Stock-car racing’s history is peppered with colorful characters and personalities.
Through the 1960s, racing was a part-time affair for many drivers. With little in the way of corporate sponsorship, it had to be. You worked one or two other jobs to pay to race on the weekends. No one paid you. It was as much or more for fun, competition and honor as it was for any money you won.
Even still, few NASCAR racers of the day had the kind of character, on or off the track, that Junior Johnson had.
For this top-notch driver, successful team owner, gentleman farmer and transporter of illicit whiskey, racing was always about being first, and not the glory or the fan adulation that came with it. He participated in the sport because he was good at it and he knew how to win. It was also a darn sight better career than risking his freedom hauling illegal whiskey through those twisty, mountain roads near his home in the rugged hills of North Carolina.
Well shy of his 16th birthday, Robert Glen Johnson Jr. was helping his folks operate their moonshine business. Junior worked as a young, teenaged wheel man, delivering the family’s distilled recipe throughout the region. Driving at night to avoid detection, Johnson honed his underage driving skills, often with the law close on his tail.
Johnson soon became known as the “Wilkes County Wild Man” for his aggressive driving techniques.
Johnson’s first taste of stockcar racing came in 1947 when the well-seasoned 16-year-old drove his brother’s whiskey-running car at the North Wilkesboro speedway. By this time, a number of bootleg drivers regularly tested each other in unsanctioned events to see who was the fastest driver and who had the best car. From the start, Johnson began winning against these as well as professional drivers in their specially prepared race cars.
When he wasn’t racing on the track, Johnson was tearing up the road, delivering moonshine as far away as Mississippi and Louisiana. Try as they might, the long arm of the law was never long enough to catch Junior and his load of hooch. Along with his flat-out aggressive driving style, Johnson was usually piloting some sort of souped-up sedan, such as his 1951 Ford with a 331 cubic-inch Cadillac V8 stuffed under the hood. Usually the vehicles were were significantly altered, including the use of horsepower-enhancing superchargers, wider wheels, stiffer springs and two-shock absorbers per wheel.
The government agents chasing Johnson finally became so frustrated that they brought in stockcar driver and former moonshiner Curtis Turner to chase him down. Even that tactic failed.
Eventually, a raid on the family still in 1955 resulted in Junior Johnson’s arrest and a subsequent 10-month stretch in a federal prison. After his release, Johnson began moving away from his illegal after-hours activities, concentrating more on a legitimate racing career.
In 1960, competing full-time, Johnson won the prestigious Daytona 500 in Daytona, Florida. Although his Chevrolet was slower than the class-leading Pontiacs, Johnson discovered that he could keep up to them by driving mere inches from their back bumpers. At high speeds, aerodynamic forces resulted in the slower car being “towed” by the lead vehicle. “Drafting” as it became called, quickly became standard practise in NASCAR.
Five years later at age 35, Johnson retired from active racing, amassing a respectable 50 victories. That year, writer Tom Wolfe penned an article about Junior Johnson’s life entitled The Last American Hero that was later turned into a movie starring Jeff Bridges.
But Johnson wasn’t out of NASCAR for long as he stepped into the role of team owner. In this capacity he achieved his greatest success, notching 139 wins and six championships from 1967 until his retirement at the end of the 1995 season. During that period, some of the best-known drivers worked for him, including Lee Roy Yarbrough, Bobby Issac, Bobby Allison, Geoff Bodine, Terry Labonte, Darrell Waltrip, Bill Elliott and Sterling Marlin. Even Curtis Turner, the man who tried to bring Johnson to justice back in his bootlegging days had taken a turn behind the wheel. But it was driver Cale Yarborough who yielded Johnson the most victories. The duo won a record three consecutive championships between 1976 and 1978. In total, Johnson’s team earned more than $22 million in prize money.
Johnson is also credited with bringing big-bucks sponsorship to NASCAR. Executives from R.J. Reynolds who were looking for a promotional outlet after tobacco products were banned from TV advertising, approached Johnson about sponsoring one of his cars. Realizing the company had deep pockets, Johnson put them in touch with NASCAR president Bill France. This ultimately led to Reynolds’ sponsorship of the entire Grand National race series beginning in 1971, under the Winston Cup banner.
Junior Johnson’s departure from the spotlight has not led to retirement. Today at age 76, he remains active tending to his farm, along with other business interests. Although he rarely attends races, he did haul his Holly Farms Poultry-sponsored 1963 Chevrolet Impala out of the NASCAR museum and shipped it to England. The thousands of spectators attending the Goodwood Festival of Speed classic-car event witnessed the rare sight of a white-haired Junior Johnson blasting around this fabled Grand Prix circuit, just as he had done on NASCAR’s steeply banked super speedways and country short tracks so many years ago.
Malcolm Gunn is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. You can drop him a note on the Web at www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html. Wheelbase Communications supplies automotive news and features to newspapers across North America.