Men have been racing other men for centuries. Two thousand years ago, chariot racing had become very popular in the Roman empire. The ancient Olympics held by the Greeks pitted various foot races with glory going to the winners. A number of cultures have embraced the sport of racing, whether just human or animals and there are many legends as to how some races came to be.
Marathon racing is one of those with a legendary origin going back 2,500 to the war between the Greeks and Persians. In 490 BC, the Greeks were victorious over the Persians at that Battle of Marathon. The Greeks sent a messenger, Pheidippides to Athens to announce the victory. He ran the 26.2 miles from the battle to Athens where he reportedly announced ‘We were victorious!’ and then collapsed and died from the effects of the long punishing race he had just won. This has always caused me to question why people would want to emulate that feat.
The legend behind America’s most popular form of car racing is also a colorful tale. Starting in the days of Prohibition, many people in the southeast turned to bootlegging as a source of income. As government agents, often referred to as revenuers, strived to stop as many bootlegging operations as possible. This led to some of the bootleggers modifying their cars and trucks to make them run fast enough to outrun the revenuers.
Eventually, competing bootleggers challenged each other to see whose souped up vehicles were the fastest. They took to the roadways used by everyone else and began racing. Racing on the public roads was dangerous, so some of them began to convert pastures into racing tracks. In time, bootleg racing grew in popularity and more racing tracks were built throughout the southeast.
Auto racing continued to draw more and more fans. Daytona Beach, Florida became the focal point of racing enthusiasts and drew the attention of Washington DC auto mechanic and repair shop owner William ‘Bill’ France, who sold his business and he moved to Florida where he became involved with the auto racing.
In December 1947, Big Bill met with over 30 others involved in auto racing to discuss many of the problems, including safety, that were occurring in the sport. The result of that meeting was formation of the National Association for Stock Car Racing, aka NASCAR.
On February 15, 1948, NASCAR held their first sanctioned race at Daytona Beach. Atlanta’s famed driver, Red Byron won that race driving a Ford Modified. Six days later on February 21, 1948, NASCAR was officially incorporated.
Among the earliest NASCAR drivers was Junior Johnson. Johnson attributed his NASCAR success to his hauling bootleg liquor, saying:
“It gave me so much advantage over other people that had to train and learn how to drive. When I sat down in that seat the first race I ever ran, it was a backseat to what I’d already been through. I had did all them spinning deals sideways and stuff like that. It just made my job so much easier than anybody I had seen come along and go into it. Never, ever, did I see a guy who could take a car any deeper than I could and save it, as long as I raced.”
NASCAR has continued to grow in popularity and prestige since the days of Big Bill France and Junior Johnson. It has produced racing icons like Lee and Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, Bobby Allison, Jeff Gordon, A.J. Foyt and Cale Yarbrough. Today, NASCAR is nearly a religion in parts of Southeastern United States and is one of world’s most popular sports, and to think it all started with illegal bootlegging.
This post is an amalgamation of the following sources: The Athens Marathon; NASCAR’s Earliest Days Forever Connected to Bootlegging; NASCAR Founded; History of NASCAR Videos; A Timeline of NASCAR; About NASCAR;