Thursday, June 28, 2018

"The Last American Hero" Junior Johnson Born - June 28, 1931

June 28, 1931 
Robert Glenn Johnson, Jr
(Photo: Junior Johnson Pocono 1986 Photo by Ted Van Pelt )
Born in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, USA.
Better known as Junior Johnson, he is one of the early superstars of NASCAR. In his career, he claimed 50 victories as a driver, and 11 of these wins were at major speedway races. He retired as the winningest driver never to have a championship. Johnson was a master of dirt track racing. "The two best drivers I've ever competed against on dirt are Junior Johnson and Dick Hutcherson," said two-time NASCAR champion Ned Jarrett.

His father, a lifelong bootlegger, spent nearly twenty of his sixty-three years in prison, as their house was frequently raided by revenue agents. Junior spent one year in prison in Ohio for having an illegal still, although he was never caught in his many years of transporting bootleg liquor at high speed. On December 26, 1986, President Ronald Reagan granted Johnson a presidential pardon for his 1956 moonshining conviction. In response to the pardon, which restored his right to vote, Johnson said, "I could not have imagined anything better."

In 1955, Johnson began his career as a NASCAR driver. In his first full season, he won five races and finished sixth in the 1955 NASCAR Grand National points standings.

In 1958 he won six races. In 1959, he won five more NASCAR Grand National races, including a win from the pole position at the 1959 Hickory 250. By this time he was regarded as one of the best short-track racers in the sport.

His first win at a "superspeedway" came at the Daytona 500 in 1960. Johnson and his crew chief Ray Fox were practicing for the race, trying to figure out how to increase their speed, which was 22 miles per hour slower than the top cars in the race. During a test run a faster car passed Johnson. He noticed that when he moved behind the faster car his own speed increased due to the faster car's slipstream. Johnson was then able to stay close behind the faster car until the final lap of the test run, when he used the "slipstream" effect to slingshot past the other car. By using this technique Johnson went on to win the 1960 Daytona 500, despite the fact that his car was slower than others in the field. Johnson's technique was quickly adopted by other drivers, and his practice of "drafting" has become a common tactic in NASCAR races.
(Photo: Fireball vs. Junior via photopin (license))
Fireball Roberts leads Junior Johnson at the 1961 Daytona 500.

In 1963 he had a two-lap lead in the World 600 at Charlotte before a spectator threw a bottle onto the track and caused Junior to crash. He retired in 1966.

In the 1970s and 1980s, he became a NASCAR racing team owner, working with some of the legendary drivers in NASCAR history, including Darel Dieringer, LeeRoy Yarbrough, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Darrell Waltrip, Neil Bonnett, Terry Labonte, Geoffrey Bodine, Sterling Marlin, Jimmy Spencer and Bill Elliott. In all, his drivers won 139 races, which is third to Petty Enterprises and Hendrick Motorsports. His drivers won six Winston Cup Championships, three with Yarborough (1976–1978) and Waltrip (1981–82, 1985).
(Photo: Cale Yarborough via photopin (license))

In the mid 1960s writer Tom Wolfe researched and wrote an article about Johnson, published March 1965 in Esquire, and reprinted in Wolfe's The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby. The article, originally entitled "Great Balls of Fire", turned Johnson into a national celebrity and led to fame beyond the circle of NASCAR fans. In turn, the article was made into a 1973 movie based on Johnson's career as a driver and moonshiner. The movie was entitled The Last American Hero. Jeff Bridges starred as the somewhat fictionalized version of Johnson, and Johnson himself served as technical advisor for the film. The movie was critically acclaimed and featured the Jim Croce hit song, "I Got A Name".

In 2004 he joined North Carolina greats Michael Jordan, Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty by having a stretch of highway named in his honor. His daughter Meredith sang the national anthem at the dedication of the highway. An 8.5-mile (13.7 km) stretch of U.S. Highway 421 from the Yadkin and Wilkes county line to the Windy Gap exit is named Junior Johnson Highway.

Johnson was named one of NASCAR's 50 Greatest Drivers in 1998. He was inducted in the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1991 and the NASCAR Hall of Fame on May 23, 2010.

In 2011, Johnson announced that he would restart a race team with son Robert as driver. Robert was the 2010 UARA Rookie of the Year.

He now produces a line of fried pork skins and country ham. In May 2007, Johnson teamed with Piedmont Distillers of Madison, North Carolina, to introduce the company's second moonshine product, called "Midnight Moon Moonshine". In May 2007, Johnson teamed with Piedmont Distillers of Madison, North Carolina, to introduce the company's second moonshine product, called Midnight Moon. Johnson became part owner of Piedmont Distillers, the only legal distiller in North Carolina at the time. Midnight Moon follows the Johnson family’s generations-old tradition of making moonshine, and is available in all 50 states. Every batch is born in an authentic, copper still and is handcrafted, in small batches. The 'shine is a legal version of his famous family recipe, and is available in 8 varieties that range from 70-100 proof. Junior describes his moonshine as "Smoother than vodka. Better than whiskey. Best shine ever."

Johnson resides in Charlotte, North Carolina. He is nicknamed "The Last American Hero" and his autobiography is of the same name.

1 comment:

  1. Junior did not crash in the 1963 World 600. He had a flat tire while leading causing him to finish second to Fred Lorenzen.