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Hellfire & White Lightning, Part II: The daredevil choir boy
How a kid from North Georgia became one of the country's best drivers ... for a little while, at least
The Prohibition-era moonshine trade that ran throughout Appalachia in the early 1900s has always fascinated me, given that it combines everything from speed to lawbreaking to murder to the birth of NASCAR. Here’s the second part of a percolating project I’ve been writing on the era. Maybe one day you’ll see this in a book, maybe in a documentary, but for right now, it’s here in your hands. Part I, the unhinged story of the moonshine trade in North Georgia in the years between world wars, is right here. This is Part II, the tale of how one of the country’s slickest moonshiners became one of its finest racers … for a little while. Enjoy!
The few pictures of Lloyd Seay that still exist show a young man eyeing the camera with a combination of wariness and arrogance, a smile not far from his lips. He’s looking at you like you both know there’s no way you’re catching him.
Born on Dec. 14, 1919 in the hills of North Georgia, Seay lived his entire life among the hellraisers and outside-the-law types who populated the woods and hollows around Dawsonville. He came from “a dark, angry, embittered family of drunken, felonious recidivists, men who taunted the law, their women and one another,” Neal Thompson wrote in Driving with the Devil. “Often, they died violent deaths involving cars, liquor, guns or all three.”
Dawsonville at the time was a lawless place, a loosely defined hamlet where the residents were so poor that, as one line went, criminals would break into houses just for practice.
How destitute was Dawsonville? One resident told a story — maybe a joke, maybe not — of how he went to school with just one shoe on. “Did you lose a shoe?” the teacher asked. “No, ma’am,” he replied. “Found one.”
Lloyd was the baby of the family, and by the time he came along, his parents were exhausted from a life of caring for children and trying to survive in Depression-era America. Prohibition became the law of the land just one month after Seay’s birth, and it would go on to define his life. Early in his teens, he developed a talent for wheeling a car, and in his teens he compiled a rap sheet that served as a shorthand look at the contours of his life: stealing a 30-cent quart of motor oil, speeding, reckless driving, and once, “operating a Ford automobile on the Dawsonville-Tate public highway in the night time without having any lights thereon.”
Racing was in his genes. His older cousin was Raymond Parks, a genius-level mechanic and engineer who would go on to own several race teams and end up in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Another Seay cousin, the “obscenely handsome and absurdly cocky” Roy Hall, would become a legend on the moonshine running circuit and go on to race in some of the earliest NASCAR races.
Seay first shows up in local news in May 1938. Then just 19, he was arrested along with two colleagues, a gentleman named Clyde McArthur and a woman named only as “Mrs. Annie Anderson.” The trio was arrested when they pulled up to a house on Wesley Avenue in the city of Decatur.
The scene was clearly chaotic. “Two Negroes who had started to unload the whisky escaped,” the Atlanta Constitution noted, “but the three defendants were arrested.” Anderson cursed at an alcohol agent named C.C. Plampin who testified against her; that earned her a doubling of the $1000 bond that Seay and McArthur were held on.
How exactly Seay managed to elude the clutches of the law after that arrest is unclear. Around this time, though, he won the nickname “Parker” thanks to his habit of dodging law enforcement by darting up thin logging roads and parking, lights off, until they blew past him.
“Moonshiners put more time, energy, thought, and love into their cars than any racer ever will,” NASCAR legend Junior Johnson, himself a moonshine-running legend, once said. “Lose on the track and you go home. Lose with a load of whiskey and you go to jail.”
Seay would hang out at the Harben Service Station located at 23 Highway 9, just a block north of the Dawsonville courthouse. It’s now a recently-closed trendy boutique, the same Pure Gas pumps from Seay’s day still out front. Seay would wait for a call to come to the pay phone at the 24-hour station, and he’d take an order for “apples.” He’d then roll down Highway 9 toward Atlanta or across Route 53 toward Gainesville.
Seay held the wheel with his hands at the 7:00 and 4:00 positions, giving him the ability to turn the car all the way around in one motion. He could make his Ford V-8 Coupe “climb a pine tree,” in the words of one admirer. Revenuers claimed to have caught the respectful, shy Seay eight times … but only by shooting out his tires.
The next time Seay surfaced in the public eye, though, he was wheeling his strictly-stock Ford through turns at brand-new Lakewood Speedway. A dirt track just south of Atlanta, now the site of an amphitheater, Lakewood was a sanctioned, legitimate proving ground for whiskey trippers who learned their skills on roads cut into hillsides. In November 1938, Seay won his first significant race there: a 150-mile race in front of 10,000 fans.
Dubbed “the sensation of the race,” the kid came from behind to win the race despite suffering two flat right-side tires in the course of the 150 laps. Among those he beat that day: Joie Chitwood, who would go on to become one of the country’s top stunt drivers, and Bill France, a young Daytona Beach driver who would go on to co-create NASCAR.
But as promising as he was behind the wheel, Seay couldn’t stay out of trouble. Six months after that Lakewood win, he was found guilty on four indictments in U.S. District Court charging him with transporting and possessing a total of 392 gallons of “non-tax-paid whisky.” He’d been chased by cops from DeKalb, Clayton and Cherokee counties, all of whom wanted their pound of flesh. He was sentenced to four two-year terms, to be served concurrently.
Prison was both ever-looming threat and rite of passage for moonshiners; virtually all of them suffered through one or more stints inside the joint. Once he was back on the street, though, Seay didn’t stop racing, or bootlegging. He rolled into 1941, the most momentous year of his life, determined to craft a name for himself, and he went about doing just that. The Atlanta Constitution dubbed him “the hottest stock car driver in the land,” and he verified that title every weekend.
He won a race on Daytona’s hard-packed sands in March; won in Allentown, Pa. on Memorial Day; then won a 150-miler in High Point, N.C. on June 30. Then came another Lakewood race in July, and a perfect example of just how lucky Seay was. Catastrophic wrecks claimed much of the field, and the injuries were severe:
Harley Taylor of Atlanta suffered a broken shoulder blade, a lacerated arm, and friction burns on his back.
Tip Lanthier of Winder, Georgia received two broken ribs and a cut tongue, and had multiple teeth knocked out.
Red Byron, who would one day become NASCAR’s first champion, was cut so badly around his face that he needed 14 stitches.
Leroy Hicks of Decatur was cut up all over his legs and hands.
T.W. Bowen of Atlanta suffered what was ominously listed only as “head injuries.”
As for Seay, he was thrown from his car and barely missed being flung into the infield lake … but walked away. Is it any wonder the kid considered himself immortal?
“Lloyd Seay looks like a timid choir boy,” one newspaper said, “but on the speedway he’s a hell-bent-for-election dare devil.”
On August 24, the “dare devil” went back to Daytona and won a 160-mile race that he led wire-to-wire. His winnings? A cool $432 — nearly $8,000 in 2020s dollars — plus another $50 in merchandise.
Seay was building quite the name for himself — a “win-at-any-cost reputation,” as a local newspaper put it, but he was finding it tough to get any traction on his home turf.
“Seay has an outstanding reputation in other parts,” the Constitution wrote, “but in a town of hot lead-footed stock car drivers, he’s just one of the boys.”
That would all change on Labor Day. Lakewood would be hosting its annual 100-mile Labor Day race, bringing in drivers from all over the South. With the finest drivers in the country — or at least the surrounding region — in the field, this would be Seay’s chance to establish himself, once and for all, as the best of the best. Race organizers planned for an epic event, building a new scoreboard and extra grandstands for the 15,000 people headed to the fairgrounds.
Seay ran his qualifying laps at 11:00 a.m. on the morning of September 1st, fast enough that he would start at the front of the pack for the 3 p.m. race. It was the centerpiece of a full day of patriotic festivities that would conclude that evening with fireworks just after sundown, at 9:30 p.m.
Seay would be racing with a bit of a change: he’d be running as No. 13 rather than his customary No. 7, likely because someone registered ahead of him with the 7. In more recent years, the No. 13 has been a source of superstition among race car drivers — like green M&Ms and loose change, everyone in the garage steers well clear of it. If Seay was bothered by the number, though, he didn’t show it, wheeling his car around with his usual abandon.
These were wild days, and the moments before races weren’t exactly the well-choreographed shows of today’s NASCAR. Shortly after qualifying, a gentleman by the evocative name of Cannonball Brown borrowed future NASCAR driver Fonty Flock’s car and whipped around the track, spinning, flipping upside down, and damaging the car’s roof. Flock was worried, officials said, but whether about Brown or his car, there is no record.
Seay struggled for the first third of the race, unable to break free of the pack of fellow drivers. But as the race approached its halfway point, his luck began to change. Seay battled for a full lap with Flock and a dark-horse driver named Speedy Hersey. But Seay put them in the rear view and, by the midpoint of the race, he was leading.
Lakewood officials had covered the track with 40,000 pounds of calcium chloride meant to control dust. It didn’t work, and by the end of the race, spectators and cars alike were covered in a thin, rust-colored film of Georgia dirt.
As the laps wound down, finish line in sight, Seay was doing something unusual. He was driving deliberately. He kept his car under control. He didn’t take chances. He was driving with both speed and precision, and it was working. He was learning how to dominate the field in real time.
Cars fell further and further back, and by lap 80, only a dozen cars were still even in the race. But then, with just five laps remaining in the race, Seay’s motor began misfiring. Was this how it would end for him, so close to a triumph in his hometown?
Nope. Seay white-knuckled his way around the track for the final five laps, and his car sputtered to a dead halt after crossing the finish line. The 15,000 people stood and cheered, knowing that they’d witnessed one of the greatest race car drivers anyone had ever seen achieve another level. So maybe that No. 13 hadn’t been unlucky after all, right?
Less than 12 hours later, Seay would be dead.
Cliffhanger! The conclusion of our moonshine-soaked tale will wheel your way very soon. Meantime, we’ll see you back here next Saturday. Keep the pedal mashed ‘til then, friends!
“Driving With The Devil,” Neal Thompson, 2007
”Return to Thunder Road,” Alex Gabbard, 1992
”Wheels,” Paul Hemphill, 1997
This is issue #87 of Flashlight & A Biscuit. Check out all the past issues right here. Feel free to email me with your thoughts, tips and advice. If you’re new around here, jump right to our most-read stories, or check out some of our recent hits:
The joy of the perfect college bar
Dolly Parton, Dale Earnhardt and Shakespeare: Fun with Artificial Intelligence
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