On Sunday, forty NASCAR stockers snorted and roared their way to the green flag of the 59th annual Daytona 500. The 2017 racing season sees a yaffle of changes, from an altered race format guaranteed to enrage long-time fans (*raises hand*) to a new title sponsor for the entire series. After not leading a lap all day, Kurt Busch took the win with a last lap pass for his first Daytona 500 victory.
Most motorsport fans know that NASCAR’s roots are soaked in moonshine, harking back to the days when enterprising good ol’ boys would hot rod their cars for the express purpose of outrunning Officer Friendly in a bid to deliver their illegal bounty of alcohol to thirsty customers in dry counties. Honing their driving skills on the road and sharpening their ability to build a fast car in the garage, many of NASCAR’s early drivers had experience running moonshine.
The car of choice for many liquid entrepreneurs was the 1940 Ford businessman’s coupe. It’s formal and upright style allowed it to slink through the night, drawing little attention to itself. Under the hood though, ‘shine runners would replace the flathead V-8 engine with the biggest Cadillac engine they could find. Where did they find the replacement engines, you ask? Mostly in ambulances, apparently. Legend has it that well-known bootleggers like Clay Call and Junior Johnson would seek out retired ambulances at auctions, yank the engine, bore it out, and slap a supercharger on top.
Necessity being the mother of invention, drivers often added a few other custom touches to their cars – trick cylinder heads for more power; hidden compartments in which to conceal some of the hooky booze; toggle switches to douse taillights thereby foiling the gendarmes giving chase. It was the perfect storm of fast cars, faster drivers, illegal booze, and tough police.
After the supply of ’40 Fords began to dry up, big Mopars became the weapon of choice, notably the sheep’s-head ugly 1961 Chrysler New Yorker and the brutish 1966 Dodge Coronet. The latter car, equipped from the factory with a hairy-chested 426 Hemi was seemingly purpose-built by Detroit for hauling moonshine – unassuming bodywork, big cargo capacity, and an engine the size of a grand piano.
As young Junior ran ‘shine for his family, driving like a bat out of hell evolved into a necessity. In order to outrun the cops, he built fast cars and invented gutsy driving moves, like the famed bootlegger U-turn. Johnson would allegedly rig his car so only one brake was functional – a front one, driver’s side. This allowed him an incredibly tight turning radius when he hit that brake, often performing a full 180-degree turn in the space of a single highway lane.
His driving chops soon turned into his passion and Junior crossed over to NASCAR, where he became an instant star. But early in his racing career, Junior was finally caught by the revenuers. While they had no chance of chasing him down on the road, they staked him out at and arrested him. Serving eleven months of a two-year sentence, he returned back to racing and was eventually granted a pardon by Ronald Reagan nearly thirty years later.
Bringing the whole story full circle, Johnson teamed with Piedmont Distillers in North Carolina to once again bottle and sell moonshine– except this time, it’s legal. Branded with the name Midnight Moon, it follows the Johnson family’s generations-old tradition of making moonshine and is handcrafted in small batches. The ‘shine is a legal version of his famous family recipe, available in varieties ranging from 70-100 proof. Junior describes his moonshine as “Smoother than vodka. Better than whiskey. Best ‘shine ever.” Naturally, I picked up a jar during a recent trip south of the border.
Trying the 100-proof ‘shine around a campfire, I’d describe it as barely disguised paint thinner with enough kick to power the engine in one of Johnson’s 1940 Fords. Smelling for all the world like nail polish remover, the stuff burns like battery acid while going down the hatch and is potent enough to create a fantastic plume of blue flame when spat into an open campfire. In other words, it’s absolutely fabulous.
One can scarcely imagine tearing through the Appalachian foothills in the dark of night, lights off, with the weight of more than one hundred gallons of it onboard. It all suddenly makes a late night run to Tim Horton’s in the dead of the Canadian winter a seem like a kindergarten concert.
As for the Daytona 500? Well, Junior Johnson didn’t need any convoluted race format or competition cautions to drive his Chevy to the win in 1960. He wrung raw speed out of his car … and displayed more than a few driving techniques honed while hauling ‘shine over backwoods roads in the Carolinas. Part of NASCAR’s appeal has always been its rebellious streak. If this is the year I finally get fed up with its superfluous rule changes, I can take comfort in the hours of vintage footage on YouTube, marveling at the driving talents of former moonshine runners.