Car racing and moonshine are as Southern as fried chicken and sweet tea, and one of the things the corporate suits who run NASCAR are eager to forget is how not just their sport of stock car racing, but their very own racing organization is based squarely on a foundation of moonshining and bootlegging. Just in case anyone does, Neal Thompson’s Driving With The Devil will serve as a reminder, every bit as bracing as a belt of sweet white lightning.
Driving With The Devil relates the story of how a mostly North Georgia- and Atlanta-based circle of moonshine running drivers and ace mechanics associated with Raymond Parks, a one-time moonshine baron turned legitimate businessman and stock car race team owner. In following the adventures of Parks and his associates, including NASCAR legend Red Byron, Thompson charts the development of stock car racing from a red Georgia clay dirt tracks to the birth of NASCAR under Bill France (a non-bootlegger driver and promoter from Florida), and into the 1950s consolidation of stock car racing under the NASCAR banner.
In so doing, Thompson spins a story that is about more than just moonshine and driving hot cars. By weaving in threads such as the South’s Scotch-Irish cultural roots, the Depression and the Second World War, and the life of Henry Ford, whose cars were so popular with bootleggers and therefore with early stock car drivers as well, the book is really taking a snapshot of a broad facet of American life in the first half of the 20th Century.
The version I worked with was the audio book, narrated by race historian Buz McKim. If anything, McKim’s telling of Driving With The Devil enhances this tale of bootlegging and NASCAR. McKim’s modestly folksy style is engaging and meshes wonderfully with the subject matter. The sole drawback of the audio version is that listening to the tight descriptions of the race sequences while driving, which is what many do with audio books, might prompt some to get a little carried away with the gas pedal or taking corners. I know I did.
Readers interested in learning more about moonshining and bootlegging in pre-war North Georgia will be drawn to Driving With The Devil for the first third of the book, but I think the real audience for Thompson’s book (and its McKim’s audio version) are in two groups: those with an abiding love of Southern culture, and diehard racing fans. For those people, this is a must-listen.