Of all the colorful characters and amazing vehicles that shaped American automotive history, bootleggers and their customized cars definitely rank near the gritty the top. Here, Tim Weadock looks at the favorite cars of the moonshiner’s trade and some of the most notable bootleggers who went on to legitimate racing careers.
Imagine speeding through the Appalachian foothills in a 1940 Ford, with little to no vision. The road is undulating, lined with trees and filled with hairpin curves. If that weren’t enough, revenue agents, rivals and snitches lurk along the route intent on ending your livelihood or life.
These backcountry roads are where moonshine runners honed the driving skills that would become legend. Each delivery was ripe with risk, so moonshiners did their best not to attract attention. Cars maintained a stock appearance. But underneath the seemingly mundane appearance were ingenious storage and performance modifications.
More than Horsepower
Standard-optioned, dark colored Ford Coupes were popular among bootleggers, although many different models were used. Engineers, like a backwoods version of Q, would conceal storage compartments in roof linings, gas tanks, engine compartments, wheel wells and under floor boards. Super stiff suspensions kept the car from sagging under the additional 1,000 pounds of cargo.
The Ford V-8 was the engine of choice for criminals since before John Dillinger wrote Henry Ford extolling the merits of his Ford. Moonshine mechanics modified the Ford V-8s for greater power and in some cases replaced them with truck or Cadillac Ambulance engines.
A well-built car was an essential tool for bootleggers, but they didn’t outrun law enforcement on horsepower alone. Many bootleggers grew up farming the Appalachian land. They learned to drive at a young age and knew those roads intimately. This knowledge was a differentiator for the bootleggers, who would kill their lights and disable brake lights during a chase.
From Back Roads to the Racetrack
As stories of bootleggers driving skills circulated, a competitive fire to determine the fastest car and best driver grew. Races began on public roads and highways, from that country tracks were built out of pastures and corn fields. It is from these races stock car racing was born.
Shortly after WWII, a race at the Atlanta’s Lakewood Speedway became the first to accept “known” bootleggers. Prior to the race, promoters learned of several drivers with a history of liquor law offenses. Concerned about “outlaws” tarnishing the image of the event, promoters banned the drivers. Among those banned was local legend, “Reckless” Roy Hall. Spectators were outraged after learning of the ban; the promoters relented to avoid a riot that would have been more disastrous than allowing a few hooligans to race.
Several stock car racing associations existed in those days. Each was independent and lack of uniformity or consistency created confusion within the sport. Former racer turned promoter, Bill France saw an opportunity to stabilize stock car racing by establish a uniform set of rules and regulations. He organized and hosted the “Streamline Hotel” meetings during December of 1947. In February 1948, the National Association of Stock Car Racing held its inaugural race in Daytona, Florida.
Unlike the previous associations, Bill France recognized the skill of bootleggers and didn’t view them as a threat to the sport. Not all of the bootleggers were drivers. Raymond Parks was a team owner, who supported France during NASCAR’s formative year. Parks had built an empire from bootlegging beginnings; his drivers won the first two NASCAR championships – Fonty Flock in the 1948 modifies and Red Byron in the 1949 stock. He provided Cadillac pace cars and supported the concept of fresh, brightly painted cars. NASCAR may have not survived without Parks contributions, financial and otherwise.
From Lawbreaker to Legend
Although there were many, the most notable “Tripper” or bootleg runner among NASCAR drivers was Junior Johnson. Junior followed his father, mother and brothers into the family’s moonshine business at age 14.
An innovator from the start, Junior built fast cars and coined the Bootlegger U turn, a 180-degree about face that left revenue agents in the dust. He evaded the police and revenue agents by any means possible, even camouflaging his Ford to look like the law with lights, sirens and all.
Junior’s racing career was briefly interrupted by his one and only arrest. Revenue agents caught him as he stopped to light the family still. After an 11 month incarceration, he returned to racing and running moonshine.
Over the span of his 14 year NASCAR career, Junior won 50 races, including the second annual Daytona 500 in 1960. It was at Daytona, that Junior is credited with discovering the technique of drafting. Now 82, Johnson has extolled about the advantage bootlegging gave him over other NASCAR drivers.
Tom Wolfe wrote a story about Junior Johnson for Esquire magazine. The piece titled “The Last American Hero” was later made into a movie starring Jeff Bridges.
After his retirement from driving Junior Johnson became a NASCAR team owner and now sells a legal version of his family’s “Carolina moonshine” called Midnight Moon. Bill France, Sr. and Junior Johnson were inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame inaugural class.