Tourism officials in eastern Tennessee just opened the White Lightning Trail, a nine-county network of mountain roads where local cops and federal revenuers once chased bootleggers in hopped-up cars. And yes, the link between the art of altering factory cars to run faster and the birth of NASCAR will be celebrated.
I think Tennessee's got something here: Hard liquor; cheating tax collectors; hot cars; challenging roads; Smoky Mountain splendor. That's a hard combination to beat.
What took so long? The area had one of the earliest car movies.
I vividly remember James Mitchum as the bootlegger hero of 1958's Thunder Road, racing his evil rival wheel to wheel along a mountain road. To a car-addled 9-year-old Detroit boy, Mitchum making the bad guy crash by flicking a lit cigarette into his face was very cool.
I've always been saddened that Detroit populated so many great car movies, but it's yet to be the setting of a classic car chase (Sorry, Detroit police cars chasing a semi to start Beverly Hills Cop doesn't cut it). Movies reflect culture and the car chase has been a cinematic staple for decades.
I used to consider the first two cities I lived in as the world's ultimate car cultures. The auto was king in both Detroit ("Love cars -- we make 'em") and Los Angeles ("Love cars -- we drive 'em"). Hey, Detroit invented urban sprawl … but LA raised it to an art form.
But I've mellowed as my wife and I have lived and traveled elsewhere. Even in the most unlikely places, scratch the surface and car culture pops out. And often a car movie follows. LA abounds in car movies, from The Fast and The Furious to the 2000 remake of Gone in 60 Seconds.
Take London. "Developed" over millennia for foot traffic, then horse-drawn carriages with the underground and M24 ring road grafted on only lately, it is perhaps the planet's most car-hostile environment. Really, no car movie settings. But double-decker buses and Black Cabs are indelible London icons. Locals revere the tiny but nimble Morris Mini, star of The Italian Job, set in Turin.
Germany? Autobahn. There are still lots of autobahn stretches where the only speed limit is your car's capability and your own nerve. But film permits are tough. Oddly, the best car film set in Germany may be Go Trabi, Go! and its low-key star, an East German Trabant.
Europe? Ronin. Transporter (whether BMW in the first or Audis in the two sequels). Le Mans. Grand Prix.
Australia has Mad Max and The Road Warrior.
But America revels in car culture.
San Francisco? Steve McQueen's chase in Bullitt; The 1970 Dodge Challenger in Vanishing Point was headed there.
Modesto, Calif.? American Graffiti.
Chicago? Blues Brothers.
New York? The French Connection and The Seven-Ups.
Texas? Pickups. Lots of pickups as backdrops in movies, but Texarkana as a stopover in Smokey and the Bandit is a bit thin as a car movie's Texas setting.
Crossing America? Take your pick, from Gumball Rally to the goofy Cannonball Run to the cartoon Cars.
So good for Tennessee's new White Lighting Trail. NASCAR has its own movies, from Days of Thunder to Talledega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby.
But maybe some mountain roads (and afterward) a sip of some, uh, untaxed corn whiskey might inspire a decent remake of Thunder Road.