American race car driver
Junior Johnson was among the pioneers of organized stock car racing and one its most successful practitioners as a driver, mechanic, and team owner. Johnson brought both notoriety and respect to a motorsport that had its beginnings in the hills and mountains of the American South, and grew into the multi-million dollar Winston Cup National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR). The notoriety derived from the fact that many of the sport's best drivers—of whom Johnson was the best known—learned and honed their talents by evading the law. These individuals not only mastered the art of evasive and fast driving on the hairpin turns and gouged roadways of the North Carolina countryside, they also became shade-tree mechanics of note. They fine-tuned their cars into professional race-worthy vehicles in order to run illegal, bootlegged liquor from the mountain stills where it was manufactured to the cities and saloons where it was sold.
After serving eleven months of a two-year prison term in 1956, Johnson devoted more of his time to professional racing than bootlegging, and proceeded to
revolutionize the sport with an intimidating driving style. It included the first use of aerodynamic drafting—driving in the vacuum developed behind the bumper of a leading car to save fuel, which increases the speed of both vehicles in a push-pull dynamic-in the 1960 Daytona 500. He also pioneered the use of two-way radios between the driver and pit crew. Johnson garnered fifty NASCAR wins before retiring from driving in 1966, the year following publication of Tom Wolfe's essay, "The Last American Hero" in Esquire magazine, in which Johnson was portrayed as a savvy good 'ol boy who flummoxed both the law and Detroit's Big Three automakers with his mechanical savvy and hard-charging driving style. This characterization was reinforced when Jeff Bridges portrayed Johnson in the 1973 movie The Last American Hero. After retiring from driving, Johnson then turned his attention to running race operations with such drivers as Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Bill Elliott, Darrell Waltrip, and Terry Labonte. In 1970, Johnson was already a pioneer in obtaining corporate sponsorship for his racing vehicles. He furthered these inroads when he became instrumental in the decision of R.J. Reynolds to underwrite the sponsorship for NASCAR, thus beginning the Winston Cup NASCAR series brand.
Son of a Moonshiner
Born Robert Glenn Johnson in 1930 in Ingle Hollow, Wilkes County, North Carolina, Junior Johnson learned how to drive when he was only eight or nine years old. By the time he was fourteen, he was making bootleg liquor deliveries in his father's pickup truck. His father, Robert Johnson, owned and operated what was considered the largest copper stills in North Carolina. "My dad was in the bootleg business and I was pretty much into it myself at that particular time," he told Andy Clendennen of The Sporting News. "I had two brothers and all three of us was [sic] helping him on the farm and helping him in the moonshine business.… Everybody we'd grown up with was doing the same thing we was and we didn't really think basically it was against the law as far as we was concerned, because everybody was doing it," he told Clendennen. While running illegal corn liquor across the mountain roads of North Carolina, Johnson often was chased by local law enforcement agents. His evasive driving abilities, however, became legendary, and he was never caught as long as he was behind the wheels of his souped-up Oldsmobiles and Chevrolets. It was during this spell that Johnson invented and perfected what became known as the "bootleg turn," a 180-degree turn implemented by dropping the vehicle into second gear and jarring the steering wheel to the left.
The family business resulted in other altercations with the law. In 1956, a federal raid of the Johnson home seized the largest inland cache of illegal whiskey in U.S. history. Johnson himself was foiled when legal officers arrested him at the site of his father's still. He was sentenced to two years in the federal reformatory at Chillicothe, Ohio, an experience that he recalled to Clendennen: "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. I learned that you had to do what you was supposed to do when you was doing something for somebody else, and of course in there you was always doing something for the prison system. Obedience is a great thing if you take it and use it in the right direction, and I learned a lot in that respect." He was released after eleven months, and turned the majority of his efforts toward stock car racing.
Not all of the income for the Johnsons derived from bootlegging, however. Johnson worked the family farm with his brothers, and was plowing a field behind a mule one day in the late 1940s when his brother L.P. asked him to pilot his car at a race at North Wilkesboro Speedway. Believing a car race would be more fun than plowing a field, Johnson consented. He eventually placed second, casting the die for a long, distinguished career as NASCAR's bad boy, often adapting such tricks as the bootleg turn on corners of oval tracks.
In 1953, Johnson entered his first NASCAR race at the 1953 Southern 500 held in Darlington. He began to establish speed records and local race tracks until his arrest in 1956. Upon his release from prison, he proceeded to make his mark as one of NASCAR's most innovative and intimidating drivers. The world of stock car racing had changed significantly in the late 1950s; changes that included paved tracks, the organization of NASCAR, and the participation of marketing and gear heads from Detroit's Big Three automakers.
|1930||Born Robert Glenn Johnson, in Ingle Hollow, North Carolina|
|1953||Makes his NASCAR driving debut at Southern 500, Darlington|
|1956||Arrested for moonshining, and spends eleven months in prison|
|1958||Earns six victories in twenty-seven starts|
|1960||Wins Daytona 500 and discovers aerodynamic drafting in car owned by John Masoni|
|1962||Wins National 400|
|1963||Wins eight Grand National events, including National 400 and Dixie 400|
|1965||Wins thirteen races, including Rebel 300|
|1966||Announces his retirement from driving to run racing operation|
|1970||Introduces NASCAR's William French to R.J. Reynolds' Ralph Seagraves, which initiates the Winston Cup NASCAR series|
|1986||President Ronald Reagan grants Johnson a presidential pardon|
|1990||Inducted into International Motorsports Hall of Fame|
|1995||Sells team and retires from racing with more than 139 NASCAR victories, 128 pole positions, and six Winston Cup Championships as a team owner|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1960||Won Daytona 500|
|1962||Won National 400|
|1963||Won eight Grand National events, including National 400 and Dixie 400|
|1965||Won thirteen races, including Rebel 300|
|1973||Inducted into National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame|
|1986||Granted presidential pardon by President Ronald Reagan|
|1990||Inducted into International Motorsports Hall of Fame|
|1995||Sold team and retired from racing with more than 139 NASCAR victories, 128 pole positions, and six Winston Cup Championships as a team owner|
|1996||Inducted into Charlotte (North Carolina) Motor Speedway Court of Legends|
|1997||Inducted into Bristol (Tennessee) Motor Speedway Heroes of Bristol Hall of Fame|
|1998||Named greatest NASCAR driver of all time by Sports Illustrated magazine|
Fifty NASCAR Wins
From 1960 to 1965, Johnson was a dominant force in NASCAR racing. Beginning with a win at only the second year of the Daytona 500, Johnson refined and expanded his capabilities as a driver by discovering the competitive advantages of aerodynamic drafting during a practice race. Driving a 1959 Chevrolet, which was outgunned by the faster and more powerful Pontiacs, Johnson devised the strategy that has been a critical element of NASCAR racing ever since. "When we was out practicing and a Pontiac would come by, I'd grab one, get as close to it as I could and hang onto it, and they couldn't get away from me," Johnson told Clendennen. "Cotton Owens and Jack Smith come over and told me we really had that Chevrolet flying. Well, little did they know that they was draggin' me around the race track, there was no way possible to keep up with them any other way." Johnson applied what he had learned on the day of the race, as he explained to Clendennen: "I just held on to every Pontiac I could get hold of."
Johnson added to his growing reputation by refusing to rely on help from the Chevrolet factory in Detroit, opting instead to remain independent. This decision added to his prestige when he repeatedly became the driver to beat, which caused fans and writers alike to consider him a David jousting a mighty Goliath. By the time he retired from driving after the 1965 season, Johnson was a 34-year-old motorsport legend. As a team owner, he fielded NASCAR Winston Cup teams to 139 wins and six Winston Cup Championships until 1995, when he retired to his beef farm and business interests in northern North Carolina. In 1998, he was named the greatest NASCAR driver of all time by Sports Illustrated magazine.
The Last American Hero
In 1973, director Lamont Johnson released the filmed version of Tom Wolfe's 1965 essay "The Last American Hero." Alternately titled Hard Driver, the film starred Jeff Bridges as Johnson, as well as Gary Busey as Johnson's mechanic, and Valerie Perrine as Johnson's love interest. The film remains mostly true to Johnson's life story, emphasizing his background as a runner of bootlegged corn liquor, and garnered positive critical reviews for Bridges's performance.
Address: 1950 Flintstone Drive, Statesville, NC 28677. Address: c/o Penske Corporation Headquarters, 2555 Telegraph Rd., Bloomfield Hills, MI 48302-0954. Phone: (248) 614-1122.
"Junior Johnson." A Who's Who of Sports Champions: Their Stories and Records. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965.
Clenndennen, Andy. "Junior Johnson Is Still Running in Circles." Sporting News (February 15, 2001). http://www.sportingnews.com/features/wherearethey/johnson/ (October 24, 2002).
"Roger Penske." Motorsports Hall of Fame and Museum of America. http://www.mshf.com/index.htm?/hof/penske_roger.htm (January 18, 2003).
Vance, Bill. "Junior Johnson: Legend of Moonshine Running and Stock Car Racing." Canadian Driver. http://www.canadiandriver.com/articles/bv/junior.htm (January 18, 2003).
Sketch by Bruce Walker