Note: Authored by David Menconi, this piece has been produced in partnership with Raleigh Arts. Menconi's next book, "Oh, Didn't They Ramble: Rounder Records and the Transformation of American Roots Music," was published in the fall of 2023 by University of North Carolina Press. His podcast, Carolina Calling, explores the history of the Tar Heel State through music.



Stock-car racing might be the ultimate example of the working-class ingenuity that North Carolina has always been famous for. The sport’s roots go back more than a century, to the prohibition era that began in 1909. Once alcohol was outlawed in North Carolina that year, the manufacture—and, more to the point, transportation—of illicit spirits (or moonshine) went underground by necessity.

That led to moonshine runners racing against law enforcement, and eventually each other. And over time, that created a circuit of car races that eventually turned into the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR), one of the most popular big-league sports in the American South.

A new initiative by the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources highlights “the intertwined history” of bootleg liquor and car racing. The initial phase of the Moonshine and Motorsports Trail spotlights eight locations across the state, including a display in the lobby of downtown Raleigh’s North Carolina Museum of History. The museum’s 12-panel display will be up until April 25, 2024.

Moonshine and Motorsports Dale Earnhardt Sr. Racecar

Sitting in the lobby of the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh, this No. 3 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet car was raced by North Carolina native Dale Earnhardt Sr. to six top 5 finished over several seasons.

“The museum display essentially describes the broad story we’re getting at,” says project lead Karl Galloway, who is digital engagement manager for the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. “When prohibition was enacted, some people who had distilleries in North Carolina went to Kentucky and created the famous Kentucky bourbons. But a lot more went underground, bootlegging it. They had to move it around and eventually started racing souped-up cars, which became codified as NASCAR in the 1940s. It’s a story that touches almost every part of North Carolina, the dirt tracks and moonshine stills from the Great Dismal Swamp to the mountains in the west.”

Moonshine and Motorsports North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame

The third floor of the North Carolina Museum of History is home to the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.

Before prohibition, North Carolina was a thriving center for family-owned distilleries, thanks to the state’s favorable climate and ample supplies of water and grain. Galloway puts the figure at more than 500 such distilleries, the most in the nation.

Once production and distribution moved underground during the prohibition era, stills were hidden in remote locations. A network of drivers emerged who did the risky work of transporting and distributing moonshine, often having to outrun the police on back roads.

The more successful drivers earned a reputation, which led to them racing each other for sport, and the races kept going even after prohibition ended in the 1930s. Eventually NASCAR was created, holding its inaugural season of races in 1948.

One of the dirt tracks from that first season, Occoneechee Speedway in Orange County, is among the eight sites on the trail, along with Charlotte Motor Speedway, North Wilkesboro Speedway and Rockingham Speedway. Also on the trail are Stone Mountain State Park in Roaring Gap, Elizabeth City’s Museum of the Albemarle and the NASCAR Hall of Fame & Museum in Charlotte. While the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh presents an overview with its display, there is no central or dominant site among the eight locations.

Moonshine and Motorsports Map

“North Wilkesboro is obviously important because of its recent reopening,” says Galloway. “And Occoneechee Speedway can be eerie to visit. It’s not active, with old broken-down cars that speak to the ghostly nature of the past. There’s a lot of nostalgia about the smaller dirt tracks.”

And yet that nostalgia is steeped in a history that is not altogether positive, given the lawless origins of moonshine.

“It’s a complex history, and a lot of the stories that we’re relating are not very pretty,” Galloway acknowledges. “There was a lot of law-breaking and violence, and we’ve tried not to romanticize any of it. That would be easy to do with stereotypes of Appalachian moonshiners. We don’t want to be naïve about it. But still, untaxed illegal distilling really did help create NASCAR. Everyone seems to have a story about it.”

 

The North Carolina Museum of History is open Tues.-Sat., 10am-5pm, and Sun., noon-5pm, at 5 E. Edenton St. in downtown Raleigh. Free admission.

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