Johnson, Robert Glenn, Jr. ("Junior")
JOHNSON, Robert Glenn, Jr. ("Junior")
(b. 28 June 1931 in Ingles Hollow, North Carolina), race-car driver who discovered drafting, obtained sponsorship for the sport from the R. J. Reynolds tobacco company, and won six National Association of Stock Car Automobile Racing (NASCAR) championships as a car owner.
Born to Robert Glenn Johnson and Lora Belle Johnson, Junior Johnson was the fourth of seven children. He started driving his father's truck around the family farm at age eight, several years before he was eligible to apply for a driver's license. Growing up during the Great Depression in rural North Carolina with his parents, Johnson and his family had to struggle to survive. His father was a farmer and saw mill operator, neither of which provided much income. Johnson's father turned to the only other option he felt that he had, the production and distribution of moonshine whiskey. During the Great Depression, the production of moonshine was the best way to generate income, even though the federal government considered it to be a criminal activity. This illegally made whiskey was delivered by the light of the moon in the trunks of specially built cars. To be successful and not be caught by the federal agents, the delivery driver had to have nerves of steel to drive as fast as possible on the winding country roads with only moonlight to light the way. Junior was considered one of the best.
Johnson competed in his first race in the summer of 1949 at the newly constructed North Wilkesboro speedway in North Carolina. His brother L. P. had returned home early from the race to convince Junior to race his moonshine car in a preliminary race to warm up the fans for the main event. Johnson finished second in a race that included future racing champions Ned Jarrett and Ralph Earnhardt.
On Labor Day 1953 Johnson competed in his first NASCAR event at Darlington Raceway in Darlington, South Carolina. He qualified twenty-sixth and finished thirty-eighth. The next year Johnson competed in four NASCAR races. His first Grand National win came on 7 May 1955, at the Hickory Motor Speedway in Hickory, North Carolina. After qualifying second behind the car owned by Carl Kiekhaefer and driven by NASCAR racing legend Tim Flock, the battle for the lead was fierce between the two drivers. Johnson was racing so hard that twice he spun out while in the lead. After each spin Johnson regained control of his car and once again charged past Flock. After the race, Kiekhaefer was outraged that his car had lost. "Kiekhaefer was so mad I thought he was goin' to blow a gasket," said Johnson. Immediately after the race, Kiekhaefer filed a protest over its outcome, claiming that Johnson had cheated. Kiekhaefer was yelling, "No one can outrun my cars! No one can outrun my cars!" Johnson became irritated about Kiekhaefer's comments and responded, "That's a bunch of shit, 'cause I just did." NASCAR inspected the car and found nothing illegal, then encountered difficulty in reassembling the car. "NASCAR made Kiekhaefer pay to fix the car," commented Johnson, "That really tickled me."
Johnson went on to win five races that year. He was not as successful in 1956, as he spent eleven months and three days in a federal prison in Chillocothe, Ohio, for running moonshine for his father.
After a bounty of $10,000 was placed on his head by the local authorities in 1960, Johnson decided it was time to retire from the moonshine business and concentrate fully on racing. Driving an old underpowered Chevrolet against a field of more powerful Pontiacs at the Daytona raceway, Johnson discovered a phenomenon that forever changed the face of racing. During practice for the race, Johnson's engine topped out at 6,000 rpm. When he pulled in behind the Pontiac of Fireball Roberts during the race, he noticed that his car was now running at 7,000 rpm and had picked up speed. Drafting, as the technique was later called, created a vacuum behind the lead car that pulled the second car around the track and both cars went faster than they normally would. Johnson used this new technique to defeat Bobby Johns for the 1960 Daytona win. Johnson retired from driving six years later, but racing was still in his blood. He formed his own racing team and hired fellow North Carolinian Bobby Issac as his driver.
By 1970 the major automobile manufacturers were unsure about their commitment to NASCAR, and Johnson and many car owners were having difficulty funding their racing teams for the fifty-one NASCAR races. They needed sponsors. Johnson contacted the R. J. Reynolds tobacco company, which had recently been banned from advertising on television by the federal government, to discuss a team sponsorship. R. J. Reynolds had more than enough advertising money to sponsor one team; they wanted to sponsor the entire sport. Johnson contacted NASCAR owner Bill France, Sr., and in 1971, R. J. Reynolds became the title sponsor of NASCAR through its Winston brand of cigarettes. A few years later, in 1975, Johnson married his first wife, Flossie, in Las Vegas; they divorced on 27 October 1992. He married his second wife, Lias Day, on 11 November 1992.
Because of his felony conviction and the time he spent in federal prison in 1956, Johnson lived without many of his basic civil rights, including the right to vote. He was also prevented from being inducted into the North Carolina Motor Sports Hall of Fame because the chairman of the induction committee considered him nothing more than a common criminal. As a Christmas present in 1985, President Ronald W. Reagan signed a full presidential pardon, a request that had been pending since 1981. With this pardon came Johnson's induction into the North Carolina Motor Sports Hall of Fame in 1982. Johnson was also inducted in the National Motor Sports Press Association's Hall of Fame (1973), the International Motor Sports Hall of Fame (1990), Charlotte Motor Speedway's Court of Legends (1996), and Bristol Motor Speedway's Heroes of Bristol Hall of Fame (1997).
On 22 November 1995 Johnson sold his racing team to driver Brett Bodine and retired from the sport he had helped to build. During his racing career, Johnson started 313 races consisting of 51,988 laps and 38,054 miles. He won 50 races and led 12,651 laps. Even though his great success as a driver earned him the honor of being named the Greatest NASCAR Driver of All Time by Sports Illustrated in 1998, Johnson's greatest success came as a car owner. His drivers won 119 races and 6 NASCAR championships in 10 years. Johnson lives with his wife, Lisa, and two children on a 300-acre farm in Yadkin County, North Carolina.
Johnson's biography is Tom Higgins and Steve Waid, Junior Johnson, Brave in Life (1999). Tom Wolfe, "The Last American Hero Is Junior Johnson, Yes!" Esquire (1965), details the exploits of Johnson's early life. An article by Juliet Macur, "Junior Johnson: Racing Dull Compared to Running Moonshine," Orlando Sentinel (4 July 1998), discusses the legends and folklore surrounding Johnson.
Jeromy L. Runion