only have occurred in the South. Just one example is the lack of professional sports and spectator sports in the South, which didn’t get it’s first true professional sports team until the Braves moved to Atlanta in the 1960s. That meant people were hungry for a sport like stock car racing to attend on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, to root for their favorite driver, a sport to call their own.
Also, the deep roots of the southern moonshining culture are directly responsible for the sport, since so many of the early racers (and mechanics, and financial backers) were moonshiners. As I explore in the book, the Northeast and Midwest and West Coast had their own forms of racing, mainly open-wheel, Indy-style racing. But stock car racing was a truly southern creation, and that’s why it remained a ‘southern sport’ for so long.
AH: During Prohibition, moonshiners were using souped up cars to outrun police. When do we first see a transition from that use to organized races?
NT: It’s hard to pin down an exact transition point, but I’ve focused in the book on the period of the mid-1930s. That’s when bootleggers began racing each other on makeshift racetracks, to see who had the fastest whiskey car. And that’s when stock car racing as a spectator sport began to emerge and to spread, a phenomenon that coincides with the advent and spread of Ford V-8s (introduced by Ford in 1932), which became the favorite car of both the moonshine runners and the first twenty years of stock car racers.
The V-8 coupe, for example, was a big, sturdy, reliable car with a roomy trunk to hold plenty of liquor, but it was also relatively easy for mechanics to tinker with – and to make it run faster than Henry Ford intended it to. When fans then got a look at those V-8s roaring around a dusty track, a new sport was born.
NT: Raymond’s role in the creation of the sport that became NASCAR is so crucial that it has always amazed me that more has not been written about the man. Although, I’ve recently learning that when the new NASCAR hall of fame opens in 2010, there will be a special display that honors the sport’s five founding fathers, including Raymond and two other characters in the book – Red Byron and Red Vogt. Each of them (and, of course, Bill France) played an important role during those critical early years. But Raymond’s role was hugely important.
Not only did he create the first stock car racing “team” before WWII (with two moonshining cousins driving, and Red Vogt as the mechanic, and Raymond as the financier), but he replicated that successful “team” approach after WWII and put together the threesome that won NASCAR’s first championship in 1948 (and again in 1949). He also let Bill France drive his cars now and then, and a few times loaned Big Bill money when he needed cash to pay drivers at the end of a poorly attended race.
AH: Early stock cars were all Fords: Ford Model As, then Ford Model Ts, then Ford V-8s. That changed after WWII. What happened?
NT: After the war the nation’s automakers got back up and running and Ford’s competitors finally began to produce cars that could compete – on the road and on the racetrack – with Ford’s V-8s. Within just a few years after the war, the Ford would lose its long-running dominance.
AH: How did ‘Big Bill’ France outmaneuver Parks & Red Vogt (who coined the name NASCAR) for control of the organization?
NT: A lot of people would argue that Bill Bill “stole” NASCAR from the other co-founders. And it’s true that he did nudge aside his friends, including Raymond Parks and Red Vogt, and took control of the organization – and it’s shares – right from the start. At the same time, however, no one else was really interested in taking over the business side of the sport – the book keeping and money managing, etc. Mainly, they just wanted to race. So Big Bill, in many views, did what had to be done for the sport to survive, even if he was a bit of a bully about it.
AH: What competition did the NASCAR organization face from other racing leagues?
NT: I found it fascinating that AAA, the organization that now does roadside assistance and promotes safety, was once a race promotion organization. But they got out of the business in the 1950s, as did other groups that were vying for dominance of stock car racing, and ever since around 1955 NASCAR has been the dominant force in the sport.
AH: Thanks so much for joining us today!