Moonshine, Folk History, and the NASCAR Spectacle

What do the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 and Prohibition have in common?  NASCAR.

I bet that was the last thing you expected to read, but it is true.  Moonshiners created an antiestablishment culture that fueled stock car racing in America.  The Whiskey Rebellion was a battle between a government that asserted itself in an early attempt to prove its might and individuals who lived along and near the Mason-Dixon line and depended on whiskey to conduct business and engage in leisurely activities in the American wilderness.  The struggle between the government and alcohol reached another climax during Prohibition as moonshine smugglers tuned their cars to outrun police units on the open roads.  In Mark D. Howell’s From Moonshine to Madison Avenue: A Cultural History of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, we learn that NASCAR’s spirit was born in post-colonial America and it manifested on Daytona International Speedway and all the other tracks that were built over the next several decades.  Its very existence and survival depended on the sport’s ability to become a focal point of American popular culture; undoubtedly, that it certainly did.  In this brief study of NASCAR, I will count on both my own experiences at the races and my recollection of material I read in Howell’s book as I composed the annotated bibliography for my thesis.

After tracing its history to post-colonial rural America, one finds that NASCAR’s roots are firmly set in folk history.  When Prohibition was repealed in the early 1930s, bootleggers were left looking at their hot rods and wondering what to do with them.  Bill France created NASCAR in Daytona, Florida to organize what would become the true American motor sport and oversee that competitions were fair and drivers were paid.  Great names in early NASCAR history like Junior Johnson and Tim Flock had their beginnings in moonshine and helped establish the sport.  It was not because of its false glamour – which we owe to Hollywood and popular culture – that they worked in the moonshine business; rather, they did it out of necessity.  Drivers were romanticized in the papers (Barney Oldfield comes to mind) and were seen as the fastest humans on Earth.  Having grown from a culture that prizes individualism, independence, family, and God, NASCAR successfully branched out of Daytona to all corners of America.

Now, a NASCAR Winston Cup Series (now called the Sprint Cup Series) race is not just an event: it is a weekend-long celebration of speed, machinery, sunlight, fast food, big business, and camaraderie.  Certainly, it is not the racing Barney Oldfield knew over 50 years ago.  It is a dramatic sensory experience.  Over the race weekend, people who otherwise might have never spoken to each other – much less met – exchange stories on races they watched some time ago and talk about how no one drove like one driver or how no one will ever drive like another guy.  No other sport connects sponsors with fans like NASCAR.  For example, how often do you hear people consciously decide to change cellular phone providers because a company owns the naming rights to their favorite baseball team’s stadium?  Now, how many NASCAR fans would you hear vow to never shop at a certain hardware store because they sponsor the driver they absolutely hate?  That is one of NASCAR’s unique, intangible qualities.  It has its own culture of rituals, symbols, and images, as Howell puts it.

It has a very tangible side as well.  NASCAR involves statistics, gear ratios, engine sizes, spoiler angles, track lengths and dimensions, top speeds, milliseconds in the pits, money, and points for the championship.  It is quantifiable, and so invites careful attention to detail and appreciation for all the variables that must coincide and be defined for an athlete to succeed.  This is what the media gladly collects and uses to produce the magazines and TV shows that supplement the event’s presentation.  The drivers have their stories and share common backgrounds with their fans.  Drivers like Barney Oldfield – the first great NASCAR legend – and Dale Earnhardt were presented to the public by savvy promoters who made them marketing symbols that sponsors could pursue.  They went from being folk heroes to cultural icons during NASCAR’s gradual transition from an upstart racing league to the nation’s highest grossing sport.

NASCAR is the perfect blend of individualism, teamwork, marketing, and corporate competition.  The mass media and Corporate America have embraced the sport; in fact, the latter wins and loses on the playing field – the track in this case – with the athlete and can be the first among many (43 to be exact), unlike other sports that set only one competitor against another and the viewer knows that either one team or another will win.  All sports between humans have their beauty, but NASCAR is truly the ultimate American competition between individuals, teams, and corporations.  No other sport would move a child to say, “I like the yellow Ernie Irvan #4 Kodak Chevrolet… Mom, could you buy me the toy car?”  Even in a child’s untrained eyes, NASCAR makes the connection between athlete and sponsor so crystal clear.  “In many cases, you quickly identify with a driver, his sponsor, or the make of car he drives,” says Howell in his introduction.  The implications in that statement for revenue generation are remarkable.

Essentially, as a result of its rebellious past, intangible and tangible qualities, and an ability to easily connect fans with sponsors through sport, Sprint Cup racing has become a sort of cultural mythology.  The race weekends themselves are another story altogether.  They begin when the workweek nears its end and the last person leaves the stadium only hours before the first Monday minute.  No other sport enjoys such pageantry and fan involvement and can be truly considered such an ethereal “experience.”  Even if you have never followed NASCAR and attend your first race, don’t just enjoy the event… enjoy the weekend.

 

 

Cam Suarez-Bitar.

 

 

I would like to thank Professor Craig Lamay at Northwestern University for giving me the assignment that inspired me to start thinking about these topics.  Professor Lamay teaches the “Sport in the Social Context” course as part of the Northwestern University School of Continuing Studies’ curriculum for the Masters of Sports Administration program.  He is also Associate Professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and Adjunct Professor at the Northwestern University School of Law.  Last but not least, thank you for reading and participating.

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    • Ric Johnson
    • November 25th, 2009

    While this is an interesting article there is one major error; Barney Oldfield was was a legendary driver, but was not “the first great NASCAR legend”. He was famous for his drives in open wheeled racimg cars at Indianapolis, not stock cars in the South. In fact Mr. Oldfield passed away in 1946 before the first NASCAR race was held in 1948. Perhaps the writer was confused by the fact that Mr. Oldfield also attempted to set some land speed records on Daytona Beach, but that was years before NASCAR began to use the same venue for their races.

    • Dear Ric,

      Thank you for your correction. The mistaken conclusion that Oldfield was the first great NASCAR legend was not Howell’s, but mine.

      In my reading of this part of racing history in America, I learned that Oldfield was one of the first great drivers of all time and, because of his exploits on the track, his attempts to set speed records at Daytona in his Ford 999, and his being considered a “stock car driver,” I drew the conclusion that he was one of NASCAR’s first great drivers. In fact, Oldfield preceded Grand National racing, which was the first step taken towards the creation of NASCAR; the latter grew from Grand National competition in the late 40’s and therefore obviates my error.

      To refocus my discussion on the history of racing in America – which my post on NASCAR’s origins begins – my next post will cover Barney Oldfield’s career, from the track to the silver screen.

      Finally, I would like to close my response with the following quote from page 86 of Howell’s book, as it sheds additional light on Oldfield’s career:

      “Barney Oldfield was, in actuality, a stock car driver. The machines he drove were ‘stock’ in physical appearance, despite a variety of innovative powerplants tucked under their hoods. This is not altogether different from the stock cars seen on today’s NASCAR Winston Cup circuit. The racing machines built by men like Henry Ford, and driven by men like Barney Oldfield, were essentially stock cars. Racing would help make the forthcoming, mass produced automobiles better and more practical. Until then, what these pioneers of automobile racing built and drove were ‘stock’ in configuration and construction.”

      Again, thanks for your input and participation. I wholeheartedly appreciate the knowledge shared in this forum. I hope that you gain from your readership as much I do; any suggestions and feedback are always welcome.

      Best regards,

      Cam.

      p.s, by the way, Happy Thanksgiving.

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