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Driving With The Devil

An excerpt from
Southern Moonshiners, Detroit Wheels, and the Birth of NASCAR
By Neal Thompson
Crown Publishing

                                              (click book cover above to read Swampland's review)

Tell about the South. What’s it like there? Why do they live there? Why do they live at all?
-William Faulkner


I feel totally relaxed in the race car. I can tune everything else out.
In a way, it's my retreat. It's probably the place where I'm most at home.

-Dale Earnhardt

From Chapter 4, "The Bootlegger Turn"

The Depression-era economy of the South gave moonshiners little reason to consider other career paths. In just one week of moonshining, with two or three nightly trips between Dawsonville and Atlanta, they could make enough to buy a new Model A Ford. In the mid-1930s, unskilled laborers in and around Atlanta might earn as little as forty cents an hour, less than $20 a week. A tripper could earn twice that for a single Dahlonega-to-Atlanta run. As Jess Carr put it in his book, The Second Oldest Profession, "It was a thousand dollar-a-week job if the driver worked every night - and lived through it." For many, the risk of jail or death was worth the rewards. Better to live boldly and with money in his pocket than die of boredom in the production line of some factory.

Before Prohibition, moonshining had been largely a family business, and a mostly harmless local one. During Prohibition, moonshiners became sophisticated, commercial mass producers. After Prohibition, the production of corn liquor continued its maturity from quaint, backwoods artisanal hobby to profitable and dangerous enterprise, which one writer likened to "a gentle home pet that grew to become a devouring monster." More than anywhere else in the U.S., that monster prowled the roads between Atlanta and Dawsonville. Of an estimated 35 million gallons of moonshine produced nationwide in 1934, nearly a million gallons a year came from the foothills surrounding Dawsonville. One famous backwoods distillery, in an emptied-out chicken house, pumped out 700 gallons of corn liquor a day. "Virtually everyone in Dawson County was associated with the whiskey business in some way," one retired Dawsonville bootlegger said.

Across the thirteen years of Prohibition, the price of liquor had risen tenfold, to $20 or more per gallon. But even after the 18th Amendment was repealed by the ratification of the 21st Amendment (giving whiskey the distinction of being the only target of two constitutional amendments), the price remained high - partly because the 200 or so legal distilleries that had existed before Prohibition took a few years to rebuild, but also because the government was collecting a whopping $2-per-gallon tax. For many, the decision was simple: why buy legal whiskey when moonshine was far cheaper. And why work for $20 a week when you can make $400 delivering that moonshine?

Of course, it wasn't just Dawsonville. All across Appalachia, entrepreneurial farm boys made small fortunes in Martinsville, Virginia; Wilkes County, North Carolina; Asheville, North Carolina; Greenville, South Carolina; eastern Kentucky, and so on. In the culture of the South, fathers thought little of sending their twelve- and fourteen-year-old sons out to deliver a load of moonshine. It was a rite of passage, like bagging your first deer, your first woman. Also, in the minds of many southern farmers, moonshining was just an extension of agriculture, and bootlegging no more than delivering a farm product to market. They saw no reason the IRS should take a cut.

NASCAR legend Curtis Turner claimed to have delivered his first load of whiskey in 1934, at age 10. A few miles from home, with 100 gallons in his father's Oldsmobile, Curtis approached a slow-moving mail truck but couldn’t remember, Do I pass on the left or the right? He chose the right and slid off the road into a fence. Years later, to show off his "bootlegger turn" to a fellow moonshiner, Turner lined up two rows of whiskey jars on the road, 10 feet apart. He then sped toward the jars, spun 180 degrees and slid backwards between the two rows, without touching a jar.
“It was easy,” he said. “I couldn’t waste all the good liquor.”

In 1935, police and IRS agents pounced on the village of Ingle Hollow, in western North Carolina's notorious Wilkes County, another moonshining hub, to make the biggest moonshine bust in history. Officials found the tiny Johnson house crammed to the ceiling with 7,100 gallons of liquor, and agents hauled Robert Johnson Sr. off to prison. Again. Four-year-old Robert Glenn "Junior" Johnson, barefoot and in overalls, waved goodbye to his daddy, while his mother poured coffee and served pie to the tax agents whose names she'd come to know. Junior's father would spend a third of his 63 years behind bars. Following his father's path, Junior, beginning at age 14, treated bootlegging like a full-time job, driving backroads by day to learn which escape routes to take at night. Johnson, like Curtis Turner, would also become a major player in NASCAR's first quarter century, and in many minds is considered NASCAR's best driver of all time.

Later in life, Johnson said that "moonshiners put more time, energy, thought and love into their cars than any racers ever will. Lose on the track and you go home. Lose with a load of whiskey and you go to jail." Johnson knew what he was talking about. He spent a year inside the same Ohio prison that had been the temporary home to a number of Dawsonville moonshiners, including Atlanta moonshine baron Raymond Parks.

Other racers would later claim they had little choice in the matter. "If it hadn't been for bootlegging and racing, we'd have starved to death," said Tim Flock, one of three moonshining brothers who would each become NASCAR legends.

In the rural South, such young men grew fast. And with practice, the smart ones - those who didn't get killed or arrested - learned how to transfer their moonshining skills to the racetrack. Racing ahead of the law on snaky dirt roads honed in men like Lloyd Seay and his contemporaries instincts that would transfer perfectly to racing.

But first, the job of the north Georgia bootlegger grew more complicated.

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