Drivers, Start Your Engines!

Stock car racing is often thought of as the quintessential Southern sport, and the average NASCAR (the National Association for Stock Car Racing) fan is, stereotypically, a Southern redneck with an accent as thick as blackstrap molasses. After all, in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, in the Wilkes Heritage Museum, there is one of the cars driven by Southern driving legend Junior Johnson. The same museum has an exhibit containing a piece of General Robert E. Lee’s military jacket. Southern heritage indeed!

The University of North Carolina Press, which has published many books about the Civil War, including Stonewall Jackson at Cedar Mountain (Robert K. Krick), and The Civil War in the West (Earl J. Hess), has also published Real NASCAR, White Lightning, Red Clay, and Big Bill France (Daniel S. Pierce).

There are some who feel that watching fast cars being driven around a paved oval, only turning left, is not even a real sport, but no matter how one feels about the actual racing, it is difficult to argue the truth that NASCAR is a cultural phenomenon, and is primarily associated with the American South.

Some folks take this phenomenon and its southern roots seriously. For example, according to a series of posts in the forum Civil War Talk, there was a coordinated “attack” in the name of the Heritage Defense Committee at the Atlanta 500 NASCAR Race in 2007. About twenty men from the Georgia Sons of Confederate Veterans flew hundreds of Confederate battle flags over the stadium by attaching them to helium balloons. Another 800 flags were given out to spectators, and at noon, the Confederate Air Force (yes, there is one–the subject for another post!) flew over the infield with a huge battle flag, streaming a banner behind it which said, “NASCAR Don’t Forget Your Roots,” and the cheers that went up could be heard for miles around the stadium.

The event was very successful for the SCV. Their members were able to raise both money and interest in their organization, and vowed to continue the “attacks.” They mean what they say, apparently, as the SCV sponsors at least three stock cars that run on the smaller NASCAR tracks in the South. None of them are called The General Lee, however.

As for Civil War Talk, they even offer a link to the “Best Prayer EVER!” by Pastor Joe Nelms, given at the beginning of last year’s race in Nashville. If Civil War Talk heard that one, they have to be fans!

Another interesting connection between the War and NASCAR is the unusual, perhaps inspired, casting of HBO’s forthcoming Civil War mini-series, To Appomattox. A well-known NASCAR driver, Carl Edwards, and a former crew chief-turned FOX sports analyst Jeff Hammond have been cast in minor, but not unimportant roles. Edwards will play Confederate General John B. Gordon, selected by Robert E. Lee to surrender the Army of Northern Virginia. Hammond will portray General Jubal Early, AoNV infantry corps commander and “father” of the Lost Cause.

John Brown Gordon

According to the publicity for To Appomattox:

The American Civil War is unique in human history for being the only civil conflict that ended with reunion, respect, and brotherhood. The most bloody national conflict in world history is defined, ultimately, not by the conflict itself . . . but by the preservation of the values of all Americans.

This production is honored to have developed a connection between this ultimate American sport with the ultimate American story, and is proud to announce an association between select NASCAR™ affiliated drivers and roles that best exemplify this tradition of patriotism and competition in our production.

This connection between the Civil War and drivers who race NASCAR™ is simple: those values of the Civil War–the patriotism, the spirit of American competition, the regional and national pride that poured forth from and for its heroes–is best exemplified in the American Values and American Spirit embraced today by the NASCAR™ affiliated drivers and their fans.

Or maybe it’s just a publicity grab. Rascal Flatts is doing the music, and Ed Bearss is prominently publicized as a Historical Consultant. I am less sure about the NASCAR connection–I suspect the producers never considered Kyle Busch for a role.

American stock car racing began during Prohibition, when Appalachian bootleggers used local men with fast cars to run their illegal whiskey to their customers, evading the police. The cars were often modified for speed and handling down winding mountain roads, and for increased storage capacity to hold their cargo.

Carl Edwards

By the repeal of Prohibition, in 1933, Southerners (and others) had developed a taste for “moonshine,” and the drivers had developed a taste for speed and danger. Now, instead of local sheriffs looking for ‘shine, the cars were driving fast to escape from the tax collectors, or “revenooers” who were attempting to collect the government’s cut of the proceeds. As the speed and efficiency of the cars improved, races began to be run as a form of popular entertainment in the rural South, particularly in the aforementioned Wilkes County, North Carolina. By 1949, NASCAR™ was a real, if regional, sport.

As I thought about writing this article, I began to wonder just how “Southern” NASCAR was in 2012. After all, Daytona, the first race of the season, was February 26. Off the top of my head, I could think of several drivers who were definitely Yankees, and several tracks north of the Mason-Dixon line. I logged on to NASCAR.com and did some research. Here are the surprising results:

Out of the Top Twenty Drivers, one is from Australia, four are from states that were in the Confederacy, and fifteen are from states that were loyal to the Union, or were loyal territories before statehood. That’s 75% Yankee.

Of the 2012 Racetracks that will host at least one NASCAR race this year, there are nine that are in states that were in the Confederacy, ten in Union states, and two in former Union territories. That makes it nine to twelve, or a little over 57% Yankee-placed tracks. Hmmm.

Maybe it is the dash and flair of the Confederate Cavalier image that is so attractive, seen again in young men and fast cars. Maybe it is the outlaw mentality of running from the law and taxes that rings the proverbial historic bell with today’s Civil War buffs. I just don’t know.

The way I see it, the Union has simply won another war.

Recommended Reading:

To Appomattox

Nascar.com

Nascar Video-Via You Tube

About Meg Thompson

CW Historian
This entry was posted in Books & Authors, Ties to the War and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Drivers, Start Your Engines!

  1. Interesting article, Ms. Thompson. But one thing about “To Appomattox” is incorrect. Network negotiations are ongoing, and no channel, including HBO, has been announced as the channel that will carry the series.

    Greg Caggiano and myself run the unofficial fan blog for the series. That blog can be found here:

    http://toappomattox.wordpress.com

    God bless!

    • Meg Thompson says:

      Aw man! I had hoped the series had a home. Keep us informed, please. Another forthcoming endeavor is an independent movie, “Saving Lincoln.” I think independent producers, like independent historians, deserve our support! Thanks so much for the info.

  2. Mark says:

    It WAS a Southern sport. The big wigs moved it pretty much out of the South to get more money. When “those people” as General Lee used to refer to them finally lose their interest, will NASCAR come limping back home? And, more importantly, will they be welcomed back when they do? I hope not!

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