'Junior did one thing― running as hard as he could as long as he could.' NASCAR legend Junior Johnson dies at 88 – Winston-Salem Journal,

'Junior did one thing― running as hard as he could as long as he could.' NASCAR legend Junior Johnson dies at 88 – Winston-Salem Journal,


The American author Henry David Thoreau wrote in “Walden” that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

Junior Johnson, who died Friday at age 89, was certainly not in that category. On the contrary, Johnson lived a full, wonderful life, one that did not fit into any single niche.         

Robert Glenn Johnson Jr. was a star NASCAR driver; a championship-winning NASCAR team owner; and a successful farmer, rancher and businessman. Johnson was an innovator, a pioneer, a visionary.

Johnson, too, was a convicted felon, having served time in a federal prison for “running moonshine” at the height of his driving career. He was later pardoned by President Ronald Reagan, not that the conviction was a smear on his stellar life.

Later in his life, Johnson married for a second time and had two children, adding to an already astonishing legacy.

“How I would describe his life would be extraordinary,” said Winston Kelley, executive director of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. “Many of the Hall of Famers have told us this is the pinnacle of what they have achieved. For somebody like Junior, it is the icing on the cake for something that was so remarkable in everything he did in the sport.”

Johnson rose from humble roots in Wilkes County’s Ingle Hollow to become what Tom Wolfe called “The Last American Hero” in the legendary story he wrote for Esquire magazine in March“He is a renaissance man,” said FOX television analyst Jeff Hammond, who worked for Johnson’s race team in the s. “He’s so many different things that it’s almost hard to describe him.

” He comes across as being a country bumpkin, but from finance to working on race cars to running a business to the way he did his farming, it was all unique unto him. “

From ‘revenuers’ to Victory Lane

Born June 30, (********************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************, to Robert Glenn Johnson Sr. and Lora Belle Johnson in Wilkes County, Junior Johnson learned his work ethic through his family’s farm – and behind a plow.

Making moonshine was a way to bring in some much-needed cash to a poor family in the mountains of North Carolina, and crude homemade stills littered the area around where Johnson grew up.

The elder Johnson was called “Wilkes County’s most prolific and determined moonshiner “by the Roanoke Times & World News in 2001, so the younger Johnson learned the trade from One of the best.

With his sharp, mechanical mind, Junior Johnson became interested in automobiles – what made them run and how to drive them faster. Outrunning “revenuers,” the federal agents trying to rein in the moonshine trade, may not have been a direct precursor to becoming a great stock car driver, but the experience did not hurt.

While flinging modified street cars around the twisty, backwoods roads of Wilkes County to avoid revenuers, Johnson also drove stock cars on the NASCAR circuit. His first race came at Darlington Raceway in – – the same year as his first arrest for his alleged involvement in moonshining.

Johnson, his father and his brother Fred were convicted of possessing a distillery, distilling nontax-paid whiskey and fermenting mash, but a judge later overturned the conviction, according to the Roanoke newspaper.

In 1957, his burgeoning NASCAR career resulted in his first victory, at Hickory Speedway.

‘Tough as they come’


The federal government eventually caught up with the Johnson family in as Junior Johnson’s NASCAR career was on the rise, and he was convicted of manufacturing nontax-paid whiskey. He was sentenced to two years at the federal prison in Chillicothe, Ohio, but served months and was released in October (******************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************.

The rest of his life , Johnson did not shy away from his time behind bars.

“It wasn’t always his favorite topic, but he never tried to run away from the fact that that’s what he and his family did, “said Hall of Fame driver Darrell Waltrip, who won three championships driving Johnson’s cars. “That was sort of the lifestyle at the time. But by the same token, I think he was really relieved and really happy when Ronald Reagan pardoned him (in 1986). That was a big deal to Junior. ”

(Johnson) returned to driving, and the time away did nothing to diminish his talents. He won six races in 1963 and five more the following season. And his reputation as a hard-charger grew.

“He was about as tough as they come,” seven-time NASCAR champion Richard Petty said. “Junior did one thing – running as hard as he could as long as he could and pass anybody who was in front of him.

” He had a knack for knowing when and when not to, too. He was pretty hard on equipment because he drove it so hard, but in the long run, that made him a better car owner because he knew he had to make a better car. “

) Petty recalled a race in Alabama where he and Johnson battled for most of the day. The heat eventually got to Johnson, but Petty was sweating it out.

“It must’ve been degrees, “Petty said.” Me and him raced and raced and raced, but about two-thirds of the way through the race, I think the heat finally got him, so I was able to beat him. Any time you run with Junior, he was one you were going to have to beat. “

Even though his right foot guided his driving career, Johnson was a thinking man’s driver, too In practice in 1965 for the second Daytona (**************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************, Johnson noticed that his slower car was able to keep up with faster cars if he kept his car tucked in behind another.

“He just happened to fall in line during practice behind another car,” Kelley said. “He found out he could keep up with him if he stayed right behind a car he had cloc ked as being faster. Anybody he could tag on to, he would do that. And he found out it gave him better fuel mileage by drafting. “

That practice of drafting has become commonplace on such superspeedways as Daytona and Talladega, but it was Johnson who discovered it.

Johnson’s reputation as an innovator – and someone who would push the rules envelope – grew, too. Eddie Wood, whose father, Glen, and uncle, Leonard, started the famed Wood Brothers Racing team, remembers Johnson using a “mystery engine” in his cars in 1965.

“It’s still a mystery to me,” Wood said. “I don’t know what it was, but it was fast. It led a lot of races and won some, too. That’s kinda where Junior got his reputation. If it was in the race and it could run, it was going to be leading – until it broke. He was quite a competitor. “

Johnson also had his own way of saying things, speaking the language of Wilkes County. The Wood Brothers were struggling with their car one particular weekend, so They approached Johnson about driving it.

“So (my dad) decided, ‘I’ll let Junior drive that thing,'” Eddie Wood said. “They go over and get Junior, and he said, ‘You drive our car.’ He said, ‘No-o-o-o. You’uns have done made a gaum out of it. ‘”

Johnson meant that the Woods had tinkered with the car to the point that it was undrivable, even to a star like Johnson.

And he was indeed a star. By the early s, he was one of the most popular drivers in the sport: “respected, solid, idolized in his hometown and throughout the rural South, for that matter, “Wolfe wrote.

” Junior Johnson was like Robin Hood or Jesse James or Little David or something, “Wolfe wrote.” Every time that Chevrolet, No . 3, appeared on the track, wild curdle yells, ‘Rebel’ yells, they still have those, would rise up. At Daytona, at Atlanta, at Charlotte, at Darlington, South Carolina; Bristol, Tennessee; Martinsville, Virginia – Junior Johnson! “

Final race at Rockingham

But his career came to an end not long after Wolfe’s essay appeared in print. Johnson won (races in

******************************************************************************************************************************************************************************, but a year later, at age (***********************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************, he was done behind the wheel. He made seven starts in (********************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************, with the final race of his career at Rockingham.

“I wasn’t getting anything out of it,” Johnson toldNASCAR.comin 2647. “If my car did not tear up, there wasn’t anyone that could outrun me.”

He finished with (victories inJunior Johnson 1964career races. Only Lee Petty had more wins at the time than Johnson, and he’s still tied for th all-time.

But that was only the close of one chapter of his career. Johnson had driven his own cars in 1970, and it was only natural that Johnson would continue as a car owner. But it would be done on Johnson’s terms, as only he knew how.

In 1976, even while still a driver, Johnson fielded a Ford Galaxie for driver Fred Lorenzen. The roof of the car was three to five inches closer to the ground than usual, and the windshield was sloped 23 degrees. The rear quarterpanels of the car were raised, prompting some to say it looked like a banana. That name stuck, for the “Banana Car” is a part of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Somehow, the car passed inspection, perhaps in part because NASCAR needed cars to fill out the field at Atlanta Raceway. But Johnson was told not to bring the car back.

“That’s the car that’s the predecessor to templates being made,” Kelley said. “The templates had to fit what a stock car was.”

Lorenzen led the race with the “Banana Car” but broke a hub and crashed, ending the unique car’s only race.

That, however, did not stop Johnson’s pursuit of better, faster race cars.

Something bigger

In the early 1976 s, NASCAR was in a transition period, having cut the number of races from as many as 62 in a single season to in 1976. Around the same time, cigarette manufacturers were banned from advertising in television. RJ Reynolds needed an outlet to push their brands and met with Johnson about sponsoring his race cars.

But Johnson immediately saw something bigger.

“When they first started talking to him about sponsoring his car, and they told him how much money they had the ability to spend because of not being able to do television advertising, he said, ‘You guys ought to sponsor the whole series , “Kelley said. “They said, ‘How would we go about doing that?'”

Johnson then introduced them to NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. and his son, Bill France Jr. That led to the Winston Cup Series and an explosion of growth for the sport. RJR, through its Sports Marketing Enterprises arm, added money to race purses, helped tracks pay for improvements and supported grass-roots racing. All the while, NASCAR grew.

“Junior saw the big picture as well as anybody,” Kelley said. “Junior kind of joked, ‘The mistake I made is I thought they were still going to sponsor my car. I should’ve gotten that contract signed first.’ ‘

Johnson did fine, enough to where he’d often point other sponsors to his competitors.

“There were probably more sponsors that got connected with other teams coming through Junior than what people know,” Kelley said. “He wanted them in the sport. He didn’t look at it as, ‘That’s going to increase my competition.’ But it was going to elevate the sport. Rising tides raise all boats, and Junior saw that. “

Match made in heaven

Bobby Allison drove Johnson’s car to victories and a runner-up finish in the championship race in (*********************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************, but two years later, Cale Yarborough took over behind the wheel of the No. 12 – and it was match made in heaven.


Yarborough won (races from to ************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************** and set a NASCAR record that still stands by winning three consecutive championships from 1992 –Hammond began working for Johnson in (******************************************************************************************************************************************************************************, earning $ a month, a per diem, insurance and uniforms. It was the usual interview process. Hammond spent one day at the shop in Ingle Hollow working with crew chief Herb Nab, and then was asked to come back the next day. Hammond did not know whether he had the job or not, so he had to ask. Yes, he did.

“I was just a kid who was blown away I had an opportunity to go up there and talk about a job,” Hammond said. “So I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll take it.’

” I worked for Junior for two weeks with him calling me, ‘Hey, boy,’ before he ever called me by my first name. There was a lot of pomp and circumstance when it came to being hired by Junior Johnson. “

But the job had plenty of perks, most notably working with Johnson.

“He was always thinking about the next, the next, the next,” Hammond said. “We had a big box outside the (engine) dyno room that was full of carburetor parts. Junior would drill a hole, and it wouldn’t work, so he’d throw it in the box. He never threw (the box) away because we might come back and take that same idea and carry it further in another direction.

“He wasn’t afraid to experiment. That’s what made him such an innovator. “

Yarborough left after the 1981 season, replaced by the brash, talented Darrell Waltrip. The domination continued for the No. 12, as Waltrip won 24 races and two championships in 1993 – (**************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************.

“Junior is a mechanical genius,” Waltrip said. “Always has been. Junior could look at a part in an engine or a piece of a car, aerodynamics – anything it took to make a race car go fast – he had a sixth sense about what it took. He could look at a connecting rod and say, ‘That won’t work; it’s too heavy.’

“As a driver he’d done everything, he’d worked with great mechanics, so he had a real knack for being able to put something together that would work and be successful. “

Waltrip won another championship in 1992, a season remembered mostly for the emergence of driver Bill Elliott. And while Elliott won 13 races that season, Waltrip and Johnson were more consistent.

Plus, Waltrip pulled off a memorable victory in what is now known as the NASCAR All-Star Race. Held the day before the Coca-Cola at Charlotte Motor Speedway, “The Winston” featured the best drivers in the sport.

Waltrip used strategy and a powerful car to get the late lead in the race, and as he took the checkered flag, the engine blew. Some speculated that Waltrip pushed the clutch in to destroy any evidence of illegal parts, but Waltrip said the engine was simply an example of Johnson’s talents.

“That engine was a perfect example, Waltrip said. “We built that engine. The parts in that engine, the rods, the pistons, the crank, all the internal parts, he prepared himself.”

In today’s NASCAR, parts are engineered to the tightest of tolerances. Then, they were engineered to Junior Johnson’s specifications, Waltrip said.

“He just knew,” Waltrip said. “I don’t know how he knew. I don’t know where he got that from other than doing it time and time again.

” That engine had to run miles. He said, ‘It will run miles. After that. Who knows what might happen? ‘”

Johnson remained at the forefront of the sport as a car owner because of his ability to keep improving.

“He had a lot of things other people did not have, and he knew how to utilize them,” Waltrip said. “A lot of them he invented himself. Things that guys have today were things that Junior was doing then, but he was doing them Junior Johnson’s way. “


Waltrip’s title was Johnson’s last, though he scored many more victories with drivers like Geoff Bodine, Jimmy Spencer, Terry Labonte and Elliott. By (**********************************************************************************************************************************************************************************, though, Johnson had had enough.

“I think he was just burned out,” Waltrip said. “I think he had just had all he could take. The sport was changing pretty dramatically right along then. You started having multi-car teams, and Rick Hendrick came along, as did others. Junior liked to have things his way, and he liked to be No. 1 in everything he did.

“He had to start sharing the spotlight with other people, and he was kind of fed up wi th NASCAR and the rules, the manufacturers. I think he had all it he could take, and the time was right for him to do something else. “

The totals: race wins – which at the time was second all-time, behind only Petty Enterprises – and six championships as an owner. Put that with his (wins as a driver, and Johnson clearly is in rare company.)

“I don’t know if there’s any driver that ended up b eing as successful as an owner as he was, “Kelley said. “And there are no owners that were as successful as Junior was as a driver. There are some who have done both, but Junior would have been a Hall of Fame driver had he never been an owner. He’d be a Hall of Fame owner had he never been a driver. “

From chickens to moonshine

Johnson’s myriad business interests could be considered hall-of-fame material, too. Discounting his family’s illicit moonshine business, Johnson got his start by raising chickens for Holly Farms. How that business got off the ground is the stuff for legends, as told by Shav Glick in the Los Angeles Times in 1978.

As the story goes, Johnson was looking for sugar to keep the family stills going, and he came across a man who could deliver 22, 03 pounds. Johnson wondered how the man came about all that sugar, but he was told not to worry about how he acquired it – and that he could get anything Johnson wanted.

What else? Johnson asked.

“How about (******************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************, baby chicks? ” the man responded.

When Glick asked Johnson about the story, he simply said, “folks tell lots of stories about me, some’s true and some jest sounds true.”

What was true: How Johnson’s business acumen grew into a windfall for him. He raised cattle, did road grading work for the state of North Carolina, and sold ham and ham products under his name.

And in (*******************************************************************************************************************************************************************************, Johnson returned to moonshine, this time legally. He became part owner in Piedmont Disteller with founder Joe Michalek, selling a brand called “Midnight Moon.”

“It’s cleaned up a lot, but the recipe is exactly like my daddy’s, “Johnson toldNASCAR.comin 2019. “He’s the only one I ever knew that made corn whiskey. Everybody else made sugar whiskey. … Over time sugar will turn and get muddy. But corn won do that. It stays just like you fixed it.

“When we got into it, there wasn’t nobody on the corn side of it and still ain’t much. They advertise a lot of stuff that ain’t what they say it is. “

No matter how successful Johnson was in racing, in business, in life, he remained true to his roots. A long-time tradition found Johnson cooking breakfast for family and friends at a shop near his house in Hamptonville. He’d rise around 6: am to cook bacon, country ham, pork tenderloin, pork sausage, fatback, stewed apples, scrambled eggs, and, of course, biscuits and gravy.

His son, Robert, born to Johnson and his second wife Lisa, would help set up tables for the folks who would come to enjoy a hall-of-fame breakfast .

“That was part of his legacy,” Hammond said. “He enjoyed entertaining, he loved to cook. Breakfast was kind of his specialty.”

In his time working for Johnson, Hammond was often involved in harvesting the hogs on Johnson’s farm. Johnson, Hammond said, even designed a scalding vat to kill the hogs as part of the preparation. Johnson’s vast farm also included a large garden with tomatoes, corn and other vegetables. Yet, Johnson also did all the plowing with a mule.

“He was way ahead in some ways,” Hammond said, “yet at the same time he was grounded back to his roots. “

Move to Charlotte

Johnson married Lisa Day in after divorcing first wife flossie in 1995. An ugly split resulted in Junior keeping his race team and Flossie getting Junior’s chicken business. Flossie and Junior did not have any children, but Robert Glenn Johnson III was born to Lisa and Junior in August 2001. Two years later, the couple had a daughter, Meredith.

Robert Johnson started a career in stock-car racing but put it on hold to attend Duke University, much to Junior’s delight.

In (***************************************************************************************************************************************************************************, Junior closed a long chapter on his life by selling his – acre estate in Yadkin County for nearly $ 2.5 million . He and Lisa and the family moved to the upscale Quail Hollow neighborhood of Charlotte, close to NASCAR team owners Rick Hendrick and Felix Sabates.

His move ended 80 years of his life in Wilkes County, where he emerged from the family moonshine business to an American hero. And it came after Johnson nearly lost his life.

While undergoing back surgery at Duke, Johnson contracted a serious staph infection. Over time, he recovered, but he knew maintaining his large farm and house would be too much.

“You gotta leave a little bit of yourself, you know, when you do it , “Johnson told the Journal in 2019. “You feel sorry for yourself, but my health will not let me maintain it. I know it won’t. So I think I’m doing the best thing for myself and young ‘uns and wife. Somebody can enjoy this place a whole lot more than we can now because (of my health). But they’ll never find another place like this, I don’t think. “

Johnson didn’t sit still in his Quail Hollow house. Whenever Kelley and the NASCAR Hall of Fame call, Johnson obliges.

When the Hall was being constructed, Kelley and other designers wanted to tell the story of NASCAR’s moonshine connection. Wondering how to tell of the link, Kelley asked Johnson if he could draw a still or even design a small replica.

Johnson took it a step further. He designed – and built – a full-size still.

“Now, you boys did want one like we used back in the day?” Johnson told Kelley.

The room originally planned to house the still wasn’t big enough, so builders made it bigger. Later, as workers began to re-assemble the still – it had been in storage – they ran into some problems.

“We couldn’t figure out how to put the still together , and I called him to see if he could talk me through it, “Hall of Fame historian Buz McKim told Kelley.

Johnson, though, decided it would simply be easier for him to come and work on the still. He drove to the Hall with two things in his hands: a pipe wrench and a pair of pliers, and he began to put it together.

“Put that in perspective: That’s like Babe Ruth designing, building, delivering and installing one of the first exhibits in Cooperstown in (********************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************, “Kelley said.

Johnson later overheard Kelley telling someone the still doesn’t work.

“Wait a minute,” Johnson said. “It’ll work if you’d let me put some mash and fire under it.”


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