'Rocks to Racing'

March 21, 2012

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

Area residents can race to the Virginia Museum of Natural History to learn about a connection — albeit an unlawful one — between rocks and NASCAR.

“Rocks to Racing,” the newest exhibit at the museum on Starling Avenue in Martinsville, will be open Saturday through Nov. 3. A preview attended by three NASCAR Camping World Truck Series drivers was held Tuesday.

“It’s a really fun exhibit that should appeal to a broad audience,” said Ryan Barber, the museum’s director of marketing and external affairs. “People will come to have fun, but before they know it, they will be learning science.”

“Rocks to Racing” is a broad exhibit. One part deals with rocks and minerals. Another part resembles a garage with a race car, tool cabinet and engine displays.

A third part highlights the connection between the other two. It features a still and other moonshine-making equipment in a makeshift woods. That is where, historically, bootleggers made illegal distilled liquor to avoid the “revenuers” or police.

Bootleggers once modified vehicles to make them run at high speeds to try and outrun the police while transporting their liquor. On weekends, they would race their souped-up cars for fun, which eventually led to the sport of stock car racing, according to information from the museum.

However, only a few people who had been bootleggers eventually became NASCAR drivers, a sign at the exhibit states. It does not give identify them.

So goes the connection between ’shine and stock cars. Now, the link between stone and spirits, in shot glass-size:

Virginia had a reputation for producing quality moonshine. That was thought to be due to the purity of spring water used in the process. Because the springs were in remote places in the woods, they avoided water contamination, Barber said.

The exhibit also details how “a steady flow of cold water” from springs is used to make bourbon. Ninety percent of that legal liquor is made in Virginia’s neighboring state of Kentucky, where springs also have a reputation for clean water — but for a different reason.

According to Barber, dissolved calcium carbonate in limestone there makes the water less acidic. Limestone, a sedimentary rock, also helps distill the water, which removes iron that can hurt the taste.

The exhibit features “Life in the Ordovician,” which discusses what life is believed to have been like during that period about 450 million years ago.

Virginia and much of North America are believed to have been under water during that era. Scientists think life then consisted mostly of small aquatic animals with hard bodies and shells, such as starfish and corals. As they died over time, their bodies were compacted on the sea floor into limestone.

Barber said he thinks the museum has developed a “one-of-a-kind” exhibit that will attract many visitors.

Virginia’s heritage includes both racing and moonshine. Both are things that “if you grew up with it, you know about it,” and if you did not grow up with it, you probably do not know, especially with moonshining, Barber said.

The museum plans special activities from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday to coincide with the exhibit’s opening. For one, visitors will be able to get behind the wheel of a racing simulator to find out what driving a stock car is like.

NASCAR truck series drivers Johnny Sauter, Timothy Peters and John King all took a turn in the simulator Tuesday.

“It’s pretty realistic,” King said.

Visitors also can learn how wind tunnels are used to test a car’s aerodynamics.

Family members of Danville native and legendary NASCAR driver Wendell Scott will display racing memorabilia, including an authentic restored 1937 Ford Sportsman racer. One family member will discuss Scott’s career.

Jack Allen Powell, a former member of the Virginia ABC (Alcoholic Beverage Control) Bureau of Law Enforcement and former agent with the U.S. Marshals Service, also will speak. He is considered an authority on bootlegging and has appeared on several televised documentaries on the subject.


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