The Case for NASCAR

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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

No other sport has a history quite like American stock car racing. In his new book, Real NASCAR: White Lightning, Red Clay and Big Bill France, Daniel S. Pierce traces the rise of NASCAR from its roots in showdowns between Southern bootleggers to a billion-dollar brand with legions of fans.

Note: Pierce gives a free lecture about his book on Tuesday, August 3, at 6:30 p.m. at the Plaza Branch.

Many outsiders view the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing as a sport for the uneducated, the unsophisticated, the boorish – a Dukes of Hazzard diversion for Southern rednecks.

Daniel S. Pierce was once a naysayer himself. But while studying Southern history in college, he was dragged by a friend to a NASCAR race and immediately became a convert.

As he told a University of North Carolina Press interviewer:

The in-person experience at a NASCAR race (or even at most short tracks) is a powerful sensory experience. Television does not do the sport justice as it just can't communicate the intensity of sound, smells, and the almost overwhelming carnival atmosphere. Actually attending a race generally turns folks into fans.

Pierce is both fan and scholar. The chair of the history department at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, he has the entire side of a Dodge Challenger that was once driven by Dave Blaney bolted to his office wall. (“I think I can safely say it's the only such display in an academic office in America,” he says of his trophy.)

And as he shows in Real NASCAR (published this past April), his chosen subject is ripe for academic study. The history of southern stock car racing is loaded with fascinating characters, heart-stopping action and true stories that sound like tall tales.

It all began with bootlegging.

Pierce spent the past 12 years researching NASCAR’s story from the mid-1930s through the early ‘70s. And one of the main aspects of his study is the role of moonshiners in founding the sport. In a series of blog posts titled The REAL Story of Moonshine and NASCAR, he writes, “In the common mythology of NASCAR, the sport arose solely and directly from liquor-running drivers and their souped-up cars.”

Suspecting that the link between the moonshine business and stock car racing had been sensationalized (and, in turn, that the NASCAR company’s apparent policy of distancing itself from references to bootlegging was justified), Pierce proceeded with skepticism. He learned that there was truth to the stories. He writes:

However, on much closer inspection, I have discovered that if anything NASCAR's connection to the manufacturing, transportation, and sale of illegal alcohol has been both underestimated and misunderstood. Indeed, the deeper I have looked into southern stock car racing’s early history, the more liquor I have found.

A key figure in NASCAR’s story is Junior Johnson.

In his classic profile of Johnson for Esquire magazine in 1965, Tom Wolfe writes, “I wasn't in the South five minutes before people started making oaths, having visions, telling these hulking great stories, and so forth, all on the subject of Junior Johnson.”

Wolfe describes Johnson’s prowess behind the wheel:

It was Junior Johnson specifically, however, who was famous for the "bootleg turn" or "about-face," in which, if the Alcohol Tax agents had a roadblock up for you or were too close behind, you threw the car into second gear, cocked the wheel, stepped on the accelerator and made the car's rear end skid around in a complete 180-degree arc, a complete about-face, and tore on back up the road exactly the way you came from. God!

Johnson, who is still alive today, is one of many colorful drivers Pierce follows in Real NASCAR. Other characters in the sport’s early history include Arvel “Red” Sluder, Joe Littlejohn, Gober Sosebee, Fonty and Bob Flock, Fireball Roberts and Crash Waller.

NASCAR’s past is much more than Southern moonshiners racing their cars in circles on red clay. For one thing, there were women drivers, too, such as Sara Christian and Ethel Flock Mobley in the late 1940s, whose legacy is carried on today with Danica Patrick.

But for many fans, the real story of NASCAR began after William Henry Getty “Big Bill” France took over the sport, branded it, gave it a shot of marketing dollars and ultimately paved the way for modern racing heroes like Richard Petty, Jeff Gordon and the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. (whose 2001 death shook the stock car world).

If you’re still not convinced that NASCAR is more than men driving hot rods slathered with product logos in circles around a track, grab a copy of Real NASCAR, and be there when Pierce comes to the Plaza Branch on Tuesday, August 3, at 6:30 p.m. A reception precedes the event, at 6 p.m. 

And, if you’d like to read more, check out Pierce’s own NASCAR Summer Reading List.

-- Jason Harper