Today, NASCAR racing is a corporate behemoth that rakes in billions of dollars. It races 36 times per year in front of huge audiences (both in-person and on TV). NASCAR is also perhaps the most bet-on motorsport in the country (trailing only Formula 1 and road racing MotoGP betting on a worldwide scale).
Looking at NASCAR today, one would have a hard time believing the organization was born out of the seedy underground. You see, the organization’s roots date back to the Prohibition era — the dark period when alcohol was banned in the United States during the 1920s and early 1930s.
This article will track NASCAR’s not-so-legal beginnings and how those years shaped the sport of stock car racing an entire century later. Let’s dive right into it:
No Whiskey, No NASCAR?
“If it hadn’t been for whiskey, NASCAR wouldn’t have been formed. That’s a fact,” famously said NASCAR legend, Junior Johnson.
Johnson is one of the pioneers of NASCAR, which ran its first-ever race in 1948. Johnson only passed away a year ago, but he did not keep his introduction to racing a secret — nor could he.
His father was a notorious bootlegger of liquor (also called a rum-runner). During Prohibition, this was all too common, especially in rural towns and those close to the Canadian border. The banning of alcohol did little to curb the drinking demand of Americans, and bootleggers took care of the supply for the right price.
Johnson helped his dad smuggle alcohol and picked up his need for speed there, and so did thousands of other drivers around the country. Many of these bootleggers were caught by police and thrown in jail. But the ones that dodged authorities happened to develop a life-long love of cars in the process, which would pay dividends later on.
After all, a prerequisite to being a successful bootlegger was a fast car and shifty driving skills — no ifs, ands, or buts about it. You needed both to avoid police and a long jail sentence.
Prohibition Ends, Racing Only Gets Started
Prohibition officially came to an end on March 22, 1933, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Beer and Wine Revenue Act. With booze flowing freely, bootleggers were no longer needed.
Regardless, these moonshiners had already developed a deep interest in fast cars. To scratch that itch for racing, they began to congregate and compete at local fairgrounds or racetracks. These races soon attracted fans by the thousands — and one-time moonshiners suddenly found a new way to make money, one that wasn’t illegal.
However, it should be pointed out that Prohibition’s influence on racing didn’t stop at drivers themselves. No, no, an entire ecosystem was built around bootlegging, and that included car mechanics, dealers, and track owners. It was this cohesion that lit a spark onto the entire stock car scene.
Sooner rather than later, someone saw the opportunity around racing and built a business around it. That man was none other than Raymond Parks. He’s credited as the first person to put together a formalized racing team in the late 1930s, composed of his moonshining cousins.
The Official Forming Of NASCAR
Stock car racing kept growing in popularity, and once World War II was in the books, the sport could really take off — pun fully intended. In 1947, the very best drivers, mechanics, and car owners met in Daytona Beach, Florida. It’s here where they hatched their plans for the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR).
The organization officially kicked off its operations two months later with a race in Daytona. The race was won by Red Bryon, who perhaps not coincidentally was a part of Parks’ team. The pair would also claim NASCAR’s second-ever championship, paving the way for future drivers for the next 70 years (and counting).
The NASCAR of today is quick to hide its bootlegging past. It is a corporate giant, after all, that can’t be associated with illegal practices. But the OG’s of the organization — Johnson, Raymond Park, and others — know fine and well why and how NASCAR came into fruition.