Ingram's Flat Spot On Moonshine Tales by Jonathan Ingram Which came first -- bootleggers or stock car racing? If you answered bootleggers, you'd be wrong. Now that the NASCAR Hall of Fame is up and running in Charlotte, it's time to ...
Ingram's Flat Spot On
by Jonathan Ingram
Which came first -- bootleggers or stock car racing?
If you answered bootleggers, you'd be wrong.
Now that the NASCAR Hall of Fame is up and running in Charlotte, it's time to reinforce the notion that racing stock cars existed all over the map in the U.S., not just in the South, and involved a lot of reprobates, maybe, but not necessarily bootleggers. Lousy story, but accurate.
I guess it's the Scots-Irish in me that enjoys being contrary to perceived popular opinion and it's the same sentiment that wonders why some literary types who don't do their homework keep repeating the oft-told tale about moonshiners getting together for racing shindigs in their spare time. I can forgive the general populace for choosing the wrong story if it's a better story.
Sure, it happened. Bootleggers raced one another for the excitement and fun and to raise more money by gambling on each other's hard-earned cash that came with a danger premium. But hell, they used to run flag races on the beaches around Ormond and Daytona for stock cars, driven by men betting on themselves, since the time cars first were generally available. They'd race down the beach; turn around at a flag stuck in the sand, then race back again. So was that the beginning of stock car racing?
Why is it important? Because it's an all-American story. Other than basketball, stock car racing is the only major league professional sport that began in America. It's southern in style, in its conduct and its emphasis, because that's where NASCAR began. NASCAR succeeded in no small part because of the bootleggers, but mostly because it built a better organization to take advantage of stock car racing's huge popularity in the Southeast and the presence of all those whiskey trippers.
So, I'm splitting hairs, right?
NASCAR also succeeded because it took advantage of existing racing venues and promoters in the Northeast, the Midwest and the West. Otherwise, it would still be a regional series like ARCA.
So if the bootleggers and NASCAR didn't start stock car racing, who did?
Ransom E. Olds and Alexander Winton first raced their eponymous vehicles against the stopwatch on the sand in Florida in 1902 at the invitation of the managers of the Ormond Beach Hotel. Perhaps they were the first.
In terms of actual races on a circuit, it's a similar story. Factories and dealers thought racing production cars would be a good way to generate excitement and sell more cars.
A sanction number from the AAA exists for just such a race on Sept. 5, 1927 at the Atlantic City Speedway in Amatol, N.J. The criteria for an entry were a car catalogued and sold to the public and without alterations. Most of the cars were entered by dealers and twelve more were purchased by the Speedway itself.
It's likely that the cars were sold after the race by the dealers and track owner. The situation underscored that the presence of sufficient cars capable of putting on a race was the most important criteria. It also underscored the problem of hosting a series of races if the cars were re-sold shortly afterward!
It was the boon in the automotive business despite the Great Depression that led to enough cars for private owners to race them regularly. But first, the Gilmore Gold Cup was organized by the AAA with sponsorship from second-generation oil man Earl Gilmore of Los Angeles, starting in 1933. Once again, dealers were encouraged to enter cars for the four-race series, which began in Elgin, Ill. According to car buffs looking for the 1932, 1933 and 1934 Ford Roadsters used in the event, the cars were sold once again shortly after they were raced by hired professional drivers -- usually from Indy car racing -- behind the wheel.
The cars were sought after by collectors because once stripped of fenders, bumpers, headlights and windshields they had that early "hot rod" look about them. As importantly, they were the first production cars to carry Ford's fabulous flathead V-8 and had a racing pedigree.
The biggest race in the series was held at Mines Field near what is now the Los Angeles International Airport. According to the L.A. Times, 75,000 turned out to see the stock cars race in the second round of the Gilmore Gold Cup in February of 1934 on a B-shaped dirt track. I don't believe that attendance figure, but it was a race that certainly made a big impression on manufacturers, the AAA Contest Board, which sanctioned it, promoters and all others interested in contests involving motor cars.
It was only after the Mines Field race that the city fathers of Daytona Beach elected to replace the departed Land Speed Record attempts on its hard-packed sands, which moved to the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1935, with a stock car race. It was two years later that the Lakewood Speedway in Atlanta -- following Daytona's lead -- started running stock car events in place of motorcycle races or barnstorming Indy cars on a track originally built around the city's reservoir for horse racing. The circular and dangerous mile in Langhorne, Pa., also took up stock car racing.
What did not happen: so many southerners gathering to watch bootleggers run in pastures that a promoter eventually put a harness to it. Instead, the sudden upsurge in availability of used cars despite the Great Depression gave promoters all over the country an opportunity to put on a show featuring the fendered V-8's from Ford as well as Dodges and Chevy's at existing venues.
In addition to air races, wing walking, quarter midgets or motorcycles, promoters also began to look at stock cars as a cheap thrill show. These shows attracted all different types in different parts of the country -- especially bootleggers in the Southeast, of which there were many.
At the same time, the powerful V-8's created a whole new category of bootleggers up and down the Appalachians. For the first time, bootleggers could out-run any law enforcement officers despite carrying a full load of 'shine. More than any others, white yeoman Americans of Scots-Irish descent all along the Appalachian chain and its foothills supported stock car racing and these defiant bootleggers who led the way. The bootleggers had an edge in appeal due to their "up yours" attitude toward a central government that most mountain folk -- and particularly southerners -- could barely tolerate. These drivers were faster because they had more testing -- on country roads in the dead of night with over 100 jars of moonshine in the back seat and trunk. And they had more cash to invest in after market parts. They appealed to the Scots-Irish appreciation of danger and defiance.
This is the situation harnessed by Bill France, the NASCAR founder, who gradually brought other parts of the country where they were racing stock cars into a NASCAR sanction. He probably couldn't have done it without the bootleggers -- in terms of both car count and fan appeal. But stock car racing existed in all regions of the country at the time he started because of its appeal to the working class, not just in the Southeast.
So now that the NASCAR Hall of Fame is opening its doors in Charlotte, that's why you'll see fans pouring in from all across America to revisit what is an American story.
Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jonathan@ jingrambooks.com.