When people hear the words “stock car racing” their thoughts often go to moonshining, an illegal business that fostered several of the sport’s early stars. However, in many ways, the sport born in the Southeast is a microcosm of the region's society.
In its early days, it not only consisted of bootleggers, but World War II veterans such as those seen in the North Carolina Museum of History exhibit “Answering the Call”. They were men who had endured polio as children. They were women who shunned sexual stereotyping and men who pushed back against a segregated South. They called mill towns and farms home. Yet, they all had one thing in common – a passion for motorsports.
Red Byron lost the use of his left leg during a World War II bombing mission, but he didn’t let that stop him from claiming NASCAR’s first two championships – Modified in 1948 and Strictly Stock (now Cup) in 1949.
An Alabama native, Byron had raced prior to World War II, and he knew if military doctors amputated his left leg he would never compete again. Two hunks of metal had sliced into his left thigh during his 58th mission when anti-aircraft fire bombarded his B-24. Byron fiercely fought the doctors who wanted to amputate his leg and won. Eventually, he was sent home with a brace the length of his leg. It was attached to his hip and bolted to an orthopedic shoe. Byron developed his own physical fitness program and designed a hand-operated clutch that allowed him to drive race cars.
Bud Moore, a championship team owner in NASCAR and SCCA Trans-Am, was 18 when he joined the armed forces in 1943. The strapping young Moore was assigned a water-cooled .30 caliber machine gun and on June 6, 1944 -- D-Day --the South Carolina native found himself among the infantrymen landing on Utah Beach at Normandy. Assigned to Gen. George S. Patton’s “Third Army”, he fought his way across Europe, participating in five major battles including the Battle of the Bulge. He was wounded at least five times, spending nine months and 14 days on the front lines in almost constant combat. He returned home with five Purple Hearts and two Bronze Stars.
Legendary car owner, crew chief, and innovator Smokey Yunick utilized his skills in NASCAR, IndyCar, and drag racing after returning from World War II where he served as a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Piloting a B-17 Flying Fortress named “Smokey and his Firemen”, Yunick flew more than 50 missions over Europe. Before being transferred to the Pacific theater following VE Day, Yunick was assigned to the 97th Bombardment Group at Amendola Airfield, Italy.
Among those joining the World War II veterans and moonshiners in building stock car racing’s foundation were those who had survived infantile paralysis or polio. Maurice Petty, younger brother of seven-time NASCAR champion Richard Petty, won his battle with polio to become a Hall of Fame engine builder. Rex White, from Taylorsville, N.C., defeated the odds to earn the 1960 championship in NASCAR’s Cup Series.
Stricken with polio at age 10, White didn’t require an iron lung, but he was hospitalized in a Gastonia, N.C., facility built specifically for people with the disease. White emerged with a crippled right leg that was slightly shorter than his left. However, that didn’t squelch his love of speed or hamper the driving abilities of the young man who had always been fascinated by the powerful bootlegging cars that traversed the highways in Alexander and Wilkes counties. During his NASCAR career, he won 28 Cup races and a convertible series event.
With the South still a segregated region, Wendell Scott defied society and entered NASCAR, which was then considered a white man’s sport. Like many of his white competitors, the African American from Danville, Va., was a World War II veteran, having served as a mechanic in the segregated U.S. Army in Europe. After returning home to Danville, Scott operated an auto-repair shop and ran moonshine on the side to provide for his wife and seven children. Scott was caught only once running the illegal whiskey. A judge sentenced him to three years probation but like all of those who needed money to support their families, he continued running moonshine.
In 1951, officials with the regional racing organization known as the Dixie Circuit decided to use a Black driver as a marketing gimmick. Scott was recruited and he competed in his first race at Danville Speedway. However, when he tried to compete in NASCAR races in Winston-Salem and High Point, N.C., officials refused him admission.
Scott finally obtained a NASCAR license in 1954, making him the first Black driver in NASCAR. However, he didn’t make his debut in the NASCAR Cup series until March 1961 at the fairgrounds in Spartanburg, S.C. Now in the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, N.C. Scott’s lone Cup victory came in the third race of the 1964 season in Jacksonville, Fla. Unfortunately, he didn’t get to enjoy the victory lane ceremonies because officials were concerned that he might kiss the white beauty queens.
The race victory initially went to Buck Baker. Scott protested and when the scoring cards were reviewed, he was declared the winner, having completed 202 laps in the scheduled 200-lap race while Baker had run 200.
A few years before Dixie Circuit officials used a Black driver as a marketing gimmick NASCAR President Bill France Sr. had done so with a woman. He recruited Louise Smith, from Greenville, S.C., to compete in and promote NASCAR Modified races. However, it was Sara Christian who made her mark as the first woman to compete in NASCAR’s Cup Series. With her husband Frank Christian as her crew chief, the Georgian drove to a 14th-place finish in NASCAR’s inaugural Strictly Stock (Cup) race in June 1949 on the 0.750-mile dirt track in Charlotte, N.C. She competed in six of the eight races that comprised the first Cup season and finished 13th in the point standings. More than two decades into the 21st Century, Christian remained the only woman to have recorded a top-five finish in a NASCAR Cup race, placing fifth on a half-mile dirt track in Pittsburgh, Pa. She also competed in the inaugural Cup race at North Wilkesboro (N.C.) Speedway, finishing 12th to race winner and teammate Bob Flock.
- Contributed by Deb Williams