DRY LANDS, WET SAND, AND THE BIRTH OF NASCAR

Editor’s Note: This Florida Verve article was originally published on June 20, 2016.


By Robert Sanchez


Mention auto racing and Florida in the same breath, and many a Floridian’s thoughts will quickly focus on images of Daytona Beach, where cars once raced on the beach’s hard-packed sand, and in 1948 a man named William France Sr. founded the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR). More about him later.

Of course, certain other Floridians – especially in and around Central Florida’s Highlands County – may focus instead on images of the Grand Prix of Sebring. A world-renowned race that began in 1952 on a course laid out around an old airport, it soon attracted many of the racing world’s top competitors driving that era’s top-of-the-line sports cars from companies such as Porsche, Ferrari, and Maserati.

Yet the roots of auto racing extend much further back than 1952 or 1948. Indeed, they extend to the early years of the 20th Century and the beginning of what has been called “the age of the automobile.” Moreover, a man who later played a major role in South Florida’s history had a lot to do with the birth of auto racing in the United States.

Carl Fisher, the promoter who later was to turn a skinny barrier island into the resort known as Miami Beach, made a fortune supplying headlights for early motor vehicles. As the cars’ speed and reliability improved, he correctly sensed a public interest in seeing cars and drivers compete.


Mechanics checking cars at the 1955 Grand Prix in Sebring, Florida. Courtesy of Florida Memory.


Carl Fisher with the pace car he drove at the Indianapolis 500 in 1915. Courtesy of Florida Memory.


Fisher used much of his personal fortune to build the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. After some of the early races were marred by fatal crashes blamed on the track’s rough surface, Fisher ponied up the money to install the millions of bricks that gave the track its nickname, The Brickyard.

On this year’s Memorial Day weekend a sellout crowd estimated at more than 300,000 witnessed the 100th running of the Speedway’s iconic race, the Indianapolis 500. (Although the race began in 1911, it did not run for two years during World War I and four years during World War II.)

In South Florida, Carl Fisher’s name now adorns Fisher Island, a tony enclave of millionaires’ homes on a small islet just across the Port of Miami’s ship channel from southern tip of South Beach. There’s a bit of irony in having his name attached to that posh piece of real estate: Fisher lost his fortune and was living in genteel poverty when he died in Miami Beach in 1939 at the age of 65.


Indy 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, May 30, 1913. Courtesy of Library of Congress.


For most NASCAR fans, however, racing isn’t primarily about Indy-style cars or even sleek sports cars speeding around the streets of Monaco or the track at Le Mans. It’s about stock cars, and it traces its roots to a widespread public reaction against a very unpopular provision of the U.S. Constitution.

The 18th Amendment and its statutory follow-up, the Volstead Act, took effect in 1920, banning alcoholic beverages throughout the United States. The ban became a boon to scofflaws ranging from rum runners and bootleggers to moonshiners and the operators of the illicit bars known as speakeasies.

In many parts of the country, law enforcement was in cahoots with the scofflaws – as long as they paid the customary bribes. In other parts of the country, lawmen such as Eliot Ness of “The Untouchables” fame relentlessly pursued the criminal enterprises that prospered during Prohibition.


Men surrounding a captured moonshine still, St. Johns County, Florida, ca. 1920s. Courtesy of Florida Memory.


Destruction of a captured moonshine still, Miami, Florida, ca. 1925. Courtesy of Florida Memory.


Nowhere was the conflict between the scofflaws and the lawmen more colorful than in the South, especially in mountainous areas where the production of corn liquor was a tradition dating back at least to the time of George Washington, who operated a still at Mount Vernon.

As reported on the Washington estate’s official website:

“George Washington’s venture into the whiskey business began at the urging of his farm manager, James Anderson. Anderson, who had been involved in the distilling industry in Scotland before immigrating to America in the early 1790s, was convinced that a distilling business would round out Mount Vernon’s complement of economic ventures and generate substantial profits.

“Ever the discriminating businessman, Washington proceeded cautiously but allowed Anderson to purchase two stills and set up a small operation in the cooperage next to the gristmill in early 1797. The result was the production of six hundred gallons, sold for a good profit.

“Encouraged, George Washington agreed to construct a large distillery over the winter of 1797-1798. The new distillery was 75 feet by 30 feet and contained 5 copper pot stills, a boiler, and all required equipment for large-scale whiskey production. In 1799, the year of Washington’s death, the distillery produced nearly 11,000 gallons, making it the largest whiskey distillery in America at the time.”

In the early days of Prohibition, the bootleggers and moonshiners soon discovered that they had at their disposal some great new weapons: motor vehicles. Moreover, when their cars and trucks were duly “souped up,” they could often outrun the local sheriff and the feds.

Hollywood, which loves a good car chase, dramatized some of this road war between the law and the scofflaws, albeit with poetic license typical of the movie business. Among the pace-setting films of this genre was Thunder Road, which starred Hollywood bad boy Robert Mitchum.


Promotional poster for Thunder Road. Courtesy of Wikimedia.


As Wikipedia reminds us, the film was “a black and white 1958 drama-crime film about running moonshine in the mountains of Kentucky and Tennessee….The film was based loosely on an incident in which a driver transporting moonshine was said to have crashed to his death on Kingston Pike in Knoxville, Tennessee between Bearden Hill and Morrell Road. Per Metro Pulse writer Jack Renfro, the incident occurred in 1952 and may have been witnessed by James Agee, who passed the story on to Mitchum.”

Inquiring minds might ask why there was still a market for moonshine whiskey or bootlegged booze as late as 1952. After all, hadn’t ratification of the U.S. Constitution’s 21st Amendment back in 1933 repealed the onerous 18th Amendment?

The answer, of course, is “Yes, but….” Although the nationwide ban on booze had gone away, many state and local governments persisted in their efforts to control the production, distribution, sale, and/or possession of alcoholic beverages.

As a result, a U.S. map charting liquor laws displayed a patchwork of “wet” and “dry” locales, as well as some “moist” areas where beer with a low alcohol content was allowed and/or “hard liquor” could be sold, but only in “package stores” and not by the drink.

The disparities in the law from one place to another offered an opportunity for moonshiners and bootleggers determined to respond to market forces by transporting booze from the sources of supply to the locales of demand, namely the numerous forbidden zones where Prohibition had yet to go away.

Although much of Hollywood’s cinematic depiction of this kind of trafficking tended to focus on colorful characters in the South’s mountainous regions – as in the Smokey and the Bandit movies or The Dukes of Hazzard TV series — many parts of Florida also witnessed this kind of activity.


Promotional poster for Smokey and the Bandit. Courtesy of Wikimedia.


Indeed, as late as 1950, two years after the founding of NASCAR, 23 of Florida’s 67 counties were still officially dry – in theory if not in practice. Mostly small and rural, those 23 dry counties were home to only 475,284 (a mere 17.1 percent) of the 2,771,305 Florida residents tallied in the U.S. Census of 1950.

Fifth-ranked Polk County (1950 population 123,997) was the only dry county ranked in the Top Ten in population. The 23 theoretically dry counties included Leon and Alachua, home of the state’s three public universities – the University of Florida in Gainesville (Alachua), and Florida State University and Florida A&M University in Tallahassee (Leon). Alumni from that era attest that alcohol could easily be obtained.

Gradually during the ensuing years, the holdout jurisdictions abandoned Prohibition. As the need for bootleggers and moonshine dried up, the daredevil drivers were forced to give up transporting illicit booze. That’s when some of them got an urge to race their souped-up jalopies in legal races instead of while fleeing law enforcement. Dirt tracks began springing up, especially in the rural South. Promoters offered prize money. Sometimes they failed to pay off. The cheated drivers had little recourse.

Fortunately for the nascent sport, down in Daytona Beach, Florida, William “Bill” France Sr. recognized the problem and envisioned a solution. In February of 1948 he founded the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR), which remains a family business even today.


Accident during a NASCAR race at Daytona Beach, February 18, 1953. Courtesy of Florida Memory.


View of Daytona International Speedway in 1959. Courtesy of Florida Memory.


In its early years in particular, the stock car racing overseen by NASCAR was viewed as a sport pretty much confined to the Deep South, much as ice skating, bobsledding, skiing, hockey, and curling were viewed as sports having their natural habitat in colder climes. Despite its efforts to rebrand itself, NASCAR has had a hard time shedding its southern flavor.

Even today at NASCAR events, Confederate flags, clothing, and other regalia are still seen among the spectators. Bill France Jr., the son of NASCAR’s founder, was a big fan of segregationist George Wallace’s Presidential campaign, serving as a Wallace delegate at the Democratic National Convention of 1972. Carrying on the family’s tradition of political involvement, in March of this year the founder’s grandson, NASCAR’s CEO Brian France, endorsed Donald Trump for President.

This comes amid NASCAR’s strenuous marketing efforts to continue broadening its demographic base and geographic footprint beyond its Southern roots. TV revenue – vitally important to sports operators nowadays in this era of inflated compensation for the competitors – depends on ratings, and ratings are boosted when a sport has nationwide appeal.

The revenue derived from NASCAR’s new TV deals with Fox and NBC and from corporate sponsorships – the latter reflected in the ubiquitous logos on the race cars and the drivers’ uniforms – is now in the billions of dollars a year. And NASCAR’s racing circuit now includes tracks in far-flung places ranging from New Hampshire and Pennsylvania to California and Nevada.

So NASCAR has come many miles from a humble beginning focused on staging honest races for stock car drivers, some of whom may have gained their love of racing while driving their souped-up jalopies on mountain roads while trying to elude a Southern sheriff bent on busting them for transporting booze.

Yet if you analyze NASCAR’s DNA, the sport that the organization now runs may well owe its very existence and its current prosperity to the U.S. Constitution’s most notable flip-flop, the swift hairpin turn wherein the 18th Amendment took effect in 1920 and was repealed a mere 13 years later. Arguably, George Washington would approve.