Junior Johnson, “The Last American Hero”

Robert Glenn Johnson Jr., better known as Junior Johnson, passed away on December 20, 2019 aged 88.

Junior drove in NASCAR during the 1950s and 1960s, won 50 NASCAR races in his career before retiring in 1966. In the 1970s and 1980s, he became a NASCAR racing team owner; he sponsored such NASCAR champions as Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip.

He is credited as the first to use the drafting technique in stock car racing. He was nicknamed “The Last American Hero” and his autobiography is of the same name. In May 2007, Johnson teamed with Piedmont Distillers of Madison, North Carolina, to introduce the company’s second moonshine product, called “Midnight Moon Moonshine”.

Johnson, born Robert Glenn Johnson, Jr.,  in 1931, learned to drive from the age of eight by transporting bootleg whiskey from his father’s copper still near North Wilkesboro, North Carolina.

The region had a reputation as ‘Moonshine County’ where, at the dead of night, back roads echoed to the rasp of engines tuned to outrun police.

Johnson’s talent and speed became legendary amongst the bootleggers. He was said to have never been caught behind the wheel, thanks to manoeuvres like the “bootleg turn”, which helped him to dodge roadblocks, and which was outlined by Wolfe in Esquire.

“You threw the car into second gear, cocked the wheel, stepped on the accelerator and made the car’s rear end skid around in a complete 180-degree arc, a complete about-face, and tore on back up the road exactly the way you came from. God! The Alcohol Tax agents used to burn over Junior Johnson.”

His racing debut came by chance at the age of 24: a shortage of competitors at the nearby North Wilkesboro Speedway prompted a call for local drivers to enter the stock car race. And so, driving a 1939 Ford, Johnson took the start. He finished second.

He gradually moved to the national leagues, winning his first top-division race in 1955; his progress only temporarily halted by an inconvenient spell in prison after he was caught at his father’s still – a crime for which he was later pardoned by President Ronald Reagan.

The 1959 season brought a no-holds-barred door-banging duel with Lee Petty and the following year, his Daytona 500 win.

Johnson and his Chevrolet looked set to be the supporting cast to the faster Pontiacs until Johnson pulled behind one of the quicker cars on a curve during a practice session. To his surprise, he found that he was keeping up with the faster car as they accelerated onto the straight.

“As long as I stayed right in behind him, I noticed I picked up speed and stayed right with him and my car was going faster than it had ever gone before,” he told Wolfe. “I could tell on the tachometer. My car wasn’t turning no more than 6000 before, but when I got into this drafting position, I was turning 6800 to 7000. It felt like the car was plumb off the ground, floating along.”

Deploying this newfound knowledge immediately, Johnson drafted his way to victory.

He continued racking up wins and breaking lap records by pushing the limit, taking bigger risks than rivals, and never shying from a battle. However, he was never a serious contender for the championship, suffering frequent mechanical issues.

“I’d rather lead one lap and fall out of the race than stroke it and finish in the money,” Johnson told Wolfe.

When Chevrolet pulled out of racing in 1963, he went it alone. Despite having to source his own parts, he still recorded wins against factory teams.

At the end of 1965, Johnson announced that he would be ending his racing career the following year. “Racing has been good to me,” he told the Associated Press. “I want to make it clear that I am not quitting because I am too old to drive or am afraid of high-speed racing. I have accomplished about everything I had hoped to as a driver. Now I want to relax and enjoy life, but still be connected with the sport in a supervisory capacity.”

As a team owner, Johnson won three championships with Carl Yarborough and a further three with Darrell Waltrip. He also helped to broker the series’ Winston sponsorship deal in the 1970s.

“He was an inaugural NASCAR Hall of Famer, a nod to an extraordinary career as both a driver and team owner, said NASCAR’s CEO, Jim France. “Between his on-track accomplishments and his introduction of Winston to the sport, few have contributed to the success of NASCAR as Junior has. The entire NASCAR family is saddened by the loss of a true giant of our sport, and we offer our deepest condolences to Junior’s family and friends during this difficult time.”

Junior Johnson talk about his 1963 Chevrolet Impala SS