NASCAR, moonshine's historic ties rekindle before All-Star Race

Tuesday, March 26, was supposed to be a routine morning at the resurrected North Wilkesboro Speedway. The legendary 0.625-mile short track is carved into the foothills that rise from the red dirt northwestern corner of North Carolina, where the Piedmont region gives way to the Appalachian Mountains. The NASCAR All-Star Race, which takes the green flag Sunday night, was still eight weeks away, what should have been a comfortable span for the speedway ground crews that were starting the process of waking the 77-year-old bullring from its wintertime slumber. The drone of leaf blowers echoed off the crusty concrete frontstretch grandstand.

Then the machines fell silent.

Steve Swift was there, up from his office at Charlotte Motor Speedway, headquarters of Speedway Motorsports Inc., owner of a portfolio of NASCAR facilities including North Wilkesboro.

"One of the crew came to us and said, 'Hey man, we might have a problem here,'" remembers Swift, SMI's vice president of operations and development, aka The Guy Who Makes Sure the Racetracks Work Properly.

"We all ran up there and there was a foot-and-a-half crack in the grandstand, where we had taken some of the old seats out to do some maintenance work. Next thing you know, we take a look through that hole and it's a not a hole. It's a cavity. I mean, you could put a Ford pickup truck in there. I thought, this is a cave. Well, that isn't good."

Not good for track operators, sure. But for everyone else, be they NASCAR fans, historians, people who love liquor, or Swift's coworkers who are in the business of promoting races, that hole in the grandstand was awesome. Like, Indiana Jones awesome.

Was it a moonshine cave?

For those who do not know, a quick primer on the intertwined, inebriated history of NASCAR and Wilkes County, North Carolina. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the Carolinas were settled largely by Scots-Irish immigrants, who brought their ways of distilling homemade whiskey across the pond with them. The process, in short, is that one heats up a mixture of corn mash and water in a large vat, captures the steam via a system of twisted pipes, and collects the resulting clear 150 proof alcohol into containers for distribution and consumption.

Decades of battling with the government over the taxation of that liquor pushed the majority of the liquid cooking into the mountains of Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina. Why? Because the red clay soil was perfect for growing the ingredients, and the endless rolling hills provided all sorts of nooks and crannies where distillery rigs could be secretly built and fired up under the cloak of night.

When the United States Congress passed the 18th Amendment in 1920, banning all alcohol sales, illegal moonshining became instantly and massively lucrative. After Prohibition was repealed in 1933, federal agents -- aka revenuers -- were still charged with enforcing the taxation of homemade liquor. And there was a lot of it. Thousands of bottles of moonshine were produced daily in Wilkes County alone, waiting to be sold and hauled out of those mountains to buyers in the trunks of tricked-out cars.

A single load of 22 cases produced about $110 profit, nearly $1,300 in 2024 dollars. Most of those delivery vehicles were Ford sedans, retrofitted with high-horsepower Indy 500-worthy engines and smoothly bouncing around on custom spring suspension systems. That allowed moonshine runners to outpace would-be arresting offices by slinging their machines through zigzaggy mountain roads, all while loaded down with hundreds of pounds of liquid weight sloshing around in crates of mason jars and plastic jugs.

When the men piloting those machines inevitably began arguing over who had the fastest rides, they started holding races to find out. That's why the North Wilkesboro Speedway was plowed out of the dirt. Stock car racing -- and ultimately, NASCAR -- was born.

But in between all of those deliveries and all of that racing, all of that liquor had to be kept somewhere.

"That was the biggest problem, was where to put it all after we'd made it," NASCAR Hall of Famer Junior Johnson explained during a drive around then-dilapidated North Wilkesboro Speedway in December 1999. Johnson, who grew up in nearby Ronda, North Carolina, drove his first race at the track in 1949, when he was just 17 years old. His father, Glenn Johnson Sr., was perhaps the most prolific moonshiner in the region, as proven one day in 1935.

"The federal guys came into the house. I was 4 years old. It was me, my mom, daddy, and my four brothers and sisters living there. They found boxes of whiskey in every room of the house. The kitchen. Under the porch. Every single bedroom. Everywhere. Because we didn't have nowhere else to hide. You just put wherever you could until it was time to haul it off to somebody."

The feds found 7,254 cases of moonshine stuffed into every corner of the Johnson house, the largest illegal liquor seizure ever seen on dry land. On that cold, rainy day in '99, standing next to the old speedway that had been shuttered nearly four years, Johnson pointed into the mountains ... and wait ... did he point toward the racetrack itself?

"I know I built about a thousand stills in my lifetime. That's a lot of whiskey. We hid the stills and we hid the whiskey everywhere. Anywhere where we thought someone might not look. Some of 'em was pretty much right under everybody's nose."

Or perhaps under their butts.

Back in Section O, Row 7, Swift and his team started peeling back the concrete like the top of a Spam can. As they did, he couldn't help but think of a warning given to his crew in 2022, when they started the seemingly impossible process of resurrecting the racetrack for its first Cup Series event since 1996.

"During the construction process we were working on the suites that were that were left from back in the day, the ones that sit up above that main grandstand on the frontstretch," Swift says of the buildings that were basically double-wide trailers atop stilts that tower over the modest sixteen 20-row sections of seats that line the frontstretch.

The hill that serves as their foundation was made from dirt that was piled up during the track's construction in 1947, the oval famously laid lopsided. The frontstretch runs downhill and the backstretch uphill because track founder Enoch Staley couldn't afford to make it perfectly flat.

"When we started running equipment up that hill, Paul Call came up here and warned us that we needed to be really careful because there were things underneath that grandstand that might cause that equipment to fall through," said Swift.

Paul Call was the caretaker and unofficial welcome director for North Wilkesboro Speedway. He lived in a house adjacent the racetrack and started working there in the 1960s for Staley. During most of the 26-plus years that the bullring sat empty, he was its only employee, mowing the grass and telling stories to anyone who stopped by to take a look at the place as it slowly disintegrated.

In Wilkes County, the surname Call is like Smith. It's everywhere. See: Willie Clay Call, aka "The Uncatchable," who streaked through the hills around the racetrack in his liquor-packed 1961 Chrysler New Yorker. Paul Call saw every single NASCAR event run at North Wilkesboro, including last year's All-Star revival. He died four months later, taking the secret of exactly what was beneath the grandstand with him.

When Swift spelunked his way into the chasm, he expected to find evidence of a sinkhole. They aren't very common in the Carolina high country, but that had to be it, right? After all, this was the racetrack that had been plagued by infamously awful drainage issues, including the 1979 Holly Farms 400, which had to be postponed two weeks because of a gully-washer of a rain shower that canceled pole qualifying, but also caused the surfacing of -- in the words of the Charlotte Observer -- "millions of earthworms" that squirmed out of the dirt of the soaked infield to cover the asphalt racing surface with slime and also completely clogged the pipes that had been installed to whisk away the water.

Instead of water, mud or even a handful of nightcrawlers, Swift, a construction guy, found just that. Construction. They ran sinkhole tests, even pumping water into the hole to see where it went, hoping to trace any potential paths of erosion that might create future grandstand collapse. Instead, the hole filled up like a cement pond and the water had to be pumped back out.

"We found a wall that had been placed and some columns that were underneath, stuff you don't find inside of what is supposed to just be a dirt bank," Swift recalls, still audibly shocked. "There was things in place there that just didn't appear as something that had happened over time. This was a purpose-built structure."

But for what purpose? Swift still doesn't know for sure. Though he does sound like a man who has a pretty good idea.

"Down in there, all I could think about was Paul Call. He tried to warn us."

Swift's job is typically an endless race against time, especially when he discovers serious structural issues within a facility that is preparing to host a big league event. However, this go-round, he told his crew to slow down, take their time and make sure they sifted through every bit of dirt for some sort of clues as to why they were standing inside a designed concrete box.

"You felt like an archaeologist," Swift says, laughing. "But you aren't looking for the tomb of Cleopatra or anything. Instead, I had Marcus Smith calling me all the time, asking, 'Did you find anything yet? Any moonshine down there?'"

Smith, a NASCAR history junkie, is the son of a NASCAR history-maker, promoter and track owner Bruton Smith, who spent nearly his entire 95 years dealing with a roster of questionable stock car racing characters dating back to 1940s. Marcus, now chairman of the company his father started, SMI, knows the stories about Middle Georgia Raceway, a half-mile oval in Macon, Georgia, that hosted nine Cup Series (then Grand National) races from 1966 to '71, won by the demigod likes of Richard Petty, David Pearson and Bobby Allison.

On Sept. 23, 1967, three months after Petty won the Macon 300 and three years before Jimi Hendrix played a show on the frontstretch, federal agents discovered what one described as "the most cleverly run moonshine operation I have ever seen." A secret trapdoor in the floor of a faux ticket booth entered into a 125-foot tunnel that led to a chamber hidden 17 feet beneath the grandstand, containing a pair of stills that produced an estimated 80 gallons of moonshine daily.

"I won the next race they ran there, just a few weeks later," recalls Allison, a three-time Macon winner and a four-time victor at North Wilkesboro. "I asked them if there was any of that whiskey left, but they said the feds blew it all up."

Alas, North Wilkesboro's cave wasn't Middle Georgia's. In the end, Swift and his team found nothing more than dirt and speculation. After a couple of weeks of investigating, the urgent business of NASCAR All-Star Race prep was unavoidable. The hole was filled with concrete, the grandstand was repaired and the seats were bolted back onto the cement.

The skeptics of the internet have labeled it all as either a publicity stunt or this generation's version of Geraldo Rivera stepping into an awkwardly empty Al Capone vault on live TV. But those who love NASCAR, liquor and fun chose to roll with the legend of it all, like a bootlegger hanging onto the steering wheel of a Flathead Ford as he hears oncoming sirens behind him in hot pursuit.

"I think there was definitely something down there," surmises Petty, the career leader in North Wilkesboro wins with 15 checkered flags. "But if someone was keeping a bunch of cases of liquor down there and someone else knew about it, then it wasn't going to be down there for long. Some guy either drunk it all or sold to a guy who drunk it all."

This weekend, those lucky fans with All-Star tickets in the next-to-last section before Turn One will know they are rooting for their favorite racers while sitting atop the most notorious spot of NASCAR's most notorious speedway, right smack in the middle of America's most notorious moonshine running valley.

And they can do so while sipping from a jar of perfectly legal, government-approved moonshine purchased from the North Wilkesboro Speedway concession stands, including a jar of "The Uncatchable" with Willie Clay Call's mug on the label.

"The best part of this whole project, even as hard as it has been getting a place that had been sitting there empty falling apart, ready for racing, has been living the history of that place while also bringing it into the present," Swift explains proudly. "You just got to work one day and you find a cave that someone built that no one knew about? That place is almost 80 years old and it has history going on."