Tom Wolfe memorialized him as âThe Last American Heroâ in the pages of Esquire, Jeff Bridges played him in a movie version of the Wolfe story, and Bruce Springsteen sang about him in âCadillac Ranch.â Sports Illustrated extolled him as the best racecar driver ever. President Ronald Reagan pardoned him for a long-ago moonshining conviction.
Mr. Johnson, who learned to manhandle a car while outrunning federal officers and used that skill to win 50 NASCAR races, died Dec. 20 while in hospice care in Charlotte, according to a ÂNASCAR spokesperson. He was 88. Information about the cause of death was not immediately available.
Long a legend among moonshiners and racing aficionados in the North Carolina hills, Mr. Johnson entered the larger public consciousness thanks to Wolfeâs 1965 magazine story, which ranks among the greatest profiles in 20th-century journalism. Wolfe created a legend around Mr. Johnson that happened to be true: a lawbreaking, rough-and-tumble racer who became rich and famous because of his courage behind the wheel. Mr. Johnsonâs life after the article appeared only burnished the legend.
Mr. Johnson was 14 when he started hauling liquor for his fatherâs moonshining operation. Wolfe wrote: âIt was Junior Johnson specifically, however, who was famous for the âbootleg turnâ or âabout-face,â in which, if the Alcohol Tax agents had a roadblock up for you or were too close behind, you threw the car up into second gear, cocked the wheel, stepped on the accelerator and made the carâs 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.â
Mr. Johnson entered his first NASCAR-sanctioned race in 1953. He became known as a driver who would come home with either a trophy for winning the race or the steering wheel with nothing else remaining of the car because he wrecked it in pursuit of the trophy.
In 1960, in the second Daytona 500, Mr. Johnson discovered the draft â the aerodynamic phenomenon in which two cars become faster when a trail car tucks behind a lead car. Using that little-known trick, Mr. Johnson won the race, the biggest of his career, despite the fact that his car, a 1959 Chevy, was 15 mph slower than the best cars in the field.
Mr. Johnson won 50 races in 313 starts at NASCARâs top level before retiring from driving at 35. Bored of making endless left turns, he became owner of his own race team. In one 10-year span, Mr. Johnsonâs teams won six championships â three straight by Cale Yarborough (1976-1978) and three by Darrell Waltrip (1981, 1982 and 1985). Nine future NASCAR Hall of Famers drove for him.
Mr. Johnson had only an eighth-grade education, but he proved to be a successful businessman and was one of ÂNASCARâs most innovative engineers. âHe would have a PhD in mechanical wizardry if there was such a thing,â said Winston Kelley, executive director of the ÂNASCAR Hall of Fame.
Mr. Johnson hid some of his discoveries even from his own employees: He would return to his engine shop at night, after everybody else had left, to make alterations. He was worried that when his employees left to work for a competing team, they would take his ideas with them.
âIn todayâs world, you would call that a control freak,â Kelley said. âBut he was smart enough to know that if he didnât control it, it was to his detriment.â
Mr. Johnson exploited loopholes in the NASCAR rule book, finding gray areas where others, NASCAR officials in particular, saw black and white. Whether he was cheating or âcreating,â as he put it, depended on whether you were his fan.
In 1966, Mr. Johnson built a car dubbed âthe yellow banana.â It had alterations to the hood, nose, windshield and quarter panels. FoxSports.com called it âthe most outrageous, bodacious and flagrantly illegal car to ever compete in a NASCAR event.â
NASCAR officials were not amused. âThey said, âYou canât race that. Thatâs not legal. Itâs not a stock car,âââ Kelley said.
A defiant Mr. Johnson demanded that those officials point out the rules the car violated. They couldnât.
The next season, NASCAR established exacting standards, or templates, for competition, in part because of Mr. Johnson.
Robert Glenn Johnson Jr. was born in Ingle Hollow, near Ronda, N.C., on June 28, 1931. He was the fourth of seven children in a family of moonshiners. In 1935, federal agents raided the Johnson home in what is often reported as âthe largest inland seizure of illegal whiskey ever made in America.â
âWe slept on some of the cases,â Mr. Johnson told Sports Illustrated, adding that his father âwouldnât put it outside where somebody could steal it. He had the upstairs plumb full of whiskey. All except the kitchen and the dining room was full of whiskey. [The police] came in and toted it out in the yard and busted it up.
âUpstairs they put some planks on the steps, and theyâd just slide it down,â he continued. âMe and my brother â I was about 5, he was about 6 â when theyâd put those cases on the slide, weâd jump on top and ride âem to the bottom. And they got to cussinâ us, âYou damn youngâuns get out of here.â Weâd cuss them back, âItâs our house, you get out.âââ
Mr. Johnson was arrested in 1956; he had gone out to his fatherâs still on foot, unaware that agents had it staked out. The revenuers couldnât catch him in a car â he learned to drive at 8 â but he could not outrun them on foot. He was sentenced to two years in prison on moonshine and bootlegging charges.
Mr. Johnson served 11 months in a federal reformatory in Chillicothe, Ohio â time away that he called a turning point in his life. âI learned a lot of discipline and to listen to people and evaluate their ideas and stuff. I didnât do that before I went there,â he told Sporting News. Reagan granted him a full and unconditional pardon in 1986.
In 1970, President Richard M. Nixon signed a law banning cigarette advertising on television and radio. Late that year, Mr. Johnson was looking for a sponsor for his race team. Knowing the ad ban would free up money from tobacco companies, he sought a meeting with officials from R.J. Reynolds, the cigarette maker in Winston-Salem, N.C., in early 1971.
Mr. Johnson made his pitch. In exchange for putting the companyâs Winston brand name on the side of his car, he wanted $850,000. Winston officials laughed at him. For a second, he thought he had asked for too much. Then they told him they had $570Â million to spend.
Stunned at the number, Mr. Johnson suggested the company call NASCARâs founder and president, Bill France. The whole sport could be sponsored for that much money, he thought. Winston became the title sponsor of ÂNASCARâs top series in 1972, which is now known as the start of NASCARâs modern era. With the money Winston poured into ÂNASCAR, the tracks got better, the purses got bigger, and the sport took on a new sheen of respectability.
A brief first marriage to Mary Jane Grey ended in divorce. His second marriage, to Flossie Clark, ended in divorce in 1992. That same year, he married Lisa Day, with whom he had two children, Robert Johnson III and Meredith Johnson, who survive him.
Mr. Johnson sold his team in 1995 and retired from racing. In 2007, he became part owner of Piedmont Distillers, which produces Midnight Moon, a legal moonshine based on the recipe of Mr. Johnsonâs father.
When NASCAR opened its Hall of Fame in 2010, Mr. Johnson was one of five people inducted in the first class. As part of the Hall of Fameâs opening, he built a moonshine still as an exhibit. It would have worked had he fired it up.