We all know the origin story of NASCAR: a bunch of folks got together in Daytona Beach after a few years of unsanctioned stock car races, and Bill France decreed the birth of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, now known as NASCAR. But how did we get there? Who else contributed to the birth of the series we know today? What names have been forgotten along the way? That’s the story Driving with the Devil aims to tell.
(Welcome back to the Jalopnik Race Car Book Club, where we all get together to read books about racing and you send in all your spicy hot takes. In honor of being trapped indoors, I’ve made the reading a little more frequent; every two weeks instead of every month. This week, we’re looking at Driving with the Devil: Southern Moonshine, Detroit Wheels, and the Birth of NASCAR by Neal Thompson, the story of NASCAR’s previously forgotten history.)
This is one of those books that I just didn’t want to put down. Author Neal Thompson did an incredible job hunting down first-hand sources (going so far as to move his family to North Carolina to, in part, pursue this book). He has an impeccable sense of what makes a good story through years of journalism and countless other books, knowing when to tell the story and when to let someone else (or the facts) do the work for him.
It’s become fairly common knowledge recently that NASCAR’s roots stemmed from moonshiners. In this era, it’s been framed as a kind of romantic past, with people almost idolizing the outlaw style those racers epitomized. A Ford V-8 modified to haul loads of moonshine became a great mode of making a living for Southern folks still reeling from the impact of the Civil War and the Great Depression. Moving onto the local race track was an easy change to make.
But what we don’t talk much about is how despised the moonshiners were and how hard Bill France tried to distance himself from the criminal roots of stock car racing. In the pre-WWII era, France was a racer himself, competing against—and often losing to—moonshiners turned racers like Lloyd Seay and Roy Hall.
Even then, France was working as a race promoter. In the 1930s, ‘real’ racing was sanctioned by the AAA—so, basically, open-wheel racing. It took a long time for stock car racing to grab hold, and it did in large part because France pushed so hard to legitimize it (which ultimately led to the formation of NASCAR). But he also knew that the presence of moonshiners reflected poorly on his sport, dulling the gloss he was trying to cultivate.
And that’s only one part of the book. There’s also the story of Raymond Parks, who started making his fortune via moonshining and then used it to fund his moonshining cousins. There’s Red Vogt, the genius mechanic that knew exactly what it took to transform a standard Ford into a moonshining legend, then learned how to transfer those skills to the racetrack. There’s Red Baron, who returned from WWII crippled but still a dominant racer.
Driving with the Devil isn’t always a fun read—most folks don’t exactly have a happy ending—but it’s a compelling one. It has all the twists and turns you’d expect from a mystery novel, and it has the longstanding depth you’d normally find in a history textbook. It perfectly captures a specific moment in time that many folks skipped over, ignoring NASCAR’s roots in exchange for recalling the moment it became an official series decades after stock car racing began to establish itself as a form of racing people would want to see.
This book transcends the nature of the South and instead brings in threads from Detroit, the West, and the New South developed by moonshine money. It crosses continents and oceans and covers controversy after controversy—so much so that it’s hard to sum this book up in just one post.
All I have to say is: I enjoyed the hell out of this book, and I can’t wait to sit down and read it again.
And that’s all we have for this week’s Jalopnik Race Car Book Club! Make sure you tune in again on December 7, 2020. We’re going to be reading The Curse of the Indy 500: 1958's Tragic Legacy by Stan Sutton, and we’ll be moving off to my website, where this series will find its new home!