Since the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) held its first official race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1949, the sport has yielded many fearless and legendary
Since the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) held its first official race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1949, the sport has yielded many fearless and legendary drivers whose careers have contributed to North Carolina’s place in racing history and culture. But the history of stock car racing in the Old North State goes back even further: The sport was born in the foothills, where some of the first drivers cut their teeth speeding along the backroads to make deliveries of forbidden hooch, evading revenuers under the blanket of nightfall, and racing one another on makeshift dirt tracks.
Read on to meet NASCAR pioneers, whose lasting legacies — and, in some cases, family dynasties — tell the story of a one-of-a-kind North Carolina pastime.
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In the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, teenage boys racing souped-up cars on winding roads — and evading law enforcement while running illegal liquor — predated NASCAR’s rise. Robert Glenn “Junior” Johnson was one of the fastest and most confident, learning and honing his talent by hauling moonshine on the dusty back roads of his native Wilkes County. His ancestors were among the first Southern distillers to make moonshine in the 1700s and his father continued the tradition on their Ingle Hollow family farm until the mid-’90s. Revenuers knew the Johnsons well, and, in 1935, raided the farm to seize what is said to be the biggest moonshine haul in U.S. history. As a boy in the ’30s, Johnson tended the sills, and by 14 years old, he’d learned to drive a car by running his father’s ’shine to speakeasies and bars around his hometown. Soon, he became extremely adept at bootlegging at high speeds.
Legend has it that in the summer of 1949, when he was 18, Johnson was plowing a cornfield barefoot when his older brother told him about a preliminary race at the North Wilkesboro Speedway. Johnson quickly slipped on some shoes and entered what would become his first competition. After a second-place win using a four-door Ford coupe — his moonshine car — he was hooked. Johnson began officially racing for NASCAR in 1955 and was instantly one to beat, earning five victories in his first season. The future hall-of-famer was also an expert mechanic, using his skills from his days as a moonshiner to make clever upgrades, from adding heavy-duty suspensions to boosting his car’s engine for more speed.
Retiring from racing in 1966 with 50 NASCAR victories, Johnson would later become a team owner for Junior Johnson & Associates, tallying 132 additional wins in the next two decades. He died in 2019, but his memory lives on: He built a full-size moonshine still in Heritage Speedway at NASCAR Hall of Fame, where visitors can learn about the sport’s roots and its legends.
Growing up in a family of mechanics, Louise Smith was drawn to cars before she was old enough to drive one. Before she’d professionally set tire to track, one of Smith’s earliest memories is said to have been driving her father’s Model T into the family chicken house at age 7, setting the stage for a near-decade-long tenure of wild adventures behind the wheel.
As she grew up, Smith gained local notoriety for being able to outrun law enforcement officers as a way to entertain herself. Word of her reputation spread quickly and soon reached the ears of Bill France, a racing promoter — and the eventual founder of NASCAR — who was searching for a female driver to pull in more spectators in 1946. With France’s coaxing, Smith entered a race and came in third place — an unexpected result for a woman at that time.
One year later, when Smith attended her first NASCAR race as a spectator in 1947, she wanted to do more than watch from the stands. It was the Daytona Beach Road Course — the race that would become the first to feature three female drivers, including Ethel Mobley and Sara Christian — and she entered her husband’s new Ford coupe. She ended up crashing, but the accident didn’t stop her. In fact, Smith would become much more famous over the years — and irresistible to promoters — because of her spectacular, rolling wrecks.
Smith’s most memorable crash came at Occoneechee Speedway in Hillsborough in 1950. Curtis Turner, a hall-of-fame driver, had just taught her how to powerslide through turns. Smith thought she’d gotten the hang of it, but during qualifying, she slid a little too far. “Man, when I hit that second turn, that tire blew, and that thang never did straighten up,” she later said. “It sailed off that bank down toward that river like a cannonball. Hit three trees. They had to get me out with a torch.”
Smith was eventually nicknamed the “First Lady of Racing,” and was the first woman elected to the International Motorsports Hall of Fame. She died in 2007, and 10 years later, served as the inspiration for a character in the movie Cars 3 who sported the legend’s famous number, 94.
Born in Newton in 1932, Ned Jarrett was nine years old when he had his first experience behind the wheel. His father, Homer, let him drive the family car to church on Sunday mornings in Conover. He started working for the family sawmill as a teenager, but a few father-son trips to dirt-track races in North Wilkesboro and Charlotte left him with an unexpected connection to racing.
After winning half-interest with his friend, John Lentz, in a Sportsman Ford through a game of poker one night, the Catawba County native went on to drive in his first race in 1951 — the first race at Hickory Motor Speedway. His father didn’t approve because the people that raced were various bootleggers, so Jarrett hung up his keys. His racing days, however, were far from over. Lentz began competing in Saturday night races, and when he got sick one night, he asked Jarrett to fill in for him. Jarrett used Lentz’s name so his father wouldn’t know he was racing. He finished second that night and continued to rise through the ranks under his friend’s name. When his father discovered, he acquiesced to the inevitable and encouraged Jarrett to use his own name so he could get credit for any accomplishments he may have along the way.
Known for being a polite and careful driver, Jarrett was later dubbed “Gentlemen Ned” for his calm demeanor. By 1965, he became a two-time NASCAR Grand National Series champion and, later, the father of NASCAR Cup champion Dale Jarrett.
As kids in the ’50s, Randy Bethea and his older brother, Harry, would sneak out of their Asheville home into a wooded area near McCormick Field to see stock car races on the weekends. After spending back-to-back summers watching the pros careen around the track, Harry got acquainted with some of the drivers, including racing legend Banjo Matthews. Randy’s brother would frequently take him to Matthews’ race shop in nearby Arden, where they eventually landed odd jobs sweeping floors and working on cars. The shop, which helped foster Randy’s passion for racing, has a prestigious stock car racing history — it was estimated that in the ’70s, Matthews built cars for at least half the NASCAR Cup field.
Randy later worked for driver Roy Trantham, whose racing shop conveniently shared a wall with Matthews’. Randy continued working for Trantham through high school, and his racing prowess quickly rubbed off on him. Eventually, the Asheville native became the fourth African American to ever start a top-tier NASCAR race. He retired from the sport in 2009.
It was an early morning in Randleman in June 1949 when 35-year-old Lee Petty picked up a Greensboro newspaper and stumbled across an advertisement announcing a car race in Charlotte. He borrowed a four-door Buick from a friend, took it down the road, dropped his two sons and wife in the stands, and then went out and wrecked the car halfway through the race. Lee had his family ride home with his younger brother Julian. He was hooked.
Three months later, Lee’s two boys, Maurice and Richard, mixed cement in a wheelbarrow and poured the first permanent floor of the race shop. Lee carved his initials in the wet cement: L.P. 9.49. Lee won his first race one month later, in October 1949, and a decade later, he won the first Daytona 500; Richard then won seven Daytonas of his own. In 1967, Richard — aka “The King” — won 27 races, including 10 in a row, and the joke around the racing world was that if he showed up on race day, other drivers started looking around to see who would finish second. Maurice was a seven-time mechanic of the year. Even Lee’s wife, Elizabeth, helped shape the sport. After Richard flipped his car at Darlington in 1970 and Lib saw his arm fly out of the driver’s side window, she made a checkerboard safety net. Soon every racecar had one.
Lee died in 2000 but the NASCAR pioneer’s legacy — and the Petty racing dynasty — lives on.