- Historic Sites
The old Confederacy got only as far north as Pennsylvania, but its great-grandchildren have captured America’s culture. Joshua Zeitz looks at sports, entertainment, and religion to show how.
August/September 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 4
Why then? Pete Daniels, a leading student of that culture, has written that “having worked outdoors in harmony with the seasons most of their lives,” many white and black migrants “resented confining hourly jobs that demanded discipline and regularity. Each day they faced the whip, chair, and pistol of corporate management that punished them for displaying any residue of wildness. They chafed at punching a time clock and at other constraints that challenged their will, and they longed for escape, if not retribution.” One means of escape—and retribution—was stock car racing, a sport that had evolved from outlaw origins during the Depression into a wildly popular industry by the early 1950s.
Early racers were, strictly speaking, not stock car racers at all. They were professional “trippers,” drivers in the liquor racket who used expensively souped-up automobiles to outrun revenue agents. Trippers drove every variety of car, but they generally preferred 1939 and 1940 Fords, with easily available spare parts that could be modified for greater speed and better suspension, and with generous trunk space to accommodate their cargo. Trippers tended to be mountain folk and thus had had to master the blind curves and nonexistent shoulders of old hill-country roads. Dexterity and speed were imperative; losing the race meant prison.
Many trippers took to racing for sport and occasionally for prize money in their spare time. Some early NASCAR greats like Junior Johnson and the Flock brothers—Bob and Fonty—got their start hauling homebrewed whiskey for their parents and only gradually found themselves drawn to the racetrack. Even as his competitive racing star ascended in the 1950s, Johnson faithfully plied his talents for the family business. He was arrested in 1956, served 11 months for liquor trafficking, and returned to the track in 1959 in time to participate in a fierce NASCAR run at Charlotte, North Carolina, where he drove another contestant into a wall.
Informal car racing flourished in the 1940s, when war production gave Southerners unprecedented capital to put into cars and wagers. Tim Flock, an early NASCAR Grand National champion and younger brother to Bob and Fonty, insisted that modern stock car racing was inaugurated immediately after the war in a “cow pasture right outside Atlanta, Georgia,” where drivers competed for cash prizes that could total as much as $20,000. For the most part these early races were rowdy affairs, their fans notorious for boozing, womanizing, and supremely proficient cursing.
It took a visionary to realize the commercial potential of stock car racing in a modernizing South. William Getty France, a service station owner in Daytona Beach, Florida, and an occasional participant in so-called outlaw races, understood the appeal this raffish new sport held for the country migrants in their newfound factories. On December 14, 1947, he convened a summit of three dozen leading mechanics and racers to form a sanctioning body for stock car competitions. Thus was born the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR). “Big Bill” France became the organization’s first president.
From its inception NASCAR embodied the split personality of postwar Southland culture: at once urban and market-oriented, yet still close to its rural, precommercial roots. Locked at first in tough competition with four other sanctioning organizations, France’s NASCAR sponsored standard races featuring modified cars, but it also launched a 150-mile contest at Charlotte whose participants were allowed to drive only automobiles that were “strictly stock”—that is, wholly unenhanced. The ploy was a great success with many fans, who enjoyed seeing professionals race the same cars an ordinary consumer could own. It was an even bigger hit with the car companies; they quickly recognized the marketing potential in NASCAR and invested accordingly. Keeping his eye on commercial strategy, France also enforced stern discipline. Even such driving legends as Tim Flock, Lee Petty, and Red Byron found they could pay a high price, in cumulative points lost, if they participated in unsanctioned races or otherwise bucked Big Bill’s authority.
Yet if NASCAR was big business, its success was intimately related to its self-styled reputation as a place of last refuge for Southerners who missed the wild pulse of old country ways. So NASCAR promoted its drivers as cowboys on wheels, drinkers, skirt chasers and partygoers, whose much-publicized (and often exaggerated) debauches offered spectators to behave just as raucously—or at least to dream of it. Drivers like Curtis Turner gave NASCAR fans plenty of legend to revel in. Decked out in his trademark silk suits, Turner partied with movie stars and burned through enormous sums of money—$6,000 a month, according to some sources. His fellow driver Smokey Yunick remembered spending “a lot of time with Curtis, drinking, chasing women, racing, raising hell, teaching people how to turn around in the middle of the road at 60 miles an hour, putting cars in swimming pools.”