Nascar’s history is as colorful as the logo-emblazoned stock cars that have made the sport famous. Its roots go back to Prohibition when runners—people who delivered moonshine, a home-brewed whiskey distilled from corn, potatoes or anything that would ferment—souped up their cars so they could give the slip to the federal tax agents determined to bust them (think Dukes of Hazzard), according to David “Turbo” Thompson, an associate professor at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, who has also raced stock cars. “Runners built their reputations by outsmarting and outdriving the law,” he says. For bragging rights, he adds, they held informal races to determine which runner was fastest.
By the end of the 1940s, those contests had become an organized sport, largely due to the efforts of one driver, Big Bill France. Big Bill organized a meeting of drivers, car owners and mechanics at the art-deco style Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach, Fla., on December 14, 1947, to establish standard rules for racing. There and then the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (Nascar) was conceived. Two months later, on February 15, 1948, the first official Nascar race was held on the beach in Daytona. Red Byron won it in his Ford. A week later, Nascar was incorporated, and Big Bill appointed as its fearless leader.
On the way to becoming America’s biggest spectator sport, Nascar has seen more than its share of dramatic races and unforgettable finishes and faces. Lee Petty was declared the winner of the first-ever Daytona 500 in 1959, 61 hours after the race finished. (Big Bill France spent the time examining news footage of the race; it was that close.) Seventeen years later, Lee’s son Richard duked it out on the track against David Pearson. The two drivers crashed just before the finish line, and Pearson won the race by sputtering to the checkered flag. Richard Petty came back to win Daytona three years later.
Petty’s retirement in 1992 marked the transition from Nascar’s old guard to a new generation of young turks like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards, whose good looks and well-spoken ways have gone a long way toward popularizing and urbanizing the sport of the old-time moonshine runners.