Thunder and White Lightning

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Thunder and White Lightning.

“There’s nothing more fun than getting the inside story on who did what to whom. Thunder and White Lightning is the Downton Abbey of North Georgia.

                                                                                                                                                        S.I. Nichols, Louisiana


“To read a Grace Hawthorne novel is to be drawn into a microcosm of the South. She is a master in the art of storytelling.”

                                                                                                                                               Nan Trainor, Massachusetts 


Nobody in Dawsonville had ever heard of Harold Brassington. In fact, not many people outside of Darlington, South Carolina knew his name. But that was about to change. In 1948 he witnessed the Indianapolis 500. It was the most wonderful thing he had ever seen. But it wasn’t the cars or the drivers or the noise or the crowds that caught his imagination, it was the bricks: millions and millions of red bricks that lined the surface of the track.

At that moment, Harold Brassington had what could only be described as a biblical epiphany. He heard angels singing and a voice which said, “You will build the first paved track in the South. You will build it one and one quarter miles long. It will be the longest track in the South. You will cover it with black asphalt. You will call it Darlington International Raceway. No, change that. You will call her the Lady in Black.” Harold Brassington accepted his divine mission. As he returned to South Carolina, he kept all these things and pondered them in his heart.

The first hint that this project was going to be a test of faith came in the form of a plague of minnows.

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“Hawthorne’s southern mountain twang spins a yarn rooted in historical fact as moonshiners evolve into NASCAR legends. Family survival becomes hot business. A great read.”

                                                                                                                                                                  Bob Wells, Georgia


“My favorite part was Chapter One with the humorous courtroom recitation of the history of the Scots-Irish immigration to northern Georgia. Who knew the truth could be so much fun?”

                                                                                                                                                         Bobbie Davis, California





Duncan McLagan stopped dead still. Other than the black locust wood crackling under the cooker and the bees buzzing in the mountain laurel, there was no other sound for miles through the quiet Georgia hills. The voice didn’t have a threat in it, but the gun pointed at his chest told a different story.

“You’re Duncan McLagan, that right? I’m Homer Webster. I’m a federal agent.”

“I know who you are, Homer. Glad you put your gun away. Was you plannin’ to shoot me?”

“Naw, the gun’s mostly for show. We’re just gonna bust up your still and then we’re gonna take you to jail.”

By the time it was all over, the sun was beginning to set and it always got dark on the backside of the mountain first. Homer sized up the situation and looked at Duncan. “It’s gettin’ late and there’s no sense in takin’ you to jail now. You go on home tonight, but be at the courthouse by 9:00 tomorrow.

Almost every moonshiner Duncan knew was sent to “build days in Atlanta” sooner or later. It was just part of doing business. Besides it was his first offense, so maybe he’d get off easy.

Finally, Federal Judge Edwin Dunbar got things underway and they got around to the case the audience had been waiting for. Homer Webster presented his evidence. Then the judge called on Duncan, who unfolded his six-foot-three frame and faced the judge. “Mr. McLagan, this is the first time I’ve seen you in my court. Now I know, that you know, that moonshining is illegal. You’re known to be an intelligent man, so why do you persist in this activity? It has taken us a while, but you knew eventually you’d get caught.”

Duncan straightened his suit coat—which had clearly seen better days—and took a deep breath. Mattie knew that Duncan wasn’t accustomed to making long speeches unless it was absolutely necessary. Like everybody else, she wondered what he was going to do.

“Judge, when my kin came to these mountains, they packed those feelings—along with their knowledge of whiskey-making—and brought them all to the New World. I have to admit we’re a cantankerous lot and we don’t suffer fools gladly. My early kin firmly believed that anyone associated with the gov’ment was, by definition, a fool,” he smiled slightly. “Of course we don’t believe that so much anymore.

The judge tapped his gavel to get Duncan’s attention. “Mr. McLagan, I appreciate this little stroll through ancient history, but what—if anything—does this have to do with making illegal whiskey?”

“I’m about to get to that part, Judge. We don’t hardly ever need foldin’ money. “But…” Duncan took another deep breath. Mattie was in a mild state of shock. She couldn’t remember Duncan using that many words at one time in her whole life.

“But,” Duncan continued, “when it comes to payin’ our property taxes, then the gov’ment says we gotta have cash money. That’s where moonshine comes in. Now, Judge, you may not know this, but I got six boys and I keep them busy moonshinin’. If I can’t do that, they’ll get bored with nothin’ constructive to do and who knows what kind of devilment they might get up to. The long and the short of it is, I feel it’s my civic duty to continue to make shine for the peace and prosperity of Dawsonville and this entire county. I thank you.”

Duncan bowed and sat down. The audience laughed, rose to their feet and gave him a hardy round of applause.

“Since this is your first offense, or at least the first time you’ve been caught, I’m inclined to be lenient,” the judge said.” If I let you off with a caution, do you think you could refrain from making illegal whiskey?”

Duncan knew what he should say, but the momentum of his speech and the sweet sound of the applause temporarily robbed him of all reason. In his most sincere voice he said, “Judge, I could promise to do my best, but to tell you the honest-to-God truth, I just don’t think I can give up moonshinin’. I’d feel too guilty.”

The courtroom broke into laughter again. And so it was, that in the Year of Our Lord 1940, Duncan McLagan was sentenced to a year and a day to be served in the Federal Penitentiary in Atlanta.

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“Think you know about or aren’t interested in moonshine? Dirt tracks? NASCAR’s birth? WWII? You will be when you see them through the eyes of the characters in Thunder and White Lightning.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Betty Hanacek, Georgia


“The narrative was great. I learned a lot about NASCAR and its origin especially the fact that it originated from the escapades of moonshiners outrunning the feds.”

                                                                                                                                                    Tom Moriarty, New Jersey



They came to Daytona from everywhere: New Jersey, Rhode Island, New York, Ohio, Connecticut, Massachusetts and, of course, from Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas. Bill France was wasting no time in setting up his new organization on a national basis.

At 1:00 p.m. on Sunday afternoon, France called the meeting to order. “Gentlemen, we have the opportunity to set this up on a big scale. First, we need a name, I suggest the National Stock Car Racing Association.”

“Somebody’s already using that,” Red Vogt said. “How ‘bout the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, NAS-CAR. You can actually say it, not like a bunch of strung-out letters nobody can remember.” NASCAR was in.

“What about promoters who promise big money and then run off with the gate receipts?”

Contracts and enforcement were in.

Gus looked around and saw heads nodding. He wondered if he was the only one worried about where things might be headed.

“While we’re talking about money,” France said, “with NASCAR, you’ll get points for the number of races you enter, the number of wins, number of times you’re in the top five, or top ten and your total winnings. At the end of the season, you’ll get a bonus based on the number of points.” The points system was in.

Ice cubs tinkled in glasses, overflowing ash trays were emptied and refilled and the group moved on to other topics. It was decided the first official race would be modified cars only because Detroit couldn’t make new cars fast enough. The modified race was in.

“What about the tracks?

“To be sanctioned by NASCAR,” France said, “they’ll have to abide by our rules. That may not sound like much right now, but believe me when we go national, the name NASCAR is gonna put the fear of God in a lot of folks.” France seemed to sense that he was losing his audience. “Let’s break for dinner. Steak and lobster, drinks, all on the house.”

When they reconvened the next morning, Red Vogt spoke up. “OK, we need one set of rules that all the tracks follow.” There was general agreement until someone asked, “Yeah, but who’s gonna make the rules?”

“We are,” France said. “We got three more days to work out the details, but once we approve the rules, they’re gonna apply to all NASCAR sanctioned races and they will be strictly enforced.” Rules and enforcement were in.

Red Byron raised his hand. “I know nobody wants to talk about this, but we got ourselves one dangerous sport. We need some safety precautions.” Safety was in.

“And,” Byron continued, “we ought to have a way to help out when one of us gets hurt.”

Insurance and compensation were in.

That all sounded good, but Gus saw their wide-open sport being squeezed into a very narrow space. And he saw France as the only person controlling that space.

At the end of four days a lawyer drew up the papers and NASCAR was founded as a private corporation with Bill France as president.

Some folks didn’t think the idea would fly at all. Others decided just to bide their time. Nevertheless, it had been four history-making days and most of the participants were proud of what they had accomplished.

Red Vogt, who had known Bill France a long time said, “You mark my words, the next thing you know, NASCAR is gonna belong to Bill France.”

And that is exactly what happened.

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“My husband grew up in the 40s and he and his friends idolized Roy Hall and the other drivers. Thunder and White Lightning rang true to his teenage memories.”                      

                                                                                                                                                    Fontaine Draper, Georgia


“Hawthorne has combined real-life characters with fictional ones so seamlessly you can’t tell who’s who. So she’s given you a list of real people and their credentials at the front of the book.”

                                                                                                                                                          James Reeve, Michigan


Cast of Characters

Some of the characters in this book were/are real people. I could not make up their stories.


Harold Brassington defied minnow ponds and Mother Nature to build Darlington, the first paved track in the South.

Red Byron bolted his war-damaged leg to the clutch and become a driving legend. Georgia Racing Hall of Fame, 2002, NASCAR Hall of Fame 2018

Glenn Dunnaway won and was then disqualified from NASCAR's first official race.

The Flock Brothers had more wild adventures than a barrel of monkeys. Bob, Georgia Automobile Racing Hall of Fame in 2003. Fonty, Georgia Automobile Racing Hall of Fame Association in 2004. Tim NASCAR Hall of Fame 2014.

Flocko Jocko was the monkey who rode with Tim.

Big Bill France organized and incorporated NASCAR. NASCAR Hall of Fame 2010

Gordon Pirkle is the founder of the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame. He is also the current owner of the Dawsonville Pool Room and appears as Mr. Gordon in this book.

Roy Hall, known as hell on wheels, drove cars owned by his cousin Raymond Parks with engines built by master mechanic, Red Vogt. They were an unbeatable trio. Georgia Racing Hall of Fame 2002

Johnny “Madman” Mantz won the first Southern 500 in Darlington and proved that, against all odds, a second-hand Plymouth could beat a Cadillac. As of 2010, the speedway presents the Johnny Mantz trophy to the winner of the Southern 500.

Sam Nunis was a big-time promoter at Atlanta’s Lakewood Speedway. He and Bill France were long-time rivals.  

Raymond Parks left home at 14, worked hard, saved money, bought cars and formed the first racing team. Georgia Racing Hall of Fame, 2002, NASCAR Hall of Fame, 2017

Lee Petty rolled a borrowed car four times in his first race, lived to tell the tale and fathered a racing dynasty. NASCAR Hall of Fame, 2011

Lloyd Seay drove fast, died young and left a beautiful memory. Georgia Racing Hall of Fame, 2002

Curtis Turner loved to outrun revenuers—he was never caught—as much as he loved to race, drink and party. NASCAR Hall of Fame 2016

Red Vogt the master mechanic who got more out of a flathead Ford engine than anybody. He named NASCAR and learned his trade customizing whiskey cars. Georgia Racing Hall of Fame 2002, TRW/NASCAR Mechanics Hall of Fame, 1987


The Georgia Racking Hall of Fame opened in 2002 in Dawsonville, GA

The NASCAR Hall of Fame opened in 2010 in Charlotte, NC

True Confessions

I have made every effort to be accurate, with the following intentional exceptions.

Gordon Pirkle’s famous siren actually sounded every time Bill Elliott—awesome Bill from Dawsonville—scored a victory during the 1980s. I attributed that honor to Lloyd Seay in the 1940s.

Flocko Jocko did not ride with Tim Flock until 1953.

First, second and third place winners in the inaugural Southern 500 were Johnny Mantz, Fireball Roberts and Red Byron.
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Thunder and White Lightning is an entertaining yarn. Buckle up, take a taste of shine and get ready for a ride that will keep you engaged, laughing, and begging for more.”

                                                                                                                                                Nan Trainor, Massachusetts


Thunder and White Lightning’s setting in Dawsonville, Georgia is fitting given that it is the birthplace of stock car racing. Moonshine and bootlegging are a large part of our heritage.”

                                                                                                             Bill Elliott, Georgia. NASCAR Hall of Fame 2015


A week later Gus and Finn reported for induction. Gus sailed through the physical exam and was assigned to Services of Supply, the Quartermaster Corps.

Finn was rejected because he had flat feet. However, there was no way he was going to be classified 4-F. He got into an argument with the doctor and ended up pleading his case to the captain in charge. “Son, if you can’t walk, you can’t march and if you can’t march you cannot be in the United States Army.”

Finn wouldn’t give up. “There’s gotta be something I can do. I been walking all my life and I ain’t had a problem, but if you say I can’t walk, OK, I can’t walk. But, listen Doc, I can drive like a son-of-a-gun. There’s gotta be vehicles in the Army and somebody’s gotta drive ‘em.”

“So you want to get behind the wheel of a deuce-and-a-half and go hot-rodding…”

“Oh no Sir. I’m fast, but I’m careful. I’ve been driving since I was a kid and I ain’t never spilled a drop…”

“STOP!” the captain ordered. He looked at Finn, then studied the file lying open on his desk. “You’re from Dawsonville, is that right?”

“Yes, Sir.”

       “Did a lot of driving down Highway 9, did you?” Finn nodded. The Captain smiled, “Well, Son, I think Uncle Sam might be able to use your services after all. You have just become a part of the American Field Service. For your information, that’s the voluntary ambulance service.”

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