NORTH WILKESBORO N.C. -- Dean Combs -- who drove NASCAR races for a Richmond-based owner and with a Richmond-based sponsor -- has been charged in a North Carolina moonshine bust.
On Friday, Combs, 57, was charged with operating a still that authorities had blown up the night before.
Combs was a five-time champion of NASCAR's compact-car touring series in the 1970s and '80s and his 60 wins remain the series' all-time high. He won the 1980 and '81 titles driving a Datsun owned by Irv Sanderson, then a Richmond car dealer -- making Combs the first driver to win a NASCAR series championship in a foreign make.
Sanderson also owned cars that Combs drove in two dozen races in what is now the Sprint Cup Series. Best Products, a now-defunct Richmond-based retailer, was Combs' sponsor at times.
Combs and the authorities who blew up the still seemed entirely cordial with each other on Friday.
As rain fell that morning, Combs used his cell-phone camera to snap photos of the remains of a moonshine still that lay broken and blown apart on a hill behind his home and just a couple of hundred yards from the North Wilkesboro Speedway -- one of NASCAR's first tracks and one that Combs' father had once co-owned.
Combs said he used the still to make cold medicine or brandy.
"I'd drink it for a cold," he said. "It was mostly for cold medicine. There's not been any good apple brandy out here for years. It's better than what you buy at a store."
The Wilkes County Sheriff's Office destroyed the still in two explosions. Residents as far as four miles away reported hearing the loud booms.
Authorities said they seized about 200 gallons of corn liquor, said Shon Tally, an agent with N.C. Alcohol Law Enforcement. Twenty-four gallons were in plastic gallon jugs, and the rest was in glass jars. They also seized 3,000 pounds of sugar.
Combs was charged with manufacturing non-tax-paid liquor, possessing non-tax-paid liquor, possessing ingredients to manufacture non-tax-paid liquor and possessing equipment to manufacture non-tax-paid liquor.
It had been about a year-and-a-half since the last time authorities found a still in Wilkes County, Tally said. Officials often make purchases of non-tax-paid liquor, he said, "but to actually find a still, they're few and far between." Authorities acted on a tip.
"He had just finished running that morning," Tally said. "When he was draining the water out of it so we could move it, the steam was rolling off it."
Coincidentally, when a production company recently needed film footage to tell the story of NASCAR legend Junior Johnson running from revenuers back in the day, former champion driver Dean Combs got behind the wheel of a 1940 Ford and made a bootleg turn -- a sliding, high-speed 180-degree turn -- for the camera crew.
In addition to his driving, Combs had been a crew chief for a NASCAR team once owned by Johnson.
Combs owns a defunct go-cart track near the Wilkesboro track, and he said that the still was in one of the buildings there. When Tally and other agents came to his door Thursday afternoon, he took them to the still, he said. "The ALE man -- he was very nice and very helpful," Combs said.
The still was made of stainless steel. The boiler alone weighed about 1,000 pounds. Agents were trying to figure out how to get it out to destroy it.
"He [Dean] got his tractor, he pulled it up there for us," Tally said. "That's how accommodating he was. You couldn't ask for a nicer fellow."
Combs said that authorities were complimentary of the quality of his moonshine.
"They even bragged on it, said they'd never seen spring water that clear," he said. "I said, 'You need to put a label on it and stick it in the store.'"
Combs said that his interest in moonshine reflects part of Wilkes County's heritage.
"It's something I was always interested in," he said. "I wanted to see if I could make something drinkable. I guess I gave someone a quart I shouldn't have."
Monte Mitchell is a staff writer for the Winston-Salem Journal.
Times-Dispatch Deputy Sports Editor Randy Hallman contributed to this report.