Hometown: Wilkes County, N.C.
Wins: 50 (140 as Owner)
Top Fives: 121
Top 10s: 148
Championships: Six (Owner)
Presidential Pardons: One
If there is one name that is synonymous with NASCAR’s storied past, it is Junior Johnson. This pioneer of big-time stock car racing helped to shape the sport to what it has become today, despite the efforts of some to cover up the dirty little secret surrounding NASCAR’s origins. Junior was good for racing, and racing was good for Junior. Besides keeping him out of a federal penitentiary, it afforded him the opportunity to use his wit for good, rather than engage in certain nefarious activities. An innovator who was as competent behind the wheel as he was over the wall or atop the pit box, Johnson is one of the living legends of our sport, and the key cog linking its past to the present.
Robert Glen Johnson, Junior was born June 28th, 1931 in the tiny burg of Ingle Hollow, N.C. Like many of his day from the region, Junior dabbled in the production of grain alcohol corn whiskey; known far and wide as Moonshine. The Johnson family produced the stuff for consumption as well as distribution, and the latter would land him in trouble with the U.S. Government in 1956.
He would spend nearly a year in an Ohio federal prison prior to his release in the fall of 1957. Although he was never caught “ridin’ dirty,” he was captured by his father’s still after a foot pursuit through the wilderness of Wilkes County, what was to bootlegging then what Charlotte is to NASCAR today.
It wasn’t the first time that he had run afoul of the law for running whiskey.
In 1953, Johnson earned his first conviction, which was later overturned. Following his stint in prison, the FBI launched a massive sting against the entire Johnson family. The Feds didn’t bother with an operation of that scale unless they were confident of a conviction, and they had more then enough to file charges against Junior, his mother and his two brothers. They would have nailed his dad too, but he was already in prison. Junior was the only one who got off. His air-tight alibi? He was off racing; a career he began out of running from the law and from falling off a tractor, injuring his arm and ending any hopes of playing baseball.
It is often believed that the scope and intensity of the of case against the Johnsons grew out of a grudge from law enforcement, having been embarrassed time and time again by Johnson, who often out-drove and out-smarted them. Like a storyline right out of The Dukes of Hazzard, stories abound of Johnson’s patented “bootlegger turn,” spinning a car 180 degrees in the middle of the road during a high-speed pursuit, and heading the opposite way before the officer knew what had happened. He also took to disguising his cars to look like police cars with lights and sirens to get by roadblocks set up for him.
Johnson made his first career start at the Southern 500 in 1953. Back then it was THE premier event on the schedule. It was the first superspeedway in an era dominated by dirt tracks and bullrings. He crashed out on lap 222, and that would be his only start of the year due to his issues with the law.
His breakout season was 1955, with his first win coming at a track where virtually all of the great drivers of the 1950s through the 1990s got their start, Hickory Speedway. Oddly enough, three of his five wins that year came at tracks in Pennsylvania and New York, driving an Oldsmobile. His next win would have to wait until 1958 due to his exile to the Buckeye state, but he scored six wins in his comeback year in Paul Spaulding’s Ford. Another five wins would follow in ’59. In 1960, driving a 1959 Chevrolet, he would win the second annual Daytona 500 over Bobby Johns and some kid named Richard Petty.
During his time at Daytona, Junior became aware during practice that his car could run at about half throttle if he’d just tuck in close behind another car on the track. He had just discovered drafting, and used this now-familiar technique to help him to victory. Accused of sand-bagging because the car was so much slower than everyone else’s, it wouldn’t be long before others finally caught on.
He would go on through the early ’60s to tally numerous wins at North Wilkesboro, Hickory, Richmond, and Martinsville. His crowning achievement would be in 1965, when he would win a career-high 13 races in his No. 11 Ford, during the Chrysler-boycotted season, including the Rebel 300 at Darlington. He had a two-lap lead in the World 600 at Charlotte until a fan fired a bottle over the fence, causing Johnson to wreck.
His final win as a driver would come at North Wilkesboro that season, giving him 50 career wins, placing him 10th in all-time wins, tied with two-time champion Ned Jarrett. Amazingly enough, Junior never won a championship, making him the driver with the most wins to never win a title.
Johnson would retire at the end of the 1966 season, turning his attention to being an owner rather than a driver. His roster of drivers reads like a who’s-who of NASCAR: LeeRoy Yarbrough, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Neil Bonnett and Bill Elliott. He also was an innovator with car construction. His famed “Flying Banana,” a contorted 1966 Ford Galaxie that would rival today’s twisted bodies, was raced once before NASCAR instructed him to leave it at home. His 1963 Chevrolet Impala, with which he would win seven races, was underpinned by a chassis that serves as the model for the one still used to this day. Today it resides in the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh, N.C., and has even traveled to the Goodwood Auto Festival in England.
Although he never won a title as a driver, Johnson would win six championships as an owner; three in a row with Yarborough from 1976-1978, back to back titles with Waltrip in 1981 and 1982, and again in 1985. He narrowly missed out on a seventh championship with Elliott in 1992 as Alan Kulwicki, the driver AND owner, beat them by a scant 10 points. He would sell his team in 1995 to Brett Bodine and retired to his 278-acre spread in Yadkin County. All told, as an owner and a driver, Johnson won 190 races.
During the 1960s and ’70s, the cars to run in NASCAR were either Fords or Mopars. During the mid ’70s, NASCAR moved away from racing big-blocks and turned to running small-block engines. The small block Chevrolet while the most popular street performance motor ever, was a hand grenade when it made its NASCAR debut. Through Johnson’s engineering, research and development, he turned it into a proven reliable race winner that continues today with Chevrolet’s second generation of small-block engines released in 1997.
In 1973, a movie loosely based on Tom Wolfe’s writings of Johnson’s exploits was released, on which Junior served as technical advisor. The movie, titled The Last American Hero, starred a young Jeff Bridges as Johnson, outrunning revenuers and drivers alike in a flat black Ford Mustang, replete with dubbed-in Mustang sound effects from the 1968 Steve McQueen film Bullitt.
Although his six championships and 140 wins as owner and 50 wins as a driver are startling accomplishments, his greatest feat and proudest moment was a pardon he received in 1985 from President Ronald Reagan, absolving him of his 1956 conviction. It put to rest a forgettable time in Johnson’s life, and helped grant him entry in the International Motorsports Hall of Fame and the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.
It also set the stage for Johnson’s return to his roots: moonshine.
Don’t worry; Junior hasn’t gone the way of many of today’s sports stars. He has begun to market a legal brand of moonshine named Midnight Moon. Derived from the original recipe that landed him and his father in jail in the mid-1950s, Johnson is as excited about this venture as he ever was with auto racing. And he can rest easy knowing he won’t have to whip a “180” in the middle of the road in Wilkes County, potentially spilling his prized liquor or ending up in the Stoney Lonesome.