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NASCAR Roots and Moonshine Runners

Had our own Luke Denny been running moonshine in Wilkes County, North Carolina instead of Jackson County, Tennessee; most likely he would have become a legendary NASCAR driver. Luke was born in Buffalo Valley, Tennessee, just a few miles up the road from Granville and has many similar characteristics to the early NASCAR stars.

Dirt tracks- NASCAR's Beginning

Many of the NASCAR early stars got their start carrying loads of illegal moonshine on rough hilly curvy dirt roads. They raced on dirt tracks on Sunday afternoon for bragging rights of owning the fastest car.

The transportation of illegal moonshine in the South was a huge business. It put food on the table, it was a way to provide for the family. A lot of the sports early stars drove, owned, and built moonshine cars.

Why is it called moonshine?

By the way, do you know why it was called moonshine? The still had to have a fire to process the mash, to avoid law enforcement detecting the smoke rising from the still, the whiskey was made at night when the moon was shining.

Clear Mountain Water Makes Good Shine

“Back in those early days people didn’t have any money and making moonshine was a way to have some spending money. First you looked for good, clear, fresh mountain water, without a trace of minerals. Then you had to find a good cover for a hiding place. Dad always made sure his sugar came for Gainesboro, was the best he could buy. The moonshine had to be heated and cooled, just so. He was particular about his liquor and people seemed proud to get dad’s shine. We were honored, back then, to be known as good whiskey makers. People today have a different view of those old days,” Joe Haney told Luke Denny in an interview for the book Moonshine and Midnight Rendezvous. “In the early ‘40’s dad had big trucks come from up north and the Midwest to take moonshine out. I remember one time we loaded 400 gallons in a huge truck and they had a car in front of the truck and behind the truck, as the spotter and decoy, “Haney recalled.

NASCAR Hall of Fame

The transportation of illegal moonshine in the South was a huge business. It put food on the table, it was a way to provide for the family. A lot of the sports early stars drove, owned, and built moonshine cars. Junior Johnson was the best-known moonshine driver in Wilkes County, North Carolina, a hotbed of the moonshine industry. The legendary, Johnson, NASCAR driver and former moonshine runner, was a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame Inaugural Class of 2010.

Skilled Drivers and Accomplished Mechanics make NASCAR Stars

Moonshine runners, like Junior Johnson and Luke Denny, knew the back roads like we know the road to our house and they were skilled drivers. Just as important, they were accomplished mechanics and knew how to milk every ounce of speed out of the cars used to “run shine”. They could modify the engine of the car to produce more power, add heavy duty suspension components to allow them to carry the extra weight of the moonshine, and remove the back seat to allow more room inside for the mason jars filled with moonshine.

The “moonshine runners”, who never got caught, knew how to rig their cars to produce clouds of smoke or drop oil from the rear of their car to delay pursuing law enforcement. Few laws enforcement driver could control their cars at high speeds on an oily slick road surrounded by a cloud of smoke. Some drivers installed steel plates in front of the radiators to keep police from shooting holes in them.

These runners were very intelligent, they were hand-on, learn-out of-necessity aerodynamic engineers. They learned if they removed the windshield wipers and taped up the openings around the headlights; they could pick up ten miles per hour in top speed and that might be all that was needed to out run the law.

Illegal vs. Legal Business Model

The early illegal moonshine industry must have been a good business model, it is still in use today. The man who operated the still, the moonshiner, can be compared to the distillery, the making of the whiskey. You had the “runner”, the person who hauled the whiskey. Is that really so different from today’s distributer? We can compare the bootlegger to the retailer. That’s where the consumer purchases the whiskey. Of course, today’s distillery, distributor, and retail stores are legal. But, my statement remains, it must have been a good business model.

Want to know where the bootlegger got his name? American frontiersmen carried bottles of illegal whiskey in the tops of their boots.

Motivation for being a skilled driver!

Junior Johnson and Luke Denny were never caught with a load of moonshine. After all they were intelligent men who were skilled drivers and had the fastest cars on the road.

Both men were motivated by knowing what would happen to them if they were captured. A quote by Junior Johnson says it best, “Moonshiners put more time, energy, thought, and love into their cars than any racer ever will. Lose on the track and you go home. Lose with a load of moonshine and you go to jail.”

Junior Johnson and his '40 Ford Coupe

Junior Johnson turns nostalgic melancholy in an interview with Sun Sentinel in Brooks, N.C. Quoting from that interview, “He is again racing his 1940 Ford coupe and running from the Feds. His memory is clear. He's loaded with 120 gallons of moonshine, and he's running the white lightning from his father's copper still to speakeasies and bars all around Wilkes and Yadkin County. He's gunning his souped-up Ford coupe with a 454 Cadillac engine down old 421. He's rocking and rolling at more than 100 mph over the hills an hour outside Charlotte. In his rearview mirror: the town of Harmony and the headlights of a revenuer. As he remembers a smile creases his face.”

Luke Denny checking the bead on the moonshine before loading it in his '40Ford Coupe.

Back in the 30’s all I could haul was 25 to 30 gallons at a time because I didn’t have the money to pay for more. Plus, my car could only hold a small amount”, Luke Denny explained in the book Moonshine and Midnight Rendezvous in a conversion with Joe Haney. “But I really got to rollin’ about 1940 and probably loaded 100 gallons a week. Sometimes, I would haul every day. When I bought my new 1940 Ford coupe, I recall making three runs in one night. Do you recall what I asked you on that last load just before daylight?” Both men cracked up with laughter.

It seems that both men had fond memories of running shine and both men owned and drove a 1940 Ford couple.

Junior Johnson the NASCAR Star

Here in Granville, we have to rely on sports writers and what people in North Carolina say about Junior Johnson and his life’s impact on his community. Esquire magazine in the March 1965 edition Tom Wolfe wrote a story titled, “Junior Johnson is the Last of the American Heroes.” This article has been described as one of the greatest stories in sports journalism. He says “Junior Johnson drove right into the hearts of thousands of race car fans.”

Luke Denny with the Young Family

But, Luke Denny, well that’s a different story. We knew Luke, many of us remember him well. As is the case with Jesse Young. You see Jesse was the baby that his mother, Opal, was holding when she ran to the road to try and get help. Her baby was limp, he was having trouble breathing. As it would happen, Luke Denny was on the road headed to deliver a load of shine and saw Opal frantically waving with a baby in her arms. He stopped to inquire of the problem. When she said, “I need a doctor for this baby and don’t have a way to get him there. “Luke said, “Get in.” The moonshine delivery would have to wait. Luke reported that when he noticed the baby turning blue, he drove as if he were being chased by the law. After baby Jesse was treated by the doctor and it was announced that he would be alright, he had an asthma attack. Dr Petty said if Luke had not gotten them to the office when he did, Jesse would not have made it. There are many other stories of Luke Denny helping a neighbor in need. He, too, drove right into the hearts of many people, it was the hearts of the people in this community.

Hmm, kind of seems like Junior Johnson and Luke Denny have something else in common.

A middle Tennessee Robin Hood

Perhaps South Carthage Police Chief, James Oliver Dillard best describes the Luke that we knew, “My dad, Gene Dillard sure thought a lot of O’ Luke. Nearly everyone around these parts knew Luke. Most knew the fancy dressed man was a moonshine runner. He made no bones about it. Ya know, Luke was a like a middle Tennessee’s Robin Hood. He’d give away his money nearly as fast as he made.”

Granville Antique Car Museum

A 1940 Ford coupe, like the one used by Junior Johnson and Luke Denny can be viewed at the Granville Antique Car Museum. This car was also used to run moonshine near Jasper, TN.

The Granville Antique Car Museum is Open Wednesday-Friday 12-3PM and Saturday 12-5PM.

Cornbread and Moonshine Festival - May 7

The agenda for Cornbread and Moonshine Festival on May 7 will include storytelling about Luke Denny, the man who happened to be a moonshine runner.

May 7th Cornbread and Moonshine Festival features a cornbread contest with sampling of award winning cornbread on Cornbread Lane and a tasting of Tennessee Spirits by the TN Whiskey Trail.

For a complete agenda of the Cornbread and Moonshine Festival , go to

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