If ever there was a driver that deserved the adjective of 'legend' it is Junior Johnson. In 1998 he was named the greatest NASCAR driver of all time by Sports Illustrated magazine.
Stock car racing is rooted in the southeastern United States where cars, particularly after the Second World War, represented liberty from a largely land-bound society. And building and driving fast cars relates to another southern tradition: making moonshine whiskey. The drivers easily transferred moonshine running skills to the southern stock car tracks springing up in response to this new car culture.
The good ol' boys developed tremendous ability at evading the law with their souped-up liquor-laden cars.
Robert Glenn "Junior" Johnson learned his driving skills while running moonshine for his father after World War II, and he soon began to put them to use in stock car races at the dirt track in Wilkesboro, North Carolina.
The Johnson family lived in the community of Ingle Hollow, near Wilkesboro, North Carolina. Writer Vance Packard called Wilkes County the "the bootleg capital of America."
Junior's father Robert Johnson was one of the biggest copper still operators in the area. The older men did the distilling, the younger ones transported the moonshine, and the women "called the cows" if the U.S. alcohol and tobacco tax agents appeared.
Junior, a big strapping fellow with good reflexes, soon built a reputation as a fast whiskey runner. He always seemed able to elude the agents.
He is credited with inventing the "bootleg turn" in which a whiskey hauler jammed the car into second gear and gave the steering wheel a mighty tug to the left. If successful, the car spun 180 degrees, stayed on the road, and charged off in the opposite direction.
Johnson's evasive ability, and the agents' embarrassment, became legendary. His reputation grew beyond Wilkes County, culminating in Tom Wolfe's essay, "The Last American Hero Is Junior Johnson. Yes!," in the March, 1965, Esquire magazine.
As Wolfe tells it: "Finally, one night they had Junior trapped on the road up toward the bridge around Millersville, there's no way out of there, they had the barricades up and they could hear this souped-up car roaring around the bend, and here it comes - but suddenly they can hear a siren and see a red light flashing in the grille, so they think it's another agent, and boy, they run out like ants and pull those barrels and boards and sawhorses out of the way, and then - Ggghhzzzzzzzhhhhhhggggggzzzzzzzeeeeeong! - gawdam! there he goes again, it was him Junior Johnson! with a gawdam agent's si-reen and a red light in his grille!"
Johnson was soon driving on Wilkesboro's dirt track, "power sliding" the turns so he got around quicker and came out pointed in the right direction. With his whiskey driving techniques, Junior soon held track records all over the area.
Junior's racing career was really rising in 1956 when both his careers were abruptly interrupted when federal agents arrested him at his father's still. He was sentenced to two years in federal prison, but served only 11 months. Ironically, Junior had been doing well enough in stock car racing that he was cutting back on moonshining.
Shortly after his release, he was racing again. At the second Daytona 500 in 1960, Johnson was driving his own Chevrolet, which was considerably slower than the factory Pontiacs. Junior was losing up to 16 km/h (10 mph) to the Pontiacs on the straights. Then on a whim coming out of a corner in practise he nosed his Chevy up near the bumper of a Pontiac. To Johnson's surprise he stayed with the Pontiac and went faster than ever.
Junior had discovered "drafting," an aerodynamic phenomenon that makes two nose-to-tail cars run faster than either could go alone. Junior drafted through the 500, hitching rides wherever he could. He won the race and added to his legend, because as a Chevy privateer winning against factory cars, he was a giant killer, hero of every underdog in the South.
In addition to that Daytona victory, Johnson had big wins in the 1963 Dixie 400 at Atlanta; the 1962 and 1963 National 400 at Charlotte; and the 1965 Rebel 300 at Darlington. The Darlington victory was one of 13 in 1965, which gave him exactly 50 for his career, and he abruptly announced his retirement from driving to become a car owner. His 50 wins was not a record, but he established such a reputation that in 1998 he was named the greatest NASCAR driver of all time by Sports Illustrated magazine.
He became a NASCAR race team owner and his cars built excellent competition records. His first driver was Bobby Allison, who won ten races and $271,395 in Johnson's car in 1972 to become driver of the year. Darryl Waltrip later won three national championships with Johnson's team, which accumulated more than 100 victories and more than $15 million in earnings. He sold the team in 1995 to spend more time with his new young family, and run his 300 acre beef cattle farm near North Wilksboro.
Junior is long out of the moonshine business now, but there's still nostalgia for those old " 'shine runnin'" days when he outran the "revenoors" through the cuts and hollows of North Carolina's Brushy Mountains.
As a driver, Johnson had 50 victories, with 121 top-five finishes, and he won a total of $301,871 in 313 starts.