One summer day in 1949, Junior Johnson was plowing a cornfield barefoot behind a mule on his family’s farm in Ingle Hollow, North Carolina, when his brother pulled up in one of the family’s moonshining cars. He said a local racetrack needed cars to fill out the field for a race.
Johnson, pushing 16 at the time, tied the mule to a fence, found some shoes, drove to North Wilkesboro Speedway and entered the race. He finished second, launching one of the most colorful and celebrated careers in American motor sports history.
Tom Wolfe memorialized him as “The Last American Hero” in the pages of Esquire, Jeff Bridges played him in a movie version of the Wolfe story, and Bruce Springsteen sang about him in “Cadillac Ranch.” Sports Illustrated extolled him as the best race car driver ever. President Ronald Reagan pardoned him for his long-ago moonshining conviction.
Johnson, who learned to manhandle a car while outrunning federal officers and used that skill to win 50 NASCAR races, died Friday while in hospice care in Charlotte, North Carolina, according to a NASCAR spokesperson. He was 88, and information on the cause was not immediately available.
Long a legend among moonshiners and race aficionados in the North Carolina hills, Johnson entered the larger public consciousness thanks to Wolfe’s 1965 magazine story, which ranks among the greatest profiles in 20th-century American journalism. Wolfe created a legend around Johnson that happened to be true, a lawbreaking, rough-and-tumble racer who became rich and famous because of his courage behind the wheel. Johnson’s life after the piece only burnished the legend.
Johnson was 14 when he started hauling liquor for his father’s moonshining operation. Wrote Wolfe: “It was Junior Johnson specifically, however, who was famous for the ‘bootleg turn’ or ‘about-face,’ in which, if the Alcohol Tax agents had a roadblock up for you or were too close behind, you threw the car up into second gear, cocked the wheel, stepped on the accelerator and made the car’s rear end skid around in a complete 180-degree arc, a complete about-face, and tore on back up the road exactly the way you came from. God! The Alcohol Tax agents used to burn over Junior Johnson.”
Johnson entered his first NASCAR-sanctioned race in 1953. He became known as a driver who would come home with either a trophy for winning the race or the steering wheel with nothing else remaining of the car because he wrecked it in pursuit of the trophy.
In 1960, in the second Daytona 500, Johnson discovered the draft — the aerodynamic phenomenon in which two cars become faster when a trail car tucks behind a lead car. Using that little-known trick, Johnson won the race, the biggest of his career, despite the fact his car was 15 miles per hour slower than the best cars in the field.
Johnson won 50 races in 313 starts at NASCAR’s top level before retiring from driving at 35. He was bored of endless left turns, and he instead became owner of his own race team. Nine future NASCAR Hall of Famers drove for him. In one 10-year span, Johnson’s teams won six championships — three straight by Cale Yarborough (1976-1978) and three by Darrell Waltrip (1981, 1982 and 1985).
Johnson had only an eighth-grade education, but he proved to be a successful businessman and was one of NASCAR’s most innovative engineers. “He would have a Ph.D. in mechanical wizardry if there was such a thing,” said Winston Kelley, executive director of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Johnson hid some of his discoveries even from his own employees: He would return to his engine shop at night after everybody left to make alterations. He was worried that when his employees left to work for a competing team, they would take his ideas with them.
“In today’s world, you would call that a control freak,” Kelley said. “But he was smart enough to know that if he didn’t control it, it was to his detriment.”
Johnson exploited loopholes in the NASCAR rule book, finding gray areas where others, NASCAR officials in particular, saw black and white. Whether he was cheating or “creating,” as he put it, depended on whether you were his fan.
Today, NASCAR cars must fit exacting templates under rules that are in place in part because of Johnson. In 1966, Johnson built a car dubbed “the yellow banana.” It had alterations to the hood, nose, windshield and quarter panels. FoxSports.com called it “the most outrageous, bodacious and flagrantly illegal car to ever compete in a NASCAR event.”
NASCAR officials were not amused. “They said, ‘You can’t race that. That’s not legal. It’s not a stock car,’” Kelley said.
A defiant Johnson demanded those officials point out the rules the car violated. They couldn’t.
NASCAR started using templates the following season.
Robert Glenn Johnson Jr. was born in Ingle Hollow on June 28, 1931. He was the fourth of seven children in a family of moonshiners. In 1935, federal agents raided the Johnson home in what is often reported as “the largest inland seizure of illegal whiskey ever made in America.”
“We slept on some of the cases,” Johnson told Sports Illustrated, adding that his father “wouldn’t put it outside where somebody could steal it. He had the upstairs plumb full of whiskey. All except the kitchen and the dining room was full of whiskey. (The police) came in and toted it out in the yard and busted it up.
“Upstairs they put some planks on the steps, and they’d just slide it down,” he continued. “Me and my brother — I was about 5, he was about 6 — when they’d put those cases on the slide, we’d jump on top and ride ‘em to the bottom. And they got to cussin’ us, ‘You damn young’uns get out of here.’ We’d cuss them back, ‘It’s our house, you get out.’”
Johnson was arrested in 1956; he had gone out to his father’s still on foot, unaware that agents had it staked out.
The revenuers could not catch him in a car — he learned to drive at age 8 — but he could not outrun them on foot. He was sentenced to two years in prison on moonshine and bootlegging charges.
Johnson served 11 months in a federal reformatory in Chillicothe, Ohio — time away that he called a turning point in his life. “I learned a lot of discipline and to listen to people and evaluate their ideas and stuff. I didn’t do that before I went there,” he told Sporting News. Reagan granted him a full and unconditional pardon in 1986.
In 1970, President Richard Nixon signed a law banning cigarette advertising on television and radio. Late that year, Johnson was looking for a sponsor for his race team. Knowing the ad ban would free up money from tobacco companies, he sought a meeting with officials from R.J. Reynolds, the cigarette maker in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in early 1971.
Johnson made his pitch. In exchange for putting Winston on the side of his car, he wanted $850,000. Winston officials laughed at him. For a second, he thought he had asked for too much. Then they told him they had $570 million to spend.
Stunned at the number, Johnson suggested the company call NASCAR founder and president Bill France — the whole sport could be sponsored for that much money, he thought. Winston became the title sponsor of NASCAR’s top series in 1972, which is now known as the start of NASCAR’s modern era. With the money Winston poured into NASCAR, the tracks got better, the purses got bigger and the sport took on a new sheen of respectability.
A brief first marriage to Mary Jane Grey ended in divorce. His second marriage, to Flossie Clark, ended in divorce in 1992. That same year, he married Lisa Day, with whom he had two children, Robert Johnson III and Meredith, who survive him. Johnson sold his team in 1995 and retired from racing.
In 2007, Johnson became part owner of Piedmont Distillery, which produces Midnight Moon, a legal moonshine based on Johnson’s father’s recipe.
When NASCAR opened its Hall of Fame in 2010, Johnson was in the first class of five men. As part of the Hall of Fame’s opening, Johnson built a moonshine still as an exhibit. It would have worked had he fired it up.