The thin roads of the North Carolina mountains are notoriously difficult to drive on at any speed. Worse in the black, back country nights. Nearly impossible at night when the rain makes the tarmac as slippery as snot on a doorknob.
Willie Clay Call was driving that night hoping he didn’t have to run from the government revenuers, the G Men, in his flash, brilliant blue, 1961 Chrysler New Yorker Golden Lion Edition. In back were 130 jugs of clean, crisp moonshine. Then he saw the revenuers’ lights. Willie Clay knew that if he didn’t out-run them again he would go to jail like his pal Junior Johnson. Now, Junior and the other bootleggers, originally drove undistinguished metal like the 1940 Ford Coupe with an easily soupuppable flathead V8. While Willie Clay had a lot of boring looking fast cars, he figured the G Men wouldn’t expect a good old boy hauling moonshine to be behind the well of a wealthy white man’s car.
He had taken the usual precautions. It was late in the evening. He had his night time licence plates on the Chrysler but best of all, under the stock standard looking bonnet, he had taken the cross ram induction engine up to 370kw that he reckoned would get him up to 290km/h. As Junior Johnson said: even “going 100km/h an hour on that road now is dangerous. And we were going 190km/h on it 40 years ago, every night. There wasn’t as much traffic, but just surviving it, you had to be good to not wreck and kill yourself. And it was an everyday thing. Kind of like a cocked gun every night you went out.”
The G Men turned on the flashing lights. Willie Clay planted his foot. He had driven these roads all his life. He knew the revenuers were madder than a wet hen. In fact, one of them had nicknamed him “the uncatchable”. But he also knew the Ford they were driving was as useful as a screen door on a submarine. Willie Clay had let them catch up to him as they raced through a series of tight mountain corners. He knew they were relying on his brake lights to be able to keep with him. Just before a switchback he put his hand under the dash and switched off the brake lights. He saw the G Men’s Ford roll and heard a sickening wrench of metal as it crashed through the hickory trees down the mountain.
Fast forward 40 years to a reunion of bootleggers and revenuers. Willie Clay sat in a rocking chair on stage as people swapped stories about how things used to be. Charles Mercer was one of the former revenuers. Monte Mitchell from the Winston Salem journal says Mercer recalled his last day on the job in 1974, when he was determined to catch Call. Mercer staked out Call’s home for hours. It didn’t do any good and Mercer called to have a fellow agent pick him up. Willie Clay came out to meet them. “I understand you’re leaving,” Call told Mercer. “I really appreciate the way you’ve done your job.”
Junior Johnson, who went on to become one of the greatest drivers and team owners in NASCAR history, invented a unique way of defeating the fiscal fiends. Junior started delivering moonshine when he was 14. Of course, he didn’t have a licence, which was even more incentive not to get caught. He invented the bootleg turn. Imagine you’re the revenuer thinking you’re ready to pounce on JJ. It’s dark and you can see his tail-lights. What you don’t see is Junior drop into second gear, wind the wheel and flatten the gas pedal and turn the car 180 degrees. What you suddenly see, is a set of headlights on full beam heading straight for you at 190km/h.
While the Feds never caught him delivering white lightening, in his second NASCAR season, they got him for manufacturing untaxed whiskey and put him in the federal slammer in Ohio for two years. He got out after 11 months. “I got more fans because I went to prison,” Johnson told Sports Illustrated. “I was so damn mad when I got out that I went back to it. Never got caught again.” Racecar fan Ronny Reagan later pardoned him. Junior’s family was no stranger to the slammer. Dad spent a third of his life there for making and distributing liquid sunshine. In what should be in the Guiness book of records, the Call family was part of the largest booze raid in US history, impounding 1500 litres of moonshine from the family still.
Junior not only helped start NASCAR, he revolutionised it. For a man with little schooling he was a world class mechanical engineer. He talked very slow and thought and drove really fast. He drove aggressively, invented drafting, was the first to use two-way radios and was the subject of Tom Wolfe’s essay in Esquire, “The Last American Hero”.
My favourite story that Junior told was when he had just started racing and could only afford to compete about every second meet. He was eating a bacon and eggs breakfast when Big Bill France came into the diner. Big Bill was the guy who organised NACAR. “Junior are you just involved in NASCAR or committed to it?” Big Bill asked. Junior looked up. “Bill, look at my breakfast. The hen that laid this egg is involved. The hog that gave its skin and meat is committed!”
Junior was a pallbearer at Willie Clay’s funeral. Junior died in December last year. I meant to write something at the time but other stuff got in the way. Right now, with all that’s going on, I thought we could all do with some Junior and Willie Clay stories.
Talking of all that’s going on, I wanted to assure you that all of us at your WART (Weekend Australian Racing Team) are doing well. The old bloke is offering a special discount to you. Let me tell you no matter where you live in the great virus-filled country of ours it’s well worth the trip to see the Sultan at Michael McMichael Motors Global HQ in Stepney (unfortunately part of Adelaide). Just use the secret words: Motorbike riders are temporary Australians. Now while the BBC tells us that drinking cow urine will definitely not cure Corona virus, the health effects of Coopers Sparkling Ale are well known. Boss Tim Cooper says no need to panic buy. Race coach to the stars Phil Alexander at Raceaway Track Time tells me working from home people have been transferring to work from the racetrack. And super sub editor Mark Southcott says despite having 350k on the clock, his mini moke has not been showing any signs of contracting COVID-19.