Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Driving with the Devil

Driving with the Devil:  Southern Moonshine, Detroit Wheels, and the Birth of NASCAR
© 2006 Neil Thompson
411 pages

Oh Rapid Roy that stock car boy
He's the best driver in the lan'
He say that he learned to race a stock car
By runnin' shine outta Alabam'
(Jim Croce, "Rapid Roy")

Today’s NASCAR is big business on par with the NFL, but it didn’t  start out that respectable.  The inventors of the sport were backwoods rebels, supplying populations with forbidden liquor.   Savvy drivers and genius mechanics combined to outwit the law by night, and each other on the weekend -- but as their sport grew, it attracted big money and men who wanted to turn out the rabble and put it on par with Indy car racing. Driving with the Devil opens with sections on the Scots-Irish, Prohibition, and the rise of car culture before focusing on one man’s campaign to wrangle or impose order on an increasingly popular sport in the postwar years.  Who knew whiskey and racing would make such a good combination?

Early American history is besotted with liquor,  distilled beverages being  the chief source of income for many pioneers and a frequent source of conflict between  the people and the government. In an age of meager transportation options, distilling corn or other grains into potable beverages was the only way to sell produce inland, and attempts to impose taxes on said liquor kicked off more than one rebellion, including the famed Whiskey Rebellion of 1791.  Long before Prohibition barred the production and sale of alcohol, Americans had a history of fighting for their untampered tippling.  During Prohibition, liquor continued to be produced in the mountainous woodlands of the mid-south, and delivered to urban centers through young men desperate to escape rural poverty – desperate enough to risk their life and freedom speeding or sneaking through unlit paths through the hills and woods to places like Atlanta.   Bootleg driving put special demands on cars; not only did they need to be faster than the revenuers, but they needed to handle high speeds on rough roads without destroying the cargo.   Boys and men fascinated by the new machines developed a culture of study and tinkering, learning to master and improve the engines that Ford had wrought. Not content to exhibit their work or drink in the flush of adrenaline by night, drivers and mechanics began pitting their talents against one another in farmfields, racing for bragging rights and money.

Auto racing already existed as an organized sport before these bootleggers’ races;  the American Automobile Association organized races for the same reason Henry Ford did, to popularize automobiles.   The racecars used there, however, were specially and solely designed for racing:  the bootleggers were racing ‘stock’ cars, factory-built for consumers, and then modifying them to their own needs.  Bootleggers weren’t the only ones racing, but their nightly practice gave them a leg up – as did their organizations. Raymond Park, who operated one of the most notorious north-Georgia bootlegging operations, also fielded one of the first racing teams -- which included a wizard with Ford engines named Red Vogt, and two superb drivers,  Lloyd Seay and Roy Hall, the latter a man with such a following that he inspired two songs.   Running races wasn't just  backwoods fun, though; Parks and men like Bill France realized money could be made organizing and promoting the races. This was an uphill battle, what with the law watching their drivers and World War 2 suspending automobile production and sending drivers out into the wild blue yonder -- literally, as one driver joined a B-29 crew.  Racing was a dangerous sport, too, to both drivers and spectators: during one race a blowout sent a car into the crowd, with seventeen hospitalized and one buried. Not all deaths happened on the course: after winning a national championship, wheeling idol Lloyd Seay was shot in the woods over moonshine finances.

Slowly but steadily, France's organization drew in the majority of drivers,  attracted by his larger cash rewards, his talent for producing races that were genuine shows, and the opportunity of winning acclaim by racing against the biggest names.  France's forcefulness, that energy that helped make  his races a success, was also directed against drivers who wouldn't play ball, either by cheating on him by racing in other leagues, or cheating in the races with illegal modifications.  Eventually France would succeed in creating an institution, NASCAR, that had cleaned itself up for the big-city newspapers: the bootleg heroes were either playing nice, dead, or had gotten tired of fighting with Big Bill.  Either way, the ranks were filling with drivers outside the cast of whiskey-trippers, as young men around the South and even outside it wanted to try their hand at racing for cash.

Watching billboards race around in circles has never sparked my interest, but Driving with the Devil certainly  held it.  There is immediate attraction in the cast of characters,  poor farmboys making a living by running from the law, delivering liquid refreshment through skill, adrenaline, and more than a little luck. Admirable, too, are the mechanics like Vogt who were introduced to new machines and so devotedly studied them that they created a weapon on wheels  -- and the delightful chaos of '39 Fords tearing circles in red dirt,  careening over cliffs or into lakes, has lot more appeal than modern racing.  This is the story that Neil Thompson delivers, ending as 'modern' NASCAR with its paved oval tracks and truly national appeal is taking off.  As a story, it's superb, but as a book it has few issues under the hood. Thompson chronically repeats himself,  and sometimes to absurd levels. Towards the end, for instance, cited facts occur twice within a single page turn. A little editing would fix that, but somewhat more questionable are the historical allusions Thompson makes, like having Hitler refer to Lindbergh as the leader of American Fascism. This defamation is taken seriously by Thompson, who also believes the KKK supported Prohibition out of racial motives, when it was part of their full complement of social police hypocrisy. When it comes to writing about the whiskey and racing, however, he sticks closer to the facts.

Great fun!


No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for visiting! Because of some very clever spambots, I've had to start moderating comments more strictly, but they're approved throughout the day.