Today, NASCAR is a major sporting event in stock car racing, complete with a huge trophy and an even larger cash prize. The drivers achieve celebrity status from their adoring fans, their managers and corporate sponsors. When they fall, personally or professionally, their supporters either give them the world on a silver platter or drop them faster than the cars can accelerate depending on the situation.
Prohibition’s Early Days
The act of cars trying to outrun each other wasn’t always a multimillion dollar sport. It was inspired by rather dubious beginnings. How and why race cars became part of American life goes back to the early days of prohibition and moonshine.
Temperance organizations (those wanting to restrict or abolish consuming alcoholic beverages) have been around since the 1820s. By the early 20th century, women’s groups all throughout the country viewed the sale and consumption of liquor was disrupting family life and destroying marriages. The Anti-Saloon League, established in 1893, led a new wave of protests in 1906 against “saloon” culture. The league had support from factory owners and managers who were looking at the relationship of liquor consumption to problems of work performance and job safety.
President Woodrow Wilson issued a temporary prohibition order in 1917, shortly after World War I began, as a way of saving grain so it would be used for food production. Later that year, Congress submitted a bill banning the manufacture, transportation and sale of “intoxicating liquors.” This bill became the 18th Amendment and was ratified on January 29, 1919. It went into effect in 1920, one year later.
Congress also passed the National Prohibition Act in 1919. This was more commonly known as the Volstead Act, named after Mississippi Representative Andrew Volstead who was the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. This bill provided federal enforcement guidelines of Prohibition.
Stock Car History and Moonshine
Federal and state laws appeared to be successful, at first. Drunken and disorderly disturbances and arrests declined. On the increase though was the illegal manufacture and sale of liquor — “bootlegging,” smuggling it across state lines and homemade corn liquor or “moonshine.”
Whether transporting moonshine from Canada across the border into the United States or from stills in the Appalachian Mountains, the cars had to look normal, or “stock,” so as to avoid attention. The inner workings of the cars were not common at all. Heavy shocks and springs were added to absorb the bumpy mountain roads and prevent damage to the glass Mason jars filled with liquor. This also prevented cars from sagging as a result of carrying a heavy load. A high-powered engine was installed for speed.
Some of the early race car drivers were former moonshine runners. Junior Johnson transported bootleg liquor for years before he became a NASCAR driver. The noted author, Tom Wolfe, wrote the story The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. Yes! for the March 1965 issue of Esquire magazine. The motion picture starring Jeff Bridges was released in 1973 under the title The Last American Hero.
How Prohibition Ended
The number of Americans who were out of work was increasing. With the country in the midst of the Great Depression, one idea gained popularity as a way of creating jobs and revenue. That idea was to legalize the liquor industry. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1932 campaign called for an end to Prohibition. Congress proposed a 21st Amendment in February 1933 which would have to be voted on by 36 states in order to ratify repealing the 18th Amendment. Utah provided the 36th state vote in December 1933.
Written by: Cynthia Collins