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Hell of a Ride 

Stock car racing's whiskey-soaked birth

As Alabama writer Paul Hemphill has noted, most Americans have a "vague notion that stock-car racing sprang from moonshine-hauling in the southern Appalachians." But other than the Robert Mitchum film Thunder Road, or Tom Wolfe's famous essay about Junior Johnson, "The Last American Hero," the lives and exploits of those moonshine runners (or, as they called themselves, "whiskey trippers") have largely remained a mystery. You certainly won't learn much about them from NASCAR, whose honchos -- from founder Bill France down to his successors -- have downplayed their sport's scandalous origins. After all, a whiff of criminal activity might tarnish the sanitized corporate NASCAR image.

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Luckily, author Neal Thompson is more interested in history than in polishing NASCAR's apple. His new book, Driving With The Devil, fills in many of the missing details of stock car racing's hell-raising early days in the 1930s and 1940s, and as you might imagine, those stories are way more exciting than France & Co's bland accounts of how good ol' boys just happened to start racin' on the beach at Daytona.

Thompson's book tells the wide-open tales of "dirt-poor southern teens ... in jacked-up Fords full of corn whiskey." These were Depression-era guys who realized untaxed booze and fast cars were their tickets out of poverty, and then mastered the skills needed to supercharge their cars and drive them like daredevils. Descriptions of just how the trippers made 180-degree turns at high speeds on curvy mountain roads to avoid revenuer roadblocks made my jaw drop. And the escalating battles of wits between trippers and revenuers, each side topping the other with increasingly complicated automotive refinements, are worth the price of the book by themselves. The trippers had every reason to be creative. As Junior Johnson once explained, "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 whiskey and you go to jail."

Eventually, the trippers transferred their skills to the budding stock car races in Daytona and Wilkes County, N.C., and became the sport's earliest stars. Thompson focuses on ex-con bootlegger Raymond Parks, a Dawsonville, Ga., native whose entrepreneurial skills created an Atlanta-based moonshine/gambling/jukebox empire, and who, in the late 1930s, bankrolled stock car racing's first official "team" -- drivers Lloyd Seay and Roy Hall, and himself, all veteran whiskey trippers.

Hall soon headed to prison, while Seay, the 1940 stock car champion, was murdered in a 1941 bootlegging quarrel. After serving in World War II, Parks roared back into the fray with driver Red Byron and legendary mechanic Red Vogt. Thompson relates the rivalries and the raucous competition among Parks' team, the Flock brothers, Tim, Bob and Fonty, and Bill France, a driver who ultimately hung up his racing helmet in order to focus on promoting stock car events. France disliked the bootleggers and eventually won his battle with Parks to control NASCAR when it was organized in 1948.

Today, NASCAR is a huge corporate enterprise that's bent on projecting a sanitized image at the expense of its own history, so they can't be pleased about the publication of Driving With The Devil. The rest of us, however -- particularly those who love great popular history and unfiltered stories of pure Americana -- should be very happy.

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Berne, author of the Orange Prize-winning A Crime in the Neighborhood, has written a clever, troubling, but ultimately unsatisfying novel about family secrets, tensions, illusions and jealousies. The narrator, Cynthia, is a single, San Francisco freelance writer who pens young-adult books about famous people's kin. Her married sister Frances, who leads an almost too-idyllic life, convinces Cynthia to come spend Thanksgiving in Frances' beautifully restored colonial house in Massachusetts. Also invited, along with other family members, is their long-estranged father who is now 82, stroke-addled, and roundly despised by Cynthia, who thinks he killed her mother.

Berne is a skillful writer who creates vivid characters, and her incisive observations are a highlight of the book, along with the foreboding connections she makes between Cynthia's work and her personal life. But as Cynthia's narration becomes more and more unreliable, what should have been a rise in suspense instead comes across as dreaded inevitability. The family gathers, anger flares, secrets come undone, and arguments from hell ensue. A final betrayal, meant to be a revelation of sorts, has an added-on feel, as if Berne didn't quite know how to end the book.

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