Dec. 20 (UPI) — Robert Glenn “Junior” Johnson, the North Carolina moonshine runner who turned into a NASCAR Hall of Famer, died at age 88, NASCAR announced Friday.
NASCAR said in a statement that Johnson “had been in declining health and entered hospice care earlier this week.”
“Junior Johnson truly was the ‘Last American Hero,'” NASCAR chairman and CEO Jim France said in a statement Friday. “From his early days running moonshine through the end of his life, Junior wholly embodied the NASCAR spirit. He was an inaugural NASCAR Hall of Famer, a nod to an extraordinary career as both a driver and team owner.
“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.”
Johnson was enshrined in NASCAR’s Hall of Fame in 2010 as part of its inaugural class. He won 50 races as a driver and 132 races and six championships as a car owner in NASCAR’s Cup Series.
Before rising to stardom in the sport, Johnson worked at his father’s still and ran moonshine in then-rural Wilkes County, North Carolina. After Johnson was found working there, he served 11 months of a two-year sentence after his 1956 federal conviction for manufacturing non-tax-paid whiskey.
Johnson received a full and unconditional pardon from President Ronald Reagan in 1986 for his moonshining conviction. He later earned the title of “The Last American Hero” after Tom Wolfe‘s iconic profile of him for the March 1965 issue of Esquire.
Johnson retired after the 1966 season and remained active as a car owner in the sport. He won three straight championships with driver Cale Yarborough from 1976-78 and three additional championships with Darrell Waltrip in 1981-82 and 1985.
Johnson stepped away from the ownership ranks following the 1995 season.