On 'Bookwatch': Real NASCAR history

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 10, 2012

By D.G. Martin
N.C. Bookwatch
Is NASCAR North Carolina’s favorite sport?
For an answer, watch UNC-TV’s “North Carolina Bookwatch” today at 5 p.m.
In the Research Triangle, college basketball reigns. But for many North Carolinians, stock car racing, the NASCAR variety, is their passion. Even those of us who are not racing fans take pride in a sport that we think got its start here and has been a home to many of its heroes.
We take pride in the North Carolina moonshiners who honed their stock car driving skills by outrunning the revenuers. It is a mythical fascination like we have for the outlaw pirates on our coastal waters 300 years ago.
We worried year before last when we read reports that television ratings for NASCAR in the important young men demographic (19-34 years old) has declined by 29 percent. Even though the latest ratings reports indicated that the decline has been reversed, we still wonder if the age of NASCAR might be coming to an end.
Not likely. Not in our lifetimes.
One thing might have to change though. It is our idea that the origins of stock car racing are all right here with the old moonshiners in North Carolina. Because of a recent book about the history of NASCAR, we may have to make some changes in our views.
The challenge to North Carolina’s claim to a preeminent role in stock car racing history comes in “Real NASCAR: White Lightning, Red Clay, and Big Bill France,” by UNC-Asheville history professor Dan Pierce.
Pierce’s entertaining discussion of the “hell of a fellow,” mill village, fairground red clay race track, and moonshine culture gives some credit to North Carolina for early stock car racing. But, he writes, big-time racing got its start before World War II in Daytona Beach and Atlanta where big crowds and big prizes drew the best drivers. In these venues an ambitious young driver and promoter, Bill France, began a career that led to his successful effort to consolidate and control stock car racing.
Ironically, it was bootlegging that led to a major shift of stock car racing to the Carolinas after the end of World War II. Led by Atlanta Constitution editor Ralph McGill, drivers with bootlegging convictions were barred from the city’s Lakewood track. Many of these popular drivers moved to new racetracks in the Carolinas.
Bill France followed, promoting, building, and owning new tracks. Bootlegging had an underappreciated role in some of the new tracks. For instance, in North Wilkesboro, France partnered with men connected to bootlegging interests. They developed one of North Carolina’s most important racetracks. The same group developed Occoneechee Speedway in Hillsborough.
Pierce tells about another underappreciated group with ties to bootlegging: mechanics. Without a car that had been modified to outrun the law enforcer’s chase vehicle, even the best driver would be in trouble. The modifications to the pre-war Ford V-8 increased speed significantly. According to former Charlotte Motor Speedway President Humpy Wheeler, the V-8 “became a race car in just a few days with the right hands working on it.”
Pierce’s story of the creation of the state’s only remaining major speedway and the running of the first World 600 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway is worth the price of the book.
Pierce ends his book with the retirement of France in 1972. Thus, he does not cover the closing of the North Wilkesboro and Rockingham speedways, except his detailed description of how France made NASCAR his family’s business helps us understand why our historic connections were trumped by money.
Maybe there is some consolation. Charlotte got the new NASCAR Hall of Fame. Its first inductees, other than Bill France and Bill, Jr., are all North Carolinians: Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, and Junior Johnson.