Before NASCAR: The Corporate and Civic Promotion of Automobile Racing in the American South, 1903-1927

By Hall, Randal L. | The Journal of Southern History, August 2002 | Go to article overview

Before NASCAR: The Corporate and Civic Promotion of Automobile Racing in the American South, 1903-1927


Hall, Randal L., The Journal of Southern History


IN RECENT DECADES, HISTORIANS STUDYING THE SOUTH HAVE ANALYZED sport and leisure activities to illuminate an array of broader topics. For example, they have mined accounts of ball games and horse races for insights into such vital aspects of society as segregation, gender relations, honor, and social class. (1) Although scholars have only begun to investigate automobile racing, an examination of this popular sport has the potential to reveal much about the region. Understanding racing's early years in the South requires first the correction of current widespread misconceptions, among scholars and the public alike, about its origins. This article chronicles the emergence of automobile racing in the South between 1903 and 1927 and establishes the new sport's importance as part of the larger processes of economic development, civic boosterism, cultural change, and regional interaction in the early years of the twentieth century.

Many observers, both academic and popular, have mistaken ideas about the origins of automobile racing in the South that are rooted in larger stereotypes of the region. In late 1947 a group of race promoters gathered together in Daytona Beach, Florida, under the leadership of Bill France of Daytona Beach and Bill Tuthill of New Rochelle, New York. That meeting resulted in the incorporation of the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) in early 1948. (2) It is commonly believed that in the period just before the group's official formation and in its early years, rowdy, lower-class southern whites, many with moonshining experience, were the leading racers. Southern culture has thrived on myths, with a myth of the stubbornly independent spirit of rural whites--integrity mixed with a hedonistic streak--being an important example. The modern sport of stock-car racing in the South benefits from this myth of its rural roots among so-called southern good old boys. It makes for dramatic publicity when a reporter writing in an arbiter of public opinion such as the New York Times can proclaim, "[NASCAR] has traveled far since days when the first racers came roaring down from the Blue Ridge Mountains in their bootlegging cars, itching to find out who was the fastest." (3) Now, as for several decades, this one business-oriented organization dominates the rapidly growing sport using a tight governing structure, while perpetuating the story of its freewheeling beginnings. NASCAR's prominence has foreshortened our understanding of stock-car racing's history. (4)

Pete Daniel has made one scholarly attempt to analyze the importance of stock-car racing in the South; however, he mixes simplifications of working-class culture with his narrative of the growth of the sport in the 1950s to produce an interpretation with unresolved contradictions. Like many observers, he identifies early stock-car racing with competitions among drivers who ferried illegal moonshine out of the southern mountains toward piedmont cities. For Daniel, the drivers and the fans found car racing in the late 1940s and the 1950s to be a release for pent-up frustrations created as southerners made the transition from a rural, agricultural society to urban settings and regimented industrial jobs. He argues that the sport's Rabelaisian mix of violence and indulgence meant that "[i]n a decade when many frustrated middle-class Americans were searching for lost meanings, low-down southerners wallowed in authenticity." Though moonshining and violent release are very real parts of racing history, they are only part of the story. Moreover, Daniel's short description of the rise of the NASCAR sanctioning body that brought rigid control to the sport beginning in the late 1940s creates a paradox. If the principal appeal of the sport was its wildness and lack of control, one cannot explain the easy acceptance by fans and drivers alike of the guidance of a dictatorial promotional body organized for profit. While the reader learns of tales (some anecdotal and some perhaps exaggerated by promoters seeking publicity) of debauchery among fans and drivers, Daniel offers little understanding of how such a seemingly undisciplined group could have procured impressive race track facilities, carefully promoted events, and engineered powerful racing automobiles. …

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