How a bootlegger helped start Nascar
Present day Nascar evolved from stock car racing on the sandy beach of Daytona, Florida. Without the paved oval tracks used by today’s drivers, a section of the Daytona beach along with a section of the parallel Highway A1A was converted into a 3.2 mile loop for a 250 mile race. Due to the race organizers’ poor planning for racing on a sandy beach plus a difficult and confusing scoring system, the first Daytona Race in 1936 was not a great success.
Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty, Junior Johnson… the names are very familiar to any fan of Nascar, but what about Smokey Purser? Smokey Purser was born in Lumber City on October 2, 1904. In 1919, he moved to Daytona, where he was known as a “colorful” character. Smokey had only an eighth-grade education, but he was a talented mechanic. He worked on a dredge boat and referred to himself as a sea lawyer, for most of the cases he handled were filled with illegal liquor. He developed his driving skills by transporting his “cases” from Florida to St. Louis, traveling sometimes dressed as a priest or other times in a car with Fresh Florida Fish painted on the side and dead fish in the back.
With the end of Prohibition, Smokey ceased bootlegging and opened the New York Bar & Grill in Daytona. Although it was a legal operation, rumors of his ties with illegal gambling persisted. In 1937 he drove a Ford stock car to victory in the 2nd Daytona Beach Race. His victory may have been one of the most important events in the early history of stock cars. He opened the door for a new type of loud, ambitious, and sometimes illegal driver. He was the first of such men who would dominate stock car racing in the pre-WWII era.
Before the July race of 1938, the bragging by the “big mouth of Daytona” that this was his race helped the promotion of and attendance at the race. The July race was going well until his car overheated due to a broken fan belt. The broken fan belt was actually cut and sabotaged at the race track.
On Labor Day in 1938, Smokey became the first driver to be officially disqualified after taking the checker flag for a win. Over the previous two years the races had become more organized, and the rules for stock cars were changing. Cars now had to be inspected before and after a race, with no modifications to the engine’s compression ratio or any other modification. After taking the win, the winning vehicle failed to stop for inspection and exited the area for 3 hours. His leaving without an inspection led remaining drivers to vote to disqualify Smokey and give the trophy and prize money to another driver. Upon his return and after a “heated” conversation, the car was inspected and the pre and post inspection data did not match. As an exbootlegger and a good mechanic, he knew how to modify an engine for the best results. This incident led to a changing of the rules dealing with engine compression and modifications.
In 1941 he became the first driver to take a provisional start win. His racing career continued for several years with 2nd place or lower results. During his final race at Daytona in 1952, he flipped his car on the first turn, leaving him with a broken arm and a 61st place out of 61 drivers .If you watch a youtube video (in yahoo search, type Smokey Purser flips car), you can watch his accident.
Carl Daniel Purser died on May 30, 1964, and is buried at the Daytona Memorial Park. He had only a few career wins, but his promoting and boasting attitude and driving ability helped beach stock car racing develop into the racing of today.
The next time you are near the pier at Daytona beach, look for the marker in the post office area. It will have 1937 – 1938 Daytona Beach Stock Car Race—September 5, 1937-51.2 miles – 1st. Smokey Purser-’37 Ford