Nestled atop a Wilkes County hill in the shadows of North Carolina’s Brushy Mountains sits North Wilkesboro Speedway. A unique short track with a backstretch that goes uphill, it played a key role in helping moonshiners turn their illegal whiskey business into a multimillion-dollar sport – stock car racing.
Long before America’s love affair with the automobile, it possessed a passion for the smooth, high quality, 100 percent proof white liquor, better known as moonshine, that was produced in the Southeast, specifically in the Appalachian Mountains and foothills. Mountain life was tough and producing moonshine was often a family’s only source of income. It wasn’t the beverage, per se, that was illegal, but rather the fact no taxes were paid on it.
By the 1950s, when stock car racing was in its infancy, moonshining was rampant in Wilkes County. In fact, Wilkes County was the epicenter of the moonshine industry in North Carolina for three decades – 1940s through the 1960s. It was easy to hide the stills in the mountain hollows where cool, fresh spring water was instrumental in the manufacturing of the white liquor or corn liquor, as it was sometimes known.
The nickname corn liquor comes from the fact that in North Carolina it’s commonly made with corn meal, sugar, water, yeast, and malt. The starch in the corn is converted to sugar by an enzyme in the malt while the yeast changes the sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide. The mixture known as the mash is cooked down into the white liquor which is often poured into Mason jars before being transported to its destination. Sometimes fruit, such as cherries, is added to the moonshine in the jars.
Small stills were usually outside, but it wasn’t unusual for large whiskey operations to be located underground or in a house’s root cellar. It was a quick and easy way to make money. U.S. Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearm officers sent to Wilkes County to wipe out the thriving business dubbed it the “moonshine capital of the world.”
Running or transporting the moonshine required a skilled driver who could negotiate the winding dirt roads, often by moonlight. At a moment’s notice, he had to be able to execute a bootleg turn to avoid a revenuer roadblock. The maneuver consisted of the driver whipping his car around 180 degrees while staying within the width of a narrow two-lane road. The high-speed tactics in cars equipped with powerful, specially built engines led to the drivers challenging one another for bragging rights. It wasn’t unusual for the runners to gather in a field on a designated day to race one another to determine who was the most talented and possessed the fastest car.
That eventually resulted in Enoch Staley, along with several partners, building North Wilkesboro Speedway in 1946, two years before NASCAR’s first season and three years before the first Strictly Stock (now Cup Series) race. Initially, a five-eighths mile dirt track, it provided a place where the whiskey runners could show off their skills and their cars. It also created an early link between the country’s moonshiners and stock car racing.
While Willie Clay Call may have been nicknamed “The Uncatchable” by the federal ATF agents, it was Robert Glenn Johnson Jr., better known as Junior Johnson, who perhaps became the most famous Wilkes County moonshiner to transition into a stock car racing career.
The fourth of seven children, Johnson’s family was in the bootlegging business before he was born. In fact, his father spent nearly 20 of his 63 years in prison for bootlegging. Revenuers frequently raided their home and Johnson was once caught at the family still for which he spent a year – 1956-57 -- in federal prison in Chillicothe, Ohio. However, throughout Johnson’s life, he possessed bragging rights for having never been caught while transporting moonshine.
By the time President Reagan pardoned Johnson in 1986 for his 1956 moonshining conviction, the Ronda, N.C., native possessed 50 victories in NASCAR’s premier series as a driver along with 46 poles, 121 top-five, and 148 top-10 finishes. His most successful season as a driver was in 1965 when he won 13 of the 36 races in which he competed.
After stepping out of the driver’s seat, Johnson continued in the sport, becoming one of NASCAR’s most successful team owners. Using the automotive mechanical knowledge he gained as a moonshine runner, Johnson’s operation produced powerful race cars, winning six championships in NASCAR’s premier series, 132 races, and 115 poles. While driving for Johnson, Cale Yarborough became the first to win three consecutive NASCAR Cup championships, 1976-78.
Both Johnson and Yarborough are now NASCAR Hall of Fame members.
With Staley’s passing in 1995 and Johnson’s in 2019, North Wilkesboro Speedway remains the link between moonshining and motorsports. Its popularity in the community stands as a testament to a group of men running illegal whiskey using their skills to create the popular sport of stock car racing.
- Contributed by Deb Williams