50 Greatest Drivers, Bill Elliott, bootleg distillery, bootleg turn, Cale Yarborough, car racing, Charlotte, Darel Dieringer, Darrell Waltrip, Daytona 500, Dick Hutcherson, drafting, driver, farm, Geoffrey Bodine, Hall of Fame, illicit whiskey, Jimmy Spencer, Junior Johnson, Junior Johnson Highway, LeeRoy Yarbrough, Midnight Moon, moonshine, NASCAR, Ned Jarrett, Neil Bonnett, North Carolina, owner, Piedmont Distillers, presidential pardon, prison, R. J. Reynolds, Richard Childress, Robert Glenn Johnson Jr., shoulder harness, slipstream, Sprint Cup, Sterling Marlin, Suncrest Farms Country Hams, Terry Labonte, The Last American Hero, Tom Wolfe, whiskey, Wilkes County, Winston Cup
(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)
Junior Johnson was a highly skilled driver long before his NASCAR days. Born on 28 June 1931 in Wilkes County, North Carolina, Robert Glenn Johnson Jr. could drive by 8 or 9 years of age. By 14, he was running his father’s moonshine, or illicitly distilled corn whiskey, to customers. He always eluded local police with his speed and skills on the network of dirt roads in the region, never venturing onto the bitumen. Johnson invented what became known as the ‘bootleg turn’. He put his car into second gear and spun the steering wheel to the left, skidding his car through 180 degrees, rapidly setting off the other way before authorities could catch him. At roadblocks set up to try and stop him, he used sirens and lights to trick police into letting him through.
By the early 1950s, he decided to use his driving ability to compete in auto races. His years of experience racing and dodging the police on mountain roads greatly assisted him fly round the sloping speedway tracks with precision. Johnson became a full-time NASCAR driver in 1955. He quickly enjoyed considerable success, winning five races and finishing in the top ten 18 times in that year, coming sixth in the NASCAR championship. In between racing, he still occasionally worked at the bootleg distillery of his father. Tax authorities arrested him there in 1956 and he was jailed for moonshining for two years, but he was a model prisoner and got out after 11 months. Thirty years later, he would receive a presidential pardon from Ronald Reagan for his conviction.
Johnson was back racing in 1958, winning six races, and another five in 1959, enhancing his reputation as an excellent short-track racer. He won the Daytona 500 in 1960. In practice sessions before the race, he realized his car was slower than many of the others, and thought of a way round this. He again put his inventive skills to good use. In one of the trial runs, he got behind one of the quicker cars and was able to glide along in its slipstream at a greater speed than otherwise, with the action reducing drag and fuel consumption. Near the end, he quickly came out from behind the other car in a slingshot move and got past it. He repeated this in the main race and won. This method became known as ‘drafting’ and was soon commonplace not only at NASCAR events but races around the world.
He went on to win 50 of his 313 races, also scoring 46 pole positions, 121 top five finishes and 148 in the top 10, before retiring in 1966 at the relatively young age of 34. He won 13 times in his last full year in 1965. In terms of championship points, he was in the top 10 on four occasions, and in the final 20 a total of nine times, including eight years in a row from 1958 to 1965. Johnson won more races than anyone else who didn’t win a NASCAR championship. He did, however, lead the way in 1961 in terms of laps led with 2,373 and races led with 23, and again in 1965, leading in 3,998 laps and 30 races. Ned Jarrett, who was champion twice, rated Johnson as one of the best two drivers on dirt, along with Dick Hutcherson.
Junior Johnson became a successful owner after retiring from driving. He worked with drivers such as Geoffrey Bodine, Neil Bonnett, Richard Childress, Darel Dieringer, Bill Elliott, Terry Labonte, Sterling Marlin, Jimmy Spencer, Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough, and LeeRoy Yarbrough. He won 139 races as an owner, all-time third behind Petty Enterprises with 282 wins and Hendrick Motorsports with 242 wins. Two of his drivers, Yarborough and Waltrip, each won the Winston Cup Championship (now the Sprint Cup) three times. His team won over $22 million. His driving days came before the big prize money on offer in more recent times, winning less than $300,000.
His other achievements in racing are many. In 1998, he was included in a list of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers. He joined the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1990 and the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1991, and will become a NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee on 23 May 2010. In 1955, when Johnson came sixth in the championship, the top five had all been racing for years, but there was no ‘Rookie of the Year’ in those days, so Johnson missed out on that award. He was a pioneer in the use of two-way radios between pit crew and driver in about 1960. He also developed the shoulder harness around this time. Junior was one of the first to secure sponsorships for his cars, and played a leading role in getting R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company to sponsor NASCAR; the Sprint Cup was called the Winston Cup from 1971 to 2003.
A 1965 article about Johnson called ‘Great Balls of Fire’ by writer Tom Wolfe was published in Esquire and elsewhere. It was turned into a movie, ‘The Last American Hero’, in 1973, covering Johnson’s life as moonshiner and driver. In 2004, about eight miles of Highway 421 running through Wilkes County was called Junior Johnson Highway by the state Department of Transportation. Ironically, this is in the same area Johnson left authorities in his wake several decades earlier.
In recent years, he has turned his entrepreneurial skills to several areas outside the race track. In 2007, Johnson helped market a moonshine product, Midnight Moon, for Piedmont Distillers in North Carolina, the state’s only legal distiller. He has since become part owner of the business. Midnight Moon is 80-proof and described by Johnson in an interview in 2007 as “the best shine ever … Smoother than vodka. Better than whiskey”. He has also put his name to a selection of hams produced by Suncrest Farms Country Hams. Today, he enjoys life on his 150 acre farm where he runs cattle, and can still be seen occasionally at races doing interviews and providing advice. Update: he sold his farm in 2012 and moved to Charlotte, North Carolina.