Junior Johnson: the true soul of NASCAR

Published 5:03 pm Friday, December 27, 2019

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I think every racing writer in America has a favorite Junior Johnson story.

I’ve got several, but most of them I won’t put down on this page. There’s not enough time.

It’s not because one of the greatest legends of NASCAR racing – an original Hall-of-Famer who died Dec. 20 after an illness – wasn’t a rascal (he was), but because there are just some stories you grow with time.

I guess that’s why they call them legends.

Johnson was a hard-nosed race driver, an innovative mechanic, and a crafty team owner.

He was a simple man who made moonshine long after they sent him to prison for it. And he was a racer long after he stopped racing, even after he no longer owned cars. He was just sort of always around a track.

The race drivers whose backsides found themselves seated behind the steering wheel of Johnson’s cars had names like Yarborough and Yarbrough (one ‘O’!), Waltrip, Labonte, and Bodine.

He was one of the first owners to run two cars every season: Bonnett and Waltrip, Bodine and Marlin, Stricklin and Elliott; they lined up to crawl thru the window, start the engine, and race for him.

In an Esquire magazine profile written in the 60’s, writer Tom Wolfe called Johnson ‘The Last American Hero’.

“That always told me a lot about Junior Johnson,” said one of his champion drivers, Darrell Waltrip. “Junior wasn’t a follower, he was a leader.”

There was the time of my own first Daytona, February 1981, when his driver Cale Yarborough had the win locked up, but tangled with Donnie Allison on the white-flag lap and allowed Richard Petty to win his last Daytona 500.

There was the time I witnessed Johnson under the hood of one of his race cars at Rockingham. He shrouded himself in a huge tarp so nobody could see what he was tinkering with on his engine. Funny, it wasn’t even raining!

There was the story of how a race car owner once asked Johnson if he could just take a short, quick peek under the hood at one of Johnson’s race engines – a look at it, that’s all. Junior is said to have quickly agreed.

“Sure, you can,” the wily old ex-racer replied. “If you give me one million dollars. Gimme that and you can look all you want.”

Speaking of racing, Johnson won 50 times in 313 races. That’s the second-most all-time when he retired from racing in 1966. In fact, that total is still tied for 11th all-time.

As a car owner, Johnson put driver Cale Yarborough in his cars and won 45 races and a NASCAR-record three consecutive championships. With Waltrip, he even put together back-to-back 12 win seasons.

The stuff he did in his lifetime transcends time itself. From running moonshine through the Carolina foothills to raising chickens (remember Holly Farms?); and that doesn’t even include his racing accolades.

But he was a perfect example of a man from Wilkes County, from a speck of a place in a fold of land called Ingle Hollow.

His wife, Flossie, used to bring a basket of fried chicken (what else!?!) to Darlington and share it with the media folks on top of infield tower. That was good chicken, too.

He and Flossie later divorced. He kept the race teams; Flossie got the chicken farm.

Johnson remarried and lived outside the public view, raising kids and grandkids in Winston-Salem, showing up at tracks in khakis and button-down shirts, just as he’d shown up in Daytona a few years ago selling legal moonshine.

He used to gather with former moonshine drivers at the “Moonshiner and Revenuers Reunion” at the Benny Parsons Old Homeplace near North Wilkesboro at Rendezvous Ridge.

As for his own ‘joy juice’, later in life he put his name on the legal stuff: ‘Junior Johnson’s Midnight Moon and Carolina Moonshine, both distilled by Piedmont Distillers out of Rockingham County.

According to the company, the liquors follow the Johnson family’s generations-old tradition of making moonshine. Each batch is created in a copper still and is crafted in small batches. The 80 proof Midnight Moon is made from American corn and is triple-distilled.

Legendary whiskey.

But I guess that’s the way it is with legends. They may be missed, but they’ll never be forgotten.

Gene Motley is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at gene.motley@r-cnews.com or by calling 252-332-7211.