Thursday, January 18, 2007

Pg. 69: "Driving With the Devil"

Neal Thompson's latest book is the highly acclaimed Driving with the Devil: Southern Moonshine, Detroit Wheels, and the Birth of NASCAR.

I asked Neal to apply the "page 69 test" to his book. Here is what he reported:
The first full sentence on page 69 of Driving with the Devil reads: "Hauling 120 gallons was like having four fat guys crammed in the backseat." And then this: "Do the math: a half ton of booze plus a three thousand-pound Ford plus eighty miles an hour on a ninety-degree arcing road, banking left and down, plus an unstable surface of red dirt beneath four wheels ... well, it equaled a Ford that was going to slide into a ditch and explode, unless you knew what you were doing."

Driving with the Devil is the narrative non-fiction story of the bootleggers who helped create the sport that became Nascar. I always intended for the book to do two things: tell racing fans something about their sport they didn't already know, and, mainly, tell the rest of the world how and why Nascar came to be. I was surprised to find a nicely encapsulated scene on page 69 that, in itself, comes close to achieving those two goals.

The man driving the car in this scene is a southern bootlegger named Roy Hall, a handsome, mischievous speed demon who, thanks to his moonshining skills, becomes one of the first and best racers on the dirt tracks of the early Nascar circuit. As Nascar legend Junior Johnson says elsewhere in the book: "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."

Roy Hall would go to jail, time and again. But the rest of the scene on page 69 shows how, for some southern boys, the thrill of the chase was worth the risk.


Hauling 120 gallons was like having four fat guys crammed in the back seat. Do the math: a half ton of booze plus a 3,000-pound Ford plus eighty miles an hour on a ninety-degree arcing road, banking left and down, plus an unstable surface of red dirt beneath four wheels ... well, it equaled a Ford that was going to slide into a ditch and explode, unless you knew what you were doing. But that's when Hall shined, and why moonshiners would soon prove themselves to be natural, intuitive racers.

With his hands on the bottom of the steering wheel, Hall would throw himself into the turn, spinning the wheel in toward the curve. When he felt the car begin to slip, he would hit the gas, not the brake, actually accelerating through the turn, with the car moving forward and sideways at the same time. When the rear end began to slide too far, he would torque the wheel in the same direction; to the right in a left-hand curve, for example - otherwise, he'd spin out. If his split-second timing was dead-on, just before he reached the road's edge and the steep embankment beyond it, the mechanics and geometry and gravity of the moment converged in perfect synchronicity. Tires somehow found purchase on the dirt, the momentum of the slide yielded to the forward urging of the engine, and Hall and Ford and whiskey all straightened out and rocketed forward.

Until the next curve. Hall burned through many sets of tires in this manner. Said one '30s-era Atlanta mechanic: "He never knew what a brake was." The revenuers simply couldn't keep up. And when they tried, they sometimes wished they hadn't.

One night, two revenue agents spotted a loaded '39 Ford coupe heading south from the town of Tate, toward Atlanta. The agents sped after the coupe, following it through the tight curves of Highway 5. It was a dark night and the coupe was beginning to pull away from the revenuers. The agent behind the wheel wasn't familiar enough with the road and took a sharp curve too fast and spun off the road. The car plowed into a jagged pile of scrap marble that'd been dumped there. One agent was thrown from the car and landed amidst the sharp rocks, one of which struck his head and knocked him out.
Many thanks to Neal for the input.

Read an excerpt from Driving with the Devil.

Among the praise for Driving with the Devil:
"Thompson exhumes the sport's Prohibition-era roots in this colorful, meticulously detailed history."
-Time magazine

“Here’s the real story, not just of NASCAR, but of the new South that emerged from moonshine and speed.”
—Richard Ben Cramer, author of Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life and editor of The Best American Sports Writing 2004

“Neal Thompson has written NASCAR’s Glory of Their Times. He tells the true story of NASCAR’s beginnings, revealing the sport’s strong whiskey roots and letting us get to know its key movers and shakers, including the triumvirate of racer Red Byron, mechanic Red Vogt, and bootlegger car owner Raymond Parks. Like Seabiscuit, Thompson makes a sport and an era come wonderfully alive.”
—Peter Golenbock, author of Miracle: Bobby Allison and the Saga of the Alabama Gang and American Zoom: Stock Car Racing—From Dirt Tracks to Daytona

Driving with the Devil is a full-tilt excursion through the back roads of NASCAR’s past, when moonshiners and scofflaws pioneered the sport. This is a tale that sanitized corporate NASCAR would rather forget about, but with Neal Thompson at the wheel, it makes for wonderful reading.”
—Sharyn McCrumb, author of St. Dale

Driving with the Devil is a treasure trove of historically relevant information that tracks the history of the American automobile industry, the culture and morality of the broader society, and the motivations and personalities of early stock-car-racing operatives. All of which have inexorably contributed to the foundation and fabric of NASCAR’s brand of stock-car racing as it manifests itself today.”
—Jack Roush, chairman of Roush Racing
Driving with the Devil won the pole on Brock Yates' list of the five best books about car racing.

Light This Candle: The Life & Times of Alan Shepard, America’s First Spaceman, Neal's previous book, earned glowing praise from Homer Hickam, Buzz Bissinger, and others.

Neal's forthcoming book is Hurricane Season.

Visit his website and MySpace page.

Previous "page 69 tests:"
Sherry Argov, Why Men Marry Bitches
P.J. Parrish, An Unquiet Grave
Tyler Knox, Kockroach
Andrew Rehfeld, The Concept of Constituency
Laura Wiess, Such a Pretty Girl
Jeremy Blachman, Anonymous Lawyer
Andrew Pyper, The Wildfire Season
Wendy Werris, An Alphabetical Life
Laura Lippman, What the Dead Know
Meghan Daum, The Quality of Life Report
Scott Reynolds Nelson, Steel Drivin' Man
Richard Aleas, Little Girl Lost
Paul Collins, The Trouble With Tom
John McFetridge, Dirty Sweet
Michael Kazin, A Godly Hero
Bill Crider, Murder Among the OWLS
Zachary Shore, Breeding Bin Ladens
Rolf Potts, Vagabonding
Matt Haig, The Dead Fathers Club
Lawrence Light, Fear & Greed
Simon Read, In The Dark
Sandra Ruttan, Suspicious Circumstances
Henry Ansgar Kelly, Satan: A Biography
Alison Gaylin, You Kill Me
Gayle Lynds, The Last Spymaster
Jim Lehrer, The Phony Marine
Julie Phillips, James Tiptree, Jr.
Debra Ginsberg, Blind Submission
Sarah Katherine Lewis, Indecent
Peter Orner, The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo
William Easterly, The White Man's Burden
Danielle Trussoni, Falling Through the Earth
Andrew Blechman, Pigeons
Anne Perry, A Christmas Secret
Elaine Showalter, Faculty Towers
Kat Richardson, Greywalker
Michael Bess, Choices Under Fire
Masha Hamilton, The Camel Bookmobile
Alex Beam, Gracefully Insane
Nicholas Lemann, Redemption
Jason Sokol, There Goes My Everything
Wendy Steiner, Venus in Exile
Josh Chafetz, Democracy’s Privileged Few
Anne Frasier, Pale Immortal
Michael Lewis, The Blind Side
David A. Bell, The First Total War
Brett Ellen Block, The Lightning Rule
Rosanna Hertz, Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice
Jason Starr, Lights Out
Robert Vitalis, America's Kingdom
Stephen Elliott, My Girlfriend Comes To The City And Beats Me Up
Colin McGinn, The Power of Movies
Sean Chercover, Big City, Bad Blood
Sigrid Nunez, The Last of Her Kind
Stanley Fish, How Milton Works
James Longenbach, The Resistance to Poetry
Margaret Lowrie Robertson, Season of Betrayal
Sy Montgomery, The Good Good Pig
Allison Burnett, The House Beautiful
Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, A History
Ed Lynskey, The Dirt-Brown Derby
Cindy Dyson, And She Was
Simon Blackburn, Truth
Brian Freeman, Stripped
Alyson M. Cole, The Cult of True Victimhood
Jeff Biggers, In the Sierra Madre
Jeff Broadwater, George Mason, Forgotten Founder
Alicia Steimberg, Andrea Labinger (trans.), The Rainforest
Michael Grunwald, The Swamp
Darrin McMahon, Happiness: A History
Leo Braudy, From Chivalry to Terrorism
David Nasaw, Andrew Carnegie
Leah Hager Cohen, Train Go Sorry
Chris Grabenstein, Slay Ride
David Helvarg, Blue Frontier
Marina Warner, Phantasmagoria
Bill Crider, A Mammoth Murder
Robert W. Bennett, Taming the Electoral College
Nicholas Stern et al, Stern Review Report
Kerry Emanuel, Divine Wind
Adam Langer, The Washington Story
Michael Scott Moore, Too Much of Nothing
Frank Schaeffer, Baby Jack
Wyn Cooper, Postcards from the Interior
Ivan Goncharov, Oblomov
Maureen Ogle, Ambitious Brew
Cass Sunstein, Infotopia
Paul W. Kahn, Out of Eden
Paul Lewis, Cracking Up
Pagan Kennedy, Confessions of a Memory Eater
David Greenberg, Nixon's Shadow
Duane Swierczynski, The Wheelman
George Levine, Darwin Loves You
John Barlow, Intoxicated
Alicia Steimberg, The Rainforest
Alan Wolfe, Does American Democracy Still Work?
John Dickerson, On Her Trail
Marcus Sakey, The Blade Itself
Randy Boyagoda, Governor of the Northern Province
John Gittings, The Changing Face of China
Rachel Kadish, Tolstoy Lied
Eric Rauchway, Blessed Among Nations
Tim Brookes, Guitar and other books
Ruth Padel, Tigers in Red Weather
William Haywood Henderson, Augusta Locke
Jed Horne, Breach of Faith
Robert Greer, The Fourth Perspective
David Plotz, The Genius Factory
Michael Allen Dymmoch, White Tiger
Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, Civilizing the Enemy
Tom Lutz, Doing Nothing
Libby Fischer Hellmann, A Shot To Die For
Nelson Algren, The Man With the Golden Arm
Bob Harris, Prisoner of Trebekistan
Elaine Flinn, Deadly Collection
Louise Welsh, The Bullet Trick
Gregg Hurwitz, Last Shot
Martha Powers, Death Angel
N.M. Kelby, Whale Season
Mario Acevedo, The Nymphos of Rocky Flats
Dominic Smith, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre
Simon Blackburn, Lust
Linda L. Richards, Calculated Loss
Kevin Guilfoile, Cast of Shadows
Ronlyn Domingue, The Mercy of Thin Air
Shari Caudron, Who Are You People?
Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics
John Sutherland, How to Read a Novel
Steven Miles, Oath Betrayed
Alan Brown, Audrey Hepburn's Neck
Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor's Tale

--Marshal Zeringue