Discovered Moonshine Cave a Glorious Reminder of NASCAR’s Past

North Wilkesboro Speedway, 2023.

Getty Images North Wilkesboro Speedway, 2023.

The more NASCAR goes flat out to broaden its appeal, and chase down big corporate money, the more the sport loves to play up its moonshine past. With good reason. It’s an awesome history. Mostly true, and with folks adding just enough lie to inspire.

Probably, that’s why when news broke that a secret “moonshine cave” may have been unearthed at the historic North Wilkesboro Speedway, it wasn’t just historians that wanted to know more.

NASCAR Loves a Legend

NASCAR loves a legend. Like when the legendary Dale Earnhardt, him and his team frantically working to get his car ready for Richmond in 1990, said, “get us two cases of beer and six pizzas and we’ll be ready by noon tomorrow.” Probably, it took a lot more than that, but legends need stoking. Case in point, a possible moonshine cave beneath a legendary NASCAR track.

On March 26, the North Wilkesboro Speedway released a statement, bland on the surface but laced with potential: “During grandstand cleaning and inspection last week, operations staff discovered cracks in the original concrete in section N. Crews began removing seats to inspect the extent of the damage and evaluate needs for repair.” Now the good part. “During the process, an open area of approximately 700-square-feet was discovered underneath the aging concrete.”

It’s that last bit that got NASCAR fans attention. An “open area” of about 700 square feet. Underneath the stands. Why was it there? For what purpose? Given NASCAR’s law-skirting moonshiner beginnings, plus the rumors passed down through the years, was it possible? Is there really an illegal, literally underground moonshine operation buried under the North Wilkesboro Speedway? Maybe. According to Steve Swift, senior vice president of operations and development at Speedway Motorsports, “we haven’t found find a still (yet), but we’ve found a small cave and an interior wall that would have been the perfect location to not only make illegal liquor, but to hide from the law as well.”

Moonshine and NASCAR

Episode 50 of the Fantastic History of Food podcast is about how Prohibition led to the formation of NASCAR. “The moonshine bootleggers of the South initially souped up their cars and learned to drive fast in order to evade the law. Those very skills would become the basis of NASCAR.”

This is not a false claim. Alcohol prohibition in the United States spurred a massive increase in illegal alcohol production. Big surprise. The deep South, off dirt roads, hidden away from the prying eyes of Federal (and local) authorities, was the perfect spot for producing this alcohol. But since the stills gave off smoke, and there might be many people involved in the making, the “moonshiners” concocted their shine at night — under moonlight.

Transporting all that moonshine to eager drinkers, however, required several things — and these all helped give birth to NASCAR. First, cars would have everything torn out of them, except the driver’s seat, so moonshiners could fit as much ‘product’ inside the car as possible. Second, it created the need for drivers who knew how to drive the backroads, with all its turns and bumps. Third, it meant cars needed to be refitted so they could outrun local authorities. Lastly, the best, most daring drivers, those with no hesitation to outrun the police, were now in high demand.

Prohibition ended in 1933. There was no longer any need for all those ‘stock’ cars and fast drivers. But that passion to race, to retrofit cars, to compete, that never went away. It was “Big Bill France,” himself a racer — though not a moonshiner — who helped formalize these desires and create NASCAR. The France family still owns and operates NASCAR.

NASCAR Hall of Famer Junior Johnson, a moonshine runner, once said that “moonshiners put more time, energy, thought and love into their cars than any racer ever will. Lose on the track and you go home. Lose with a load of whiskey and you go to jail.” Today’s NASCAR drivers don’t face that dilemma. And the sport, despite its outlaw history, has now grown into a multi-billion dollar enterprise. Drivers like Denny Hamlin have become part-owners of teams — and super rich. Four-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon is now Vice Chairman of Hendrick Motorsports. And fans can stream NASCAR on their smartphones thanks to Amazon Prime. But the moonshiner past is still part of the sport’s DNA.

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