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Rebels, Taxes, and Racecars

Published in Blog on May 08, 2024 by David Lee Jones

We all know the story of the patriots who dumped a whole load of tea into Boston Harbor to protest taxes levied by King George and the British Crown. “Taxation without representation” was the rebel cause for the Tea Party along with other grievances against the tyrant across the Atlantic. 

Ironically, it wouldn’t be long before the newly formed nation would begin taxing its citizens. The one tax most hated among them was the tax on distilled spirits. The Distilled Spirits Tax of 1791 would anger the first citizens of these United States to the point that they took up arms once again in what was known as the Whiskey Rebellion. George Washington sent soldiers to quell that uprising, but it was not without some bloodshed.

Our home state of North Carolina was settled by many Scot/Irish immigrants who fled famine and the tyranny of kings and queens, feudal lords, and other oppressors to settle in the hills and mountains of the state. They brought with them their knowledge of distilling. They went about making spirits for themselves, family, and friends. Many made their livelihood making “moonshine”, as their product came to be called. Whiskey was used for barter and sold to provide income. To avoid taxation and interference from the Federal government, moonshiners practiced their craft by the light of the moon, in clandestine operations to avoid discovery.

Fast forward to the late 1940s and that rebel spirit was still alive. Moonshine stills (the name for the apparatus that produces whiskey and other libations) were plentiful and made by skilled hands from what materials were available. The feds, called “Revenuers”, would bust up one still and the moonshiners would have another up and running the next day. The real difficulty for these mountain entrepreneurs was distribution. The Revenuers were chasing down every truck, trailer, and automobile that looked to be overloaded. The weight of the moonshine loaded down a car, so when hauling whiskey, it looked a bit like our modern low riders.

Always trying to stay one step ahead of the feds, moonshiners began modifying cars and trucks to hold more and more of the liquor they were producing. The more “moon”, the more it loaded down the transporting vehicle. To compensate for the extra weight, and to escape the law, they would modify suspensions, engines, and transmissions to make more horsepower and get it to the rear wheels.

What do you do with a souped-up car when you're not running moon? You race it of course. NC’s own Richard Petty, known as the King in NASCAR circles, was once asked “When was the first auto race?” Petty didn’t hesitate, he replied “The day they made the second car.”

The National Association for Stock Car Automobile Racing, NASCAR sanctioning body was formed in 1948. The inaugural season kicked off with a race at Charlotte. That season would conclude at North Wilkesboro in Wilkes County. Wilkes County is known as “The Moonshine Capital of the World”. It was also the home of one of the most famous moon runners and NASCAR owners and drivers, Robert Glen “Junior” Johnson. Junior’s life is the basis for the movie “Last American Hero”.

Junior was typical of the descendants of those early Scot/Irish whiskey makers. Rebellious, strong-willed, and determined to support his family and honor his parents. Junior was immediately successful in racing, a wizard with engines, and setting up a car to haul moon. In the early years, he would scout the junkyards for Cadillac ambulances. Their engines, big and powerful, were transplanted into lightweight cars. Junior's favorite was a ’40 Ford coupe with the big Caddy motor. The car had no back seat providing more room to haul liquor.

His skills running moonshine, not only driving North Carolina’s back roads, but his mechanical skills working on the cars would serve him well when he turned to competitive auto racing. Bill France, NASCAR’s founder invited Junior to race his moon-running cars knowing full well that Junior and many others were hauling liquor during the week and racing on the weekends. As luck would have it, he was arrested tending his daddy’s still while his father was away. Junior always did what his daddy asked.  

He didn’t show the same obedience to law enforcement, NASCAR’s rule book, or the federal government. After a stint in an Ohio prison, Junior came home and went right back to racing. He was granted a full pardon in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan, another American hero.  

Junior is just one example of the many NASCAR pioneers who descended from North Carolina’s immigrants. Many were rebellious, had a healthy distrust of the government, and resisted taxation, but they were patriots too, always answering the call to serve when needed. These people would get behind the Article V movement and a Convention of States.

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