Driving With The Devil
by Neal Thompson
“We believe strongly that the old Southeastern redneck heritage that we had is no longer in existence. But we also realize that there's going to have to be an effort on our part to convince others to understand that.”
- Mike Helton, NASCAR President in 2006
Neal Thompson’s Driving with the Devil cannot be considered just another book about the history of NASCAR. Instead, Thompson, focuses on the cultural history of NASCAR and how that culture shaped the fervent fan base the sport has enjoyed in the South for many decades.
Although NASCAR officially formed in 1948 at a meeting in Daytona Beach, Florida, stock car racing had already been a grass roots Southern sport for more than a decade. Thompson points out that this was due to Henry Ford’s Model T and its almost immediate use in the ever present business of moonshining that was crucial part of the fabric of the South at that time.
Thompson juxtaposes Atlanta versus Daytona throughout. Raymond Parks led the Atlanta contingent. Born more than 90 years ago in Dawsonville, Georgia, Parks first got into moonshining as a teenager. Parks moved to Atlanta where he quickly built a business empire on moonshine revenues buying up liquor stores, gas stations, and other real estate. Parks soon became one of the first stock car team owners.
Down in Daytona, Bill France focused his energies as a driver at first and then became a race promoter. This is where the history of NASCAR begins as far as NASCAR is concerned. Today, Bill France and his family have built NASCAR into an international sports and entertainment conglomerate. It is natural that they would draw a distinction between NASCAR and early years of stock car racing. However, the same hard core southern race fans that supported racing in the early days of dirt tracks have created generations of fans that follow NASCAR religiously today.
The France family and NASCAR’s history serves only to provide context in this excellent book. Thompson’s true intent is in connecting his own alcohol-fueled Irish roots to the foundation of NASCAR. Readers follow the lives of men like Parks and early racers like Roy Hall, Lloyd Seay, and Red Vogt that have sadly become forgotten men.
As NASCAR continues to grow by marginalizing its old fan base in the South, Neal Thompson makes it clear that history will always connect them despite any efforts otherwise.
- Jim Markel