The need to move invisibly from still to honky-tonk required navigating the curvy and dangerous mountain roads at speed, sometimes with headlights turned off. Ridge runners were fearless young men who worked on family farms during the day and transported half-ton loads of dangerous liquid explosive at night.
The threat of jail time or even a fiery death did not prevent the swift completion of their appointed rounds, and they took pride in outrunning law enforcement. It is estimated that several thousand moonshine runs took place per week during the Great Depression of the 1930s, with the roar of those modified engines echoing like thunder through the mountains.
In 1948, moonshine haulers got the chance to show off their legendary driving skills – legally and safely – through the new National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing Grand National circuit. NASCAR became a magnet for the untamed mountain boys who liked the idea of racing for money during the day to supplement their illegal rotgut sales at night.
Early NASCAR stars included Bob, Fonty and Tim Flock, three brothers who transported moonshine in Georgia before joining the circuit in 1949. Bob and Fonty met with some success, but Tim took home 40 victories from 187 starts – an amazing win ratio that has never been equaled. Unverified stories suggest Curtis Turner, with 360 career victories, was a former ridge runner before striking it big in Virginia lumber and co-founding Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Robert Glenn “Junior” Johnson sat out most of his second NASCAR season in a federal prison after his family’s still was raided. A thinking man’s moonshiner, Johnson pioneered many techniques for evading the revenuers, such as installing police lights and a siren on his car and teaching himself how to perform a 180-degree turn in the road without slowing down. As a racer and team owner whose cars won six championships from 1976 to 1985, Johnson brought a lot of positive attention to the sport. For his efforts, he won a presidential pardon from Ronald Reagan and was named the greatest NASCAR driver in history by Sports Illustrated.
Whether glamorous or scandalous, moonshine whiskey, stock car racing, and the Carolinas will be forever linked in the pages of history. The AutoFair’s special display of historic ridge-running vehicles, will celebrate the creativity and skill of those smugglers from long ago.
The fall AutoFair features more than 50 car club displays and more than 7,000 vendor spaces that offer a vast array of automotive parts and memorabilia. More than 1,500 collectible vehicles of all makes and models will be available for sale in the car corral that rings the 1.5-mile superspeedway. In addition, up to 200 cars will be auctioned by Dealer Auctions Inc., and kids can enjoy face-painting, bounce houses and other games and entertainment in the huge Play Zone.