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Book Review: Driving With the Devil – Southern Moonshine, Detroit Wheels, and the Birth of NASCAR by Neal Thompson

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In 2008, after years of phenomenal growth, interest in NASCAR racing fizzled noticeably. Fans cite a litany of reasons: the poor economy, mediocre racing, the ill-conceived pseudo-playoff known as the "Chase for the Championship," the presence of (horrors!) a Japanese automaker in the Sprint Cup, and the pathetic spectacle of the Detroit automakers begging for billions of dollars in bailout money.

I could go on. But maybe NASCAR's biggest problem is that the sport has strayed so far from its southern, semi-professional roots. As Neal Thompson writes in Driving With the Devil, his excellent history of the culture that spawned stock-car racing and eventually NASCAR, the first drivers and owners operated on shoestring budgets, racing cars (usually Fords) they purchased straight from the dealership and – as often as not – modified to transport moonshine whiskey.  Stock cars were called "stock" for a reason.

The protagonists of Driving With the Devil are people like Raymond Parks, an Atlanta businessman who got his start running high-quality moonshine from rural Dawsonville, Georgia (a town that would produce a disproportionate number of stock-car legends, including Bill Elliott).  Parks teamed up with Red Vogt, a surly but brilliant mechanic, to turn V8-powered Fords into "whiskey cars" that could outrun Treasury agents and survive the rough, red-dirt roads of rural Georgia.

A wise man once said that people got the idea to race cars as soon as the second automobile was produced, so it was only a matter of time before southerners got the idea to pit "whiskey cars" against each other, often on dirt tracks ploughed out of farmers' fields.  Parks occasionally drove himself, but he usually left the racing to the legendary Lloyd Seay and Roy Hall – the former murdered by his own cousin, the latter stuck behind bars for many of his prime racing years.  Moonshine whiskey, alas, sealed their respective fates.

Seay and Hall regularly beat a driver named Bill France on the track, but France would have the last laugh, bringing order to the chaotic world of stock car racing by creating the sanctioning body which would eventually be known as NASCAR.  Thompson tries to portray France as ruthless and domineering, and to some extent, he certainly was.  (Woe to the NASCAR driver who raced in a non-NASCAR race, or spoke out against the organization's business practices.)  But the reader cannot help thinking France did precisely what had to be done to make the sport what it is today.

Or, more accurately, what it was.  Part of the appeal of stock car racing was that the race cars bore a pretty strong resemblance to Fords and Chevrolets you could buy straight from the showroom.  The resemblance has diminished over the years, to say the least, and today's "Ford Fusion" not only looks almost nothing like the stock Fusion, it doesn't look much different from a NASCAR "Impala," "Charger" or (gulp) "Camry."   And the single-car, independent team?  Forgot about it.  Even the legendary Richard Petty, who won 200 races, has more or less conceded that his team won't be able to survive on its own.

Some say NASCAR will not (or should not) survive, but Driving With the Devil left me convinced that it most certainly will, at least in some form.  The obstacles facing today's car owners and drivers don't even come close to what the sport's pioneers voluntarily put up with.  (Kurt and Kyle Busch, I'm sure, will not get into a violent argument over illegally produced whiskey anytime soon.)  Who knows?  If the "Detroit Three' withdraw from the sport, maybe NASCAR teams will use modified versions of cars purchased straight from the dealership.  Or, as they were once known, "stock cars."

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About Damian P.

  • Michael Daly

    The problem with the argument that NASCAR has strayed from its southern roots is that genuine interest in it was never limited to the South – Ralph Moody, one of the sport’s winningest team owners, was from Taunton, MA; Johnny Mantz, the first Southern 500 winner, was from Indiana; Daytona champ Pete Hamilton is a Dedham, MA native – and there were numerous other examples from the sport’s early years onward, such as the mid-summer Northern Tour, the acquisition of dates to Michigan International Speedway and Ontario Motor Speedway almost sight unseen, and so forth.

    The argument about the diminished comparison of racecars to their street brethren seems to ignore that it is how the technology arms race has evolved – the notion I keep hearing from some fans that it is some kind of colossal scam by NASCAR is nonsensical. There is also an element of exaggeration involved – the racecars’ resemblance to their street brethren still exists; it may not be to the same extent as in the past, but it is still there. And if teams had to revert to using cars modified from the dealership, there would be NO difference to today – they would still be built with roll cages for both safety and durability, the engines would still use the highest technology possible, and there would be rampant lobbying for spoiler etc. changes – in short, nothing would change.

    It seems quite a few people object to the idea of the sport evolving, and that’s wrong. HOW it evolves is a legitimate discussion, for one can feel confident the sport would not have plateaued if the racecars still ran bias ply tires, still ran the roof blade package to make the draft more effective, and emphasized most laps led and winning the race instead of just tabulating points.

    Driving With The Devil seems to add more detail to the sport’s evolution and should be read as such, though its seeming hatred of William H.G. France should have been toned down.