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How Whiskey Cars Worked


Whiskey Cars and Stock Car Racing
Cotton Owens races by the crowd in his 64' Pontiac. Cotton Owens won the pole for the 500 but had transmission problems on the 149th lap. Owens would take home $200.
Cotton Owens races by the crowd in his 64' Pontiac. Cotton Owens won the pole for the 500 but had transmission problems on the 149th lap. Owens would take home $200.
Racing Photo Archives/Getty Images

To say that small southern towns in the 1930s, '40s and '50s were hard up for entertainment would be an understatement. In addition to rampant poverty, small towns just didn't have too much to do. Many didn't have a movie theater, and traveling to a larger town that did was time-consuming and expensive. At the same time, there weren't any sports to follow -- professional baseball and football teams didn't arrive in the south until much later.

What small towns in the South did have, however, were empty fields, some very fast cars and some very good drivers. Enterprising farmers would turn empty pastures and fields into racetracks. People could pack the area around a makeshift track and for a small fee, watch local drivers vie for small purses. No driver was getting rich off the small town races, but earning a little bit of money and a lot of bragging rights was enough.

In 1947, promoters, drivers and car owners from these local races met in Daytona Beach, Fla., and organized the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR). NASCAR was based on building up the fan base that had been sown in those small towns. The idea was that the cars would be stock -- the same cars that the fans could buy. That way, fan loyalty would be based around finding a common bond between the fan and the drivers. They'd pretty much drive the same car.

That plan for gaining fans is where whiskey cars and NASCAR splits. Though many of the original organizers, team owners, mechanics and drivers were bootleggers, they now had to follow strict rules on how the cars could be modified. When trying to outrun revenuers, there were no rules. While NASCAR grew in popularity, bootlegging declined. Whiskey car drivers had a legal -- and lucrative -- outlet for their skills, and large-scale, legitimate alcohol sellers began making inroads into those Southern towns they had been banned from. Though whiskey cars evolved into something faster and more mainstream than a hot-rodding country boy running from revenuers, NASCAR fans haven't forgotten the colorful roots of their favorite sport.

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