Research Position Paper- Killroy513

Prohibition, The Birth of Illegal Activity and NASCAR

The year is 1920 and the location is the United States of America. The country is at peace, just getting out of one of the first major World Wars. Many soldiers just returned home from war-torn Europe and were starting their new lives. Everyone, for the most part, was happy and the roaring twenties were off to a good start. The economy was at a high and people were partying. The Prohibition, also known as the “noble experiment” would be activated that year. The legislation was implemented to reduce crime and poverty.  The boost in illegal activity and the creation of NASCAR would be born through the black market, gangsters, the medical field, and moonshiners.

The American Prohibition was enacted in the year 1920 and would last until 1933. The eighteenth amendment was enacted to enforce the restriction of alcoholic beverages. This included liquor and beer products. This turned America “dry” and people did not like that. At the time these products were in high demand since it is a major part of society, its iconic and everyone, for the most part, enjoy them. This being said, the market would go from legal to illegal very quickly. The black market would supply these products to people who were willing to pay.

Many aspects contributed to the boost in illegal activity during the Prohibition. At the time people realized that large amounts of profit could be made at the time. Alcohol was in demand, and people did almost everything to get it. The black market at this time was a money making machine, being that large amounts of money could be made extremely fast. In essence, the black market would jump-start the illegal activity of many during this era.

The transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth century was widely apparent. Cities grew to record sizes and the people changed for the good and bad. During the roaring twenties, some people acted on this black market, either adding to it or trying to “bust” it. The people who wanted to control this surge of money were primarily the big time gangsters in cities like Chicago, New York City, Boston, etc. Gangsters back then are nothing like the ones of today. They had class but also thought on their feet. One of the most famous ones from this time period was Al Capone, working in the midwest. Since the distribution of any alcoholic product was outlawed aside from medical use, it would be harder and harder to sell it. The gangsters of this time thought of extremely clever ways to make money and ensure their customers had what they wanted. The creation of “underground” bars and clubs would begin. These types of clubs and bars would be known as a speakeasy. These clubs would be hidden and passwords would be used for access. People had fun, and the gangsters made money. It was a win-win. In the big cities, the alcohol trafficking was done mostly by gangsters. “The people involved with speakeasies mainly revolved around gangs, who supplied the liquor, in particular, Al Capone and his gang” (Jen S, Ceyana A). These gangsters would form organizations and create bars and clubs. Being a very lucrative business and highly illegal, the police would step in and shut them done. Eventually, the businesses went “underground.” Alcohol trafficking was a great way to make money doing this time, assuming the person would not get caught.

Doctors would jump on the bandwagon as well. The medical field was not subject to the alcohol ban because that is used widely in the practice. Alcohol was used as medicine back in this time period. Doctors could prescribe the alcohol for specific ailments. When the eighteenth amendment was established, the medical field created special cards so that alcohol could be given to the people that needed it. “Presumably, doctors were doing examinations and diagnoses, but it was mostly bogus,” says Daniel Okrent, some doctors looking to make money would sell these cards filled out for the people who bought them. They would take these cards and purchase the outlawed alcohol. Doctors would be able to profit from the amendment because they would be paid off to write prescriptions. This again was highly illegal and generated large sums of money.

People never think of the other counties that benefited from the American Prohibition. Canada and Mexico gained the most wealth. The countries citizens would either produce or distribute alcohol across the United States border. During the winter, the great lakes would freeze and cars would be able to drive over them with the alcoholic goods. “Americans could, however, consume alcohol in Mexico, but most Americans were not willing to cross the border to obtain alcohol, so smuggling developed rapidly as an illicit occupation in the 1920s.” (Paredes, McDowell). The Mexico/ American border was not as built up as it is today, so trafficking was easier. People would bring over the products through customs or drive over. Both countries used ships to smuggle the alcoholic goods also. The products would be hidden and taken out when they reached their destination. The nations themselves did not benefit from this, BUT, their citizens did.

Fast cars and alcohol are one hell of a combination.

Cars were just introduced ten years prior to the 1920’s. They would be used more than horse and wagon for the simple reason of practicality. The horse and wagon would be fazed out of use and would be primarily found in farms or rural areas. During this time many saw the automobile as a money-making machine. Originally the use of car and truck was new to the public since they became widely available at this time, they were used for anything, especially transportation of alcohol. What started out as moving illegal goods became much more. The police would catch on to this, and many people would fall victim to the black market craze. Humans are always learning, so people began to devise ways to modify their cars. They would make them faster. The cars would be modified to outrun the police and help cut down on the “busts”.

Cars were in demand being the new thing. During this time many alcohol products would be brought in by cars or trucks and sold to the public “under the table”. Eventually, this would be found out by the police and the transportation of goods this way had to be more crafty. This would lead to the modification of these automobiles. Having a car or truck that could evade the police, for the most part, fixed this issue. This, some may say, laid the foundation for the beginning of NASCAR, and modification of cars.

With the high demand for the illegal drinks, transportation of the alcohol for sale would evolve from simple transportation to the use of the newly adapted automobile. They were beginning to be widely used and it transformed the transportation system.

The American Prohibition helped create NASCAR because the cars used were modified. The cars were made to be faster than the police and made to handle better as well. Eventually, the people who illegally transported the alcohol would begin to race the cars they modified. This would lay the foundation for NASCAR since it is a sport based on racing high-performance cars. The engines were modified along with taking out the unnecessary weight.

BUT, many can argue that the art of racing was around way before the American Prohibition. At the time, especially in Europe, racing cars would be the newest craze. The races would be called the Grand Prix. This originated in France and involved in its own “sport.” Eventually, the Grand Prix would become Formula One racing. The roots would begin in the 1920’s but would not be recognized until 1950. For the most part, these European races involved gambling on who would win and watch the races unfold. During this time cars in America were used for a completely different purpose. Making money. Eventually, racing would become popular.

Racing in America went from Horses at the local derby to cars on the race track. After the discovery of car racing, the sport took over the track. Racing started off as Rally Cross, off-road racing. This form of racing is widely popular and carried onto Europe where most of the races are held. After Rally Cross, the cars and the sport evolved to road racing, very similar to the Grand Prix. Here the races would only be held on roads that were paved making the races more fast paced. Finally, NASCAR would come into play. The races are held on an oval track. Hard to believe that this iconic American sport evolved from the prohibition. At the time no one really knew that having fun racing cars would evolve into such a big thing. People simply had fun.

The foundation of NASCAR and other sports like it would be laid during this era. People began to modify cars not only to evade the police but to race. This would give birth to a whole new sport that many enjoy. The story goes, that the moonshiners down in the southern states would get together and race their modded cars. After the Prohibition, the races would continue and eventually be recognized as a sport.

Essentially, the prohibition boosted illegal activity within the United States and with that created one of America’s greatest sports.

NASCAR is a sport that involves the racing of modified cars around a track two hundred times, whoever comes in first at the last lap wins first place. The cars are heavily maintained and need extensive care to operate. The drivers are highly skilled and learn how to adapt to any situation that may occur. Many men have died in this sport, being one of the most dangerous. The car crashes can result in the drivers being severely hurt or dying on impact. With a fast car comes modifications, the cars in NASCAR travel extremely fast due to the extensive changes made. Most of the car is taken out and the bare minimum is left. This makes the car faster. Safety measures very seriously and ensures the driver, for the most part, is protected.

Not all cars can be converted to be fast. There was a small selection of cars back in the 1920’s and choosing one to modify was an easy task. Most cars back in the day that was used were the basic coupe. A coupe is a car term that describes a two-door car. These types of cars were the best suited for the smuggling job. The cars were smaller than most types and easier to make fast.

The engine is one of the most important parts of a car. It makes it actually drive. There are a vast amount of modifications that can be done to an engine to achieve its full amount of horsepower. A horsepower is a unit of measurement that is based on five hundred and fifty pounds a second. The cars back in the day are nothing like the cars of today but like all cars, they have an engine. ““Soon they had to go to other engines, they would swap in the Cadillac engines to get all the horsepower they could, or even swap in old ambulance engines for long and fast hauls” (Parsons). The cars were modified back in the day by ripping the old engine out and putting a more powerful one in or changing the parts used. Most of the time, the bigger the engine the faster a car will go. With that being said, cars were stripped down for weight reduction and equipped with larger engines.

People wanted to “max out” their engines. This meant to get the full potential out of the block. The best and easiest way to do so was to upgrade the intake manifold, the part of the engine that controls the gas consumption. This would make the car run more efficient but the miles per gallon would drop drastically. The earliest forms of superchargers and turbochargers were found in these cars. A supercharger is basically a high-end air compressor that throws more air into the engine making it run faster after ever combustion. These are fairly simple to build, putting the modification on is another story. A turbocharger is a small “turbine” that speeds up the combustion rate in the engine. In most cases, the engine blocks would be over bored out to increase the displacement making them faster. Many moonshiners claimed that their booze running car produced five hundred horsepower with these high-end modifications.

Speed sometimes is not always the key. Since the cars were used to transport large amounts of alcohol, the weight would affect the cars drastically. “In order to handle heavier loads at higher speeds, moonshiners would also get creative with the suspension, adding more leaf springs to stiffen it up and help with load weight distribution” (McElroy). Since they did not have the modern day coil springs, the cars were shimmed with extra leaf springs. These springs made the car easier to handle and made it so more product could be transported.

One thing that many do not think about is the brakes of a car. The brakes are the second most important part. The brakes slow and stop the car, without them it is life-threatening. The brakes were heavily worked on, on these cars. It is extremely important to stop than to not be able to. The modifications would involve “beefing” up the shoe brakes and e-brake. The cars at this time used a different style brake than the ones of today. The shoe brake requires pumping of the brake pedal while almost all cars use disc brakes. Along with brakes, the tires would play an important role as well. There are specific types of tires for specific types of work. On many of these cars, the tires were wider than most. This gave better traction to the car. Adding bigger tires makes the car less stable at higher speeds. The use of sway bars would come into play. Sway bars are parts of a vehicle that reduces the movement of the car from rocking side to side. With this being implemented cars could then go faster and travel safer.

Cool modifications were added as well. Many people started to be creative and make the cars have secret compartments, extra lights, changing license plates, and many more options. This would start a trend that exists up to today. A widely used modification was the installation of hidden tanks under or in the cars themselves. “Having to distribute their illicit products under the radar quickly, moonshiners were forced to develop and modify their cars in order to avoid getting caught by lawmen” (McElroy).The hidden tanks would be filled with alcohol and were transported “under the radar.” The “coolness” of these modifications would later be seen on the big screen, in many different spy movies and TV shows. Some of the most common were the James Bond films and Dukes of Hazard.

The risk was worth the reward. The cars were not nearly as safe as the ones used today. The seat belt was not invented yet and the only safety feature in a few of the cars was a custom roll bar. The roll bar prevents the occupiers of the car from being crushed if the car were to roll. Knowing how to drive became a huge factor.

Learning how to drive was extremely important. Having fast cars and carrying illegal drinks was not a good combination. “Those kids knew every damn curve in the county and how much speed they could take it at in certain weather conditions” (McElroy). Being able to control the car while performing invasive maneuvers is no easy task. It is very difficult and hard to master. The drivers of these cars would eventually use their skills on the race track. Thus creating a sport that the average driver can not partake in.

The sport of NASCAR requires a lot of training. Most drivers in today’s sport started training at an early age. Special courses and classes are set up to teach drivers how to drive safely and compete.

NASCAR as a whole is a sport based on the actions of everyday people in the 1920’s. Throughout time, many things were created by accident or because of the effects of an event. At the time, people thought nothing of the racing, but eventually, the races would turn into a sport loved by many. The argument stands however that the sport may have been around before the Prohibition.

In the end, a lot of good and bad things came out of the prohibition, the most obvious good thing was the removal of the actual amendment. Getting rid of alcohol made people more creative, and people had fun. An American sport was born, and with that came one of the most expensive hobbies, modifying cars.


Work Cited

“Prohibition in Canada.” Smuggling, Bootlegging and Speakeasies,

Sandbrook, Dominic. “How Prohibition backfired and gave America an era of gangsters and speakeasies.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 25 Aug. 2012,

McElroy, Ryan. “The story of how moonshiners created the performance car.” Car Keys, Car Keys, 31 Oct. 2017,

“History of the Roaring Twenties.” Prohibition and the Speakeasies,

Gambino, Megan. “During Prohibition, Your Doctor Could Write You a Prescription for Booze.”, Smithsonian Institution, 7 Oct. 2013,

“Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 4 Dec. 2017,

Paredes, Américo. A Texas-Mexican Cancionero: Folksongs of the Lower Border (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1976). 

Paredes, Américo. “Conventions which the Border corrido had borrowed from Greater Mexico,” With his Pistol in His Hand: A Border Ballad and its Hero (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1958): 224-40. 

McDowell, John H. “The Corrido of Greater Mexico as Discourse, Music, and Event,” “And Other Neighborly Names”: Social Progress and Cultural Image in Texas Folklore, ed. Richard Bauman and Roger D. Abrahams (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981): 46-75.

McDowell, John H. “The Mexican Corrido: Formula and Theme in a Ballad Tradition,” Journal of American Folklore 85.337 (1972): 205-220.

“Black market.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 4 Dec. 2017,

Thompson, Neal. Driving with the devil: southern moonshine, Detroit wheels, and the birth of Nascar. Three Rivers Press, 2007.

Okrent, Daniel. Last call: the rise and fall of Prohibition. Scribner, 2011.

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