Stills in the Hills
Moonshine and racing history go hand in hand in the Piedmont
By Mike Savicki
Before the Earnhardts, Pettys and Waltrips became household names in the racing world, the Graftons, Lippards, Littles, Heffners and Burgess brothers pegged their speedometers and turned heads across the Carolina Piedmont. Unlike their present day counterparts, who race to a checkered flag, these speed demons raced from something of greater consequence. As local moonshiners, they ran from the law.
“Families like the Lippards were constantly in and out of jail over liquor issues,” explains Melinda Herzog, Executive Director, Catawba County Historical Society. “The Burgess brothers, Grafton and Ralph, were big into the bootlegging business and had connections to the Chicago mafia that ran across at least six states. The Lippards were another family. They got involved in a gun battle in Burke over moonshine.”
Nearly a decade before Prohibition, shortly after North Carolina became the first southern state in 1908 to prohibit the sale of alcohol, bootlegging began to grow locally. The North Carolina mountains gave distillers a place to hide, and the rugged dirt roads that ran through Wilkesboro, Alexander and Catawba counties became popular routes for running. Federal agents sent to collect taxes and stop illegal running were often no match for the locals who knew the roads well. When a chase began, the bootleggers often had the upper hand.
Racing’s local roots can be traced to these bootleggers. With or without cars packed full of moonshine, early drivers practiced evasive driving techniques on twisting roads of the foothills. They perfected their skills against each other on local dirt tracks.
“In the early twenties, the saying was that if a family had a car, then they were into moonshine,” Melinda Herzog explains. “Most families couldn’t afford cars, and those that did were running.”
Oddly enough, the big period of running moonshine in North Carolina came in the 1930’s and 1940’s after Prohibition ended. Since there was such division on the issue at the state level, Prohibition was repealed county by county, which only added to the appeal of running shine, especially to those dry counties. Bootlegging also flourished as runners sold and delivered moonshine to hotels, clubs and private parties.
A bootlegger’s car was an object of deception. From the outside, it looked plain as day, but with modified seats, trunks and false bottoms, an average car could carry between 75 and 100 gallons of moonshine bottled in half gallon jars packed six to a case. Every nonessential part was removed to make the car lighter, faster and more maneuverable in case a chase began.
“The Feds had a lot of respect for the guys driving,” Herzog explains. “They didn’t like them because they were doing an illegal business, but they admired them as drivers. The best thing that could happen to the Feds was to capture a moonshine car because they might be able to use it as their car to pursue them.
“The moonshine story exists on multiple planes, but what most people around here know as it relates to racing is the Junior Johnson story,” she adds. “His father was in it, so it followed that he got in it, too. Junior got really good at driving cars, and mastered evasive techniques that not even the Feds knew.
“America likes a little bit of bad boy no matter what they might say, and moonshine has rough-and-tumble-meets-racing rolled into one,” concludes Melinda Herzog. “It’s a living part of our history.”
This article was originally published in the September 2011 edition of Currents Magazine.