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How a Group of Daring Bootleggers Created NASCAR

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
March 19, 2024 3:00 am

How a Group of Daring Bootleggers Created NASCAR

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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March 19, 2024 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, long before NASCAR’s rampant commercialism lurks a not so distant history that has been carefully hidden from view—until now. Here to tell the true story behind NASCAR’s hardscrabble, moonshine-fueled origins is Neal Thompson, author of Driving with the Devil: Southern Moonshine, Detroit Wheels, and the Birth of NASCAR.

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Let's take a listen. The idea for the story of Driving with the Devil started pretty soon after the attacks of 9-11. My wife and I were living in Baltimore at that time. I was working for the Baltimore Sun newspaper. We were ready for a change.

We were ready to move somewhere else and have a different kind of lifestyle. And at that same time, I found myself thinking a lot about a new book idea. I had just published my first book, Biography of the Astronaut Alan Shepard, and found myself drawn to NASCAR.

But not NASCAR per se. Really what I wanted to explore was where did this come from? Where did this fascination with cars spinning around an oval at 200 miles an hour, where did this start? Where did it really start? I began digging into sort of the origins of the sport itself. That led me to learn a little bit about Bill France, whose family at that time owned the entire sport, which was a shock to me. But every version of the origin story of NASCAR that I came across started with Bill France in about 1948, 1949. But many of these histories, articles, and books started that year and didn't go back prior to that and explain, well, how did it get to that point? It didn't just come into existence from nothing that year, and it didn't come into existence, surely, because of this one man, Bill France. So what I really wanted to do was go back, go deep, and find out who were the other characters who played a role in creating this sport before it was even known as NASCAR.

And so my wife and I, after 9-11, about a year afterwards, decided, let's move south, let's go live in the south where this story takes place. So we moved to North Carolina, to Asheville, North Carolina, and I spent the next couple of years driving throughout the south to Florida and Atlanta and northern Georgia and across North Carolina to track down the true pioneers of NASCAR, some of whom were still alive at that time, thankfully. My research led me, thankfully, to one of the overlooked pioneers of the entire sport, a guy named Raymond Parks, who was living in Atlanta at that time. He was in his late 80s, early 90s, still showing up for work every day at the liquor store that he owned in North Atlanta, still dressed in his suit and tie with a dapper hat, and I was pointed toward Raymond as the guy who was really the overlooked hero of the early days of NASCAR, someone who never fully got the credit he deserved for playing a vital role in bringing that sport to life. When I first got to know him, though, he didn't want to talk about it, largely because the origins of the sport, at least as far as he was concerned, were directly tied to the moonshining business. Raymond was a successful moonshiner. He actually started moonshining at age 14, got to know another North Georgia moonshiner who offered him a job.

Raymond grew up poor on a farm in North Georgia outside Dawsonville. His dad was a drunk. There were 16 kids in the household, and Raymond, who was one of the eldest, one day just walked off the farm at age 14 and started working as a moonshiner's apprentice. Spent a little time in jail after that, but learned the ropes and over time became an incredibly successful moonshiner himself.

Running moonshine, making moonshine, later he was so successful that he hired his cousins to do the driving for him, and that whole enterprise of making and delivering moonshine is what eventually led to stock car racing. When I first met Raymond, though, he didn't want to talk about all that. He felt like that was part of the past. He was kind of a modest, quiet guy, at least at the age that he was.

So I just kept showing up at his office saying, okay, you don't want to talk about it, that's fine, I'll come back next week and we'll just chat about other things. Little by little I kind of earned his confidence, and little by little he started opening up to me and started sharing with me the story of his role in creating NASCAR, and it was just a remarkable story of dirt poor North Georgia kids trying to find a better life for themselves. You know, so many of them grew up poor and their prospects were to continue working on their family farm or maybe get a job at the local mill for a few dollars more, but a lot of these kids wanted more.

They wanted adventure, they wanted escape. Once they got introduced to cars and moonshining, they wanted speed and money and a different version of success, and moonshining and then stock car racing gave them that. It gave them something that they hadn't thought about and it gave them something that they hadn't previously had access to, and Raymond is a perfect example of that. But I'll never forget being in his office one day when he reluctantly pulls out a couple of old photo albums and starts leafing through them, and I got shivers up my spine because he starts showing me photos that really told the story of early stock car racing in the early days of NASCAR and told the story of Raymond Parks' role in creating that sport.

So he's showing me pictures of old races, terrible car wrecks, photos of the corpse of his cousin Lloyd C. who was killed in a moonshining accident, photos of Red Vote, the foul-mouthed mechanic who worked on Raymond Parks' cars, both his moonshine cars and later his stock cars and his race cars. These photos were just a thrilling sort of recapturing of that moment in time when NASCAR didn't even exist. It was just sort of this humble sport where these moonshiner kids were having fun on the weekends racing each other out of cow pastures, and little by little those raggedy races evolved into what we later came to know of as stock car racing and then NASCAR.

And you've been listening to author Neil Thompson tell the story of his own story about what prompted him to write this book, which was, well, with so many writers, just a question. How did NASCAR really start? How did the sport start before there was ever NASCAR and this legend named Bill France?

It all started with moonshiner kids racing each other out in cow pastures. When we come back, more of the story of moonshine runners and the birth of NASCAR here on Our American Stories. MUSIC Lee Habib here, the host of Our American Stories. Every day on this show, we're bringing inspiring stories from across this great country, stories from our big cities and small towns.

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Find your perfect Phillips Roku TV today online or at your local Walmart and Sam's Club. Hi, I'm Antonia Blythe and this is 20 questions on Deadline. Joining me today is Alison Brie. Welcome Alison.

We got second place in my seventh grade lip sync contest for one of the songs on that album. The one that was like, you've already won me over. Oh that's a good one. Yeah, it's like very slow. Of all the options. In spite of me, like what did we do?

It's so slow. Don't forget to listen to 20 questions on the Deadline. Thank you again Alison. Thank you. And we continue with Our American Stories and Neil Thompson, author of Driving with the Devil, Southern Moonshine, Detroit Wheels and The Birth of NASCAR.

Let's return to Neil with more of the story. The moonshine that these guys were making and delivering was essentially corn whiskey. It was a version of the whiskey that had come to America from the Irish and Scots-Irish immigrants who came here and then sort of gravitated toward the south and ended up in the hills and hollers of North Carolina and Georgia and other southern states where a lot of these farmers learned that by growing corn and turning that corn into whiskey they could make more by selling the liquid product of that agricultural output rather than just becoming straight-up farmers. And so moonshine became an important component of the economy of the south going way back to the 1800s and then on into the early 1900s. There were tax issues, you know, the US government over time kept making attempts to tax this product and obviously the moonshineers didn't. They resisted that which is what led to sort of this cat and mouse game that evolved between the moonshiners delivering their, you know, agricultural product as they viewed it to market or to their customers in the cities for the most part.

And then the tax agents, the revenue agents trying to track them down and arrest them and charge them with tax fraud. So the term moonshine came from the practice of making this whiskey in the dead of night to avoid detection, to avoid setting off any alarms by, you know, revenue agents seeing the smoke rise from these stills that were mainly set up and deep in the woods next to a stream. They needed fresh water for these things. So by operating in the middle of the night under the moonlight that's where the term moonshine evolved from. And then the term bootlegger came from the concept that by one of the ways that these guys would try and hide their liquor would be in a flask that was hidden inside their boot.

And in time the term bootlegger evolved just to sort of encompass all of the efforts to make and sell illegal whiskey throughout the South and elsewhere. In time these moonshiners learned that the best means of transporting their product, the moonshine, jars of moonshine packed tightly into crates, was a Ford V8 coupe. Sort of the explosion of the moonshining trade in the early decades of the 1900s coincided with the evolution of the automobile. So you see the Ford V8s becoming more and more sophisticated, the moonshiners realized this was the perfect car for delivering moonshine because it had a great suspension, it was fast, and it was easy to work on. So you also see the beginnings of car mechanics, who later became race car mechanics, figuring out how to take apart Ford's engines and put them back together and add modifications and bore out the cylinders and do these other things to make them even faster than they were meant to be and even more sort of solid and reliable than they were designed to be. I, through Raymond Parks, got to become acquainted with his trusted mechanic, Red Vogt, who had a garage in downtown Atlanta and was sort of a mad scientist when it came to Fords, in particular, other cars as well, but mainly Fords. He would try little weird modifications that no one else had thought of with the exhaust and the engine and the ratio of air to fuel. He was just a mad genius and learned to make these cars go faster than they were ever meant to go.

He also, on the side, sometimes worked for the cops and the revenue agents, but didn't put as much effort into their cars as he did the moonshiners and those cars. And so little by little, these cars, the drivers are learning to drive them faster, the mechanics are making them go faster, and then on weekends, a lot of these moonshiners start getting together to race each other, see who has the fastest moonshining car. Some of the early races were incredibly modest. They were just at a cow field somewhere or a field, farmer's field, and one car would go out and sort of tear up an oval in the grass, and that would be the racetrack.

That was it. They'd line up, they'd race each other, and just for bragging rights, they would see who had the fastest car. In time, these races started to attract crowds. I mean, there weren't any professional sports in the South at that time.

It would take years before the first professional sports team, the Atlanta Braves, came to Atlanta in 1965. So in the 20s, 30s, and 40s, there were college sports, but not really the type of sport where you'd go to an auditorium and watch a game or a stadium and watch a game. Once these stock car races started getting up and underway and word spread and newspapers started covering these events, then they did start to attract crowds. They put up bleachers next to the oval track.

They started building concessions, and savvy businessmen started to learn how to make a little bit of money off these, putting a fence around the whole thing and charging admission fees. So what these early races were, we call NASCAR stock car racing today, but at that time, these stock cars really were just off-the-rack cars that anyone could buy at their local dealer. That's where the term came from, stock. They were supposed to be just the stock that came with the car, no modifications. Of course, that concept of being, quote, strictly stock was thrown out the window right off the bat because of these modifications that the moonshine mechanics started making to the cars. Very quickly, these quote-unquote stock cars became highly modified, highly customized cars that bore, at least on the outside, some resemblance to the cars you'd see on the dealer's lot, but on the inside were very different machines altogether. So by looking exactly like any other car that, you know, your parents would drive to a church that Sunday, these cars were intended to look normal so that they didn't attract the attention of the revenue agents so that they could fit in once they got to town.

But again, under the hood, that engine was way more powerful than any regular stock car that anyone else in the neighborhood had. Late 1830s into 1940, the sport's progressing, and Raymond Parks is now becoming what in future years would be described as the first team owner of stock car racing. He kind of pulls together two of his cousins, Handsome Roy Hall and Quiet Lloyd C., who were both moonshine drivers for him, and they are just wonderful drivers because they've learned how to drive on the back roads of Georgia to escape the revenue agents. So those two are part of Raymond Parks' team, as is Red Vote the Mechanic. So together, this team starts traveling through the South, visiting other races, and having enormous success as the sport is getting up and running. Unfortunately, though, Roy Hall's a bit of a scamp.

He's always getting in trouble, spends time in jail. And then Lloyd C., who is much quieter and sort of a good kid, gets caught up in this bizarre moonshining argument with one of his cousins who shoots and kills him, and Lloyd C. is dead sometime in 1940. And then a year later, the entire sport comes grinding to a halt as America gets involved in World War II. A lot of the characters in my book and in the story of the evolution of NASCAR spent time serving in World War II. Raymond Parks served at the Battle of the Bulge.

But when these guys come back home, most of them to the South, and start to pick up the pieces of stock car racing, and they came back very hungry to get back on the racetrack and take the sport to the next level. At this time, we get introduced to some of the new characters on the scene, one of whom is named Red Byron. There were two reds in this book, Red Vote and Red Byron. So Red Byron served in a B-24 airplane, mainly serving up on the Aleutian Islands off the Alaskan coast. His plane gets shot down, among many that were shot down at that time, and they sort of crash land, and Red Byron ends up with just a ruined left leg.

It's a shrapnel. The doctors actually wanted to amputate his leg, and he said, no, don't touch it. I'm a race car driver.

I need that leg. And you've been listening to Neil Thompson tell a heck of a story. Moonshine was basically corn whiskey, he said, and let's face it, the farmers could make more money selling a liquefied version of their crop than the actual crop. And moonshining explodes because, well, automobile production explodes in this country, too, and leave it to men and their toys.

Soon, well, guys are modifying these cars to, well, outrun federales, revenue agents, and frankly, to just outrun themselves and have fun. Pretty soon, they're competing in cow pastures, and the next thing you know, people are showing up because, well, the South had no professional sports. This became the sport of the South.

World War II comes, so many of these guys put on a different suit and go and fight for their country, only to come back hungrier for the action and for the sport they'd created. When we come back, more of this remarkable story, moonshine runners and the birth of NASCAR here on Our American Stories. He's in!

Touchdown! Hi, I'm Antonia Blythe, and this is 20 questions on Deadline. Joining me today is Alison Brie. Welcome, Alison.

We got second place in my seventh grade lip sync contest for one of the songs on that album. The one that was like, you've already won me over. Oh, that's a good one.

Yeah, it's very slow. Of all the options. In spite of me. Like, what did we do?

It's so slow. Don't forget to listen to 20 questions on the Deadline. Thank you again, Alison. Thank you. And we continue with Our American Stories and Neil Thompson, author of Driving with the Devil, Southern Moonshine, Detroit Wheels, and the Birth of NASCAR.

Let's continue with the story. So Red Byron, because he had this damaged leg discovered early on once he was back on the track, that he couldn't drive the way he was used to driving because his left leg didn't have strength and he just couldn't maneuver the clutch pedal the way he needed to to be competitive. So he talked to Red Vote about it and they came up with a fix, which was for Red Vote to weld two pins onto the clutch pedal so that Red Byron, whose leg was often in a brace, could lift up his left leg and put the boot of his left leg into this space between these two pins on the clutch pedal. And then when he needed to change gears, instead of putting pressure on that leg, which didn't have much strength to it, he would pivot the bottom half of his body, which will allow him to depress and release the clutch pedal and change gears.

I don't think Red Vote or Raymond Parks thought it would work, but in time, Red Byron got used to it and realized, you know, this works, I can do it. And he started to win race after race after race. As we get into 1948 and stock car racing is really up and running and NASCAR is a formal organization now, Red Byron becomes the first champion of that first year of NASCAR. Some people look at 1949 as the more official first year of NASCAR because that year they implemented new standards for these strictly stock cars, but Red Byron wins that year as well.

So the first two years of NASCAR's existence were won by this crippled war veteran with a bad leg that was essentially strapped into his clutch pedal, could barely walk, but could win race after race and become champion two years in a row. The cast of characters at this time is just super colorful and bizarre, you know, guys with names like Goober and Soapy and Speedy and One Eye, but Red Byron was different from that. He was a little bit nerdy. He was thoughtful.

He was a big reader. He was quieter. He wasn't a big party or drinker like some of the other guys were. He didn't get into fights like many of them did.

But behind the wheel, he was again, fearless and an incredible competitor. As the sport continues to find its footing again after World War Two, you get into a number of races through 1946, but 1947 is when it really starts to pick up speed again. The end of 1947 is when a group of racers, Raymond Parks, Red Vote, Red Byron and then Bill France, who was based in Daytona Beach, they all get together down in Daytona Beach, sort of called there by Bill France to have a meeting to figure out how are we going to organize this sport now that we're back up and running? What are the rules?

What's the point system? Who's going to oversee these different races and kind of make things a little bit more consistent and cohesive to compete with other organizations that were trying to oversee different types of racing at that time, like the AAA? So there's this famous meeting that occurs in December of 1947, and a lot of these drivers and Raymond Parks, the moonshine runner turned businessman, they come up with a system of rules and create an actual sport, National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. The name came from Red Vote, the mechanic, who never fully got credit for the role he played in figuring out what the rules were and coming up with that name and the acronym, but at the end of that meeting, December of 1947, it was actually two days. At the end of the second day of the meeting, Bill France had himself named president of NASCAR. A lot of the other guys said, Yeah, go ahead, Bill, you go ahead and run it.

We're not interested. We just want to race and make money and go fast. Bill France was a little bit more business minded and also a little bit power hungry and essentially had himself named the president of NASCAR and over the next couple of years would end up becoming the full owner of the entire sport, which subsequently would be owned by his family for many decades moving forward. I think a lot of the early drivers and others who were involved in the sport, including Raymond Parks, because I talked to him about it, felt betrayed by France.

They were all in it together, but France kind of took over and ran with it and pushed them all aside. And when the sport started to become even more popular than any of them could have imagined and started to make some real money, none of the early pioneers and actual founders of the sport saw any of that money or got any benefit from the role they played. One dynamic that was part of stock car racing from the very beginning was trying to get racers to follow any kind of rules. You know, one way to get a hillbilly to do something is to tell him not to do it. And that sort of unspoken rule applied to a lot of the limits that NASCAR tried to place on what drivers could and couldn't do. You know, if they told them to drive with a seatbelt, they would drive without a seatbelt. If they told them, you know, go easy on the other guy's car, they would slam into the other guy's car. It really was a wild and often lawless period of time for stock car racing. And this is something that Bill France over time tried to clean up and get racers to tow the line and to follow the rules. But because so many of the early racers were moonshiners and were sort of these rebellious southern boys, Bill France had a really hard time keeping them in line. And I think over time that became sort of a tension in the sport and part of the dynamic, part of what fans loved, which was, you know, rebellious drivers breaking the rules. And then on the other hand, you have the official NASCAR folks led by Bill France trying to tighten things up and make things cleaner and more formalized and more family friendly.

And I think that tension continued for decades to come. And now probably that rebellious aspect of the sport is mostly gone. Moving ahead to more recent times, NASCAR's fan base doubled in the 1990s and continued to grow at 10 or more percent per year. For a period of time, it was the fastest growing sport in America, rising to number two. And so much of the sport became about marketing.

Revenues averaged three billion dollars a year and were on the rise. NASCAR TV ratings are double those of baseball, basketball and hockey. Half of NASCAR's viewers are women today. And NASCAR events, the races themselves, are just wildly popular bacchanals, you know, just attendance of one to two hundred thousand at some of these races. Massive people showing up for these races and staying there for five days in a row. Well, beyond before and after, you know, a few hours of the big left turn during race day. Primetime viewership on not just ESPN, but network sports and the drivers of today are millionaires. You know, they're living in mansions and throughout the south, they're celebrities, they're superstars, they date supermodels. Walk up and down any supermarket and you see NASCAR logos and ads emblazoned on just about every package you can find. So it's just exploded, which to me is remarkable that it started from such humble roots with just these poor southern boys trying to have some fun. And a terrific job on the production by Greg Hengler and a special thanks to Neil Thompson, author of Driving with the Devil, Southern Moonshine, Detroit Wheels and The Birth of NASCAR. And boy, we meet some real characters.

Fred Byron comes to mind injured in flight combat in the Aleutian Islands in World War Two and nearly crippled. He still manages to win the unofficial and first official NASCAR championship. And that meeting in 1947, two days in Daytona Beach, is where NASCAR gets formed.

They were trying to solve a problem, getting the drivers to follow the rules. No simple task when you're dealing with a bunch of wild, rebellious southern boy. Bill France managed to do that. To some, he's a hero. To others, well, sort of a goat. Either way, NASCAR has permanently changed, now one of the top grossing sports in the country, and it routinely beats in the ratings baseball and football. Who could have ever imagined? The story of NASCAR, moonshine and so much more.

In a way, the story of America here on Our American Stories. NFL Plus Premium is your ticket to the NFL offseason. Catch all your favorite offseason coverage and stream exclusive content from the NFL Draft, training camp, free agency and more. Relive the biggest plays from the season with full and condensed game replays. Plus, stay connected with 24-7 football news and coverage on NFL Network. Sign up today at Plus.NFL.com. Terms and conditions apply.

Find the perfect TCL Roku TV for you today at Amazon.com. Don't forget to listen to 20 Questions on the Deadline. Thank you again, Alison. Thank you.
Whisper: medium.en / 2024-03-19 04:08:59 / 2024-03-19 04:21:13 / 12

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