NASCAR champion driver and team owner Robert Glenn Johnson, Jr. â aka Junior Johnson â was the lead-footed, lightnin’ fast son of a North Carolina bootlegger whose talents for the gritty hairpin turn and relentless drive for speed and dominance has died in the North Carolina hills from which he sprang, aged a robust 88. He had more wins as a driver and owner than he could care to count, and along with the Frances, Sr. and Jr., Dale Earnhardt Sr., Richard Petty, and a handful of other good ol’ boys, he was there at the beginnings of NASCAR, as lovingly chronicled by the almost-as-legendary Southern journalist Tom Wolfe.
As he began his rocket-like career trajectory in the postwar South, Johnson, following resolutely in the footsteps of his whiskey-running father, had no day job. Bootlegging was, rather, a night job, and actually racing the cars for prize money had not yet become what we might call a legitimate daytime gig. There were times when he would do a load of whiskey and then race. NASCAR was not yet born â in their off hours, the whiskey-runners would simply race each other to stay sharp and well out in front of the “revenoo-ers,” aka, the many different iterations of whiskey-tax-obsessed law enforcement.
As unlikely as the beginnings of the sport were, Johnson excelled at it. His robust character and gritty, hard-bitten driving style appealed to thousands, first in his native South, then to millions across the country. The driving and the daring expertise at making souped-up stock cars perform at the very highest levels became the entertainment, and the financial point, not the whiskey-running. âThe good whiskey runners were kind of cocky about it, like good race drivers,â Johnson famously said to the AP during his winning years as an owner. âI guess I was pretty cocky.â
To watch Johnson, Petty, Earnhardt invent the sport was exhilirating, as Virginian Tom Wolfe well knew, so that, by the time Wolfe arrived to profile Johnson and the others in the 1980s, with his book that would catapult Johnson literally into sports history, Johnson was in his late heyday as a driver and would soon become a team owner. At which he also excelled.
It helped tremendously to grow the sport that stock cars were, in fact, “stock,” meaning that they were recognizable â if more than a little slicked-up â versions of what was being driven on literally every American street. The machinery of the sport was within reach of the common man. Not least, in the NASCAR of the 1960s, there were no inexplicable Euro-disco-boys such as Flavio Briatore and no inscrutable Englishmen such as Bernie Ecclestone as there were, and are, over in F1. Instead, the charmingly real, unvarnished Southern-ness of Johnson, Petty, and Earnhardt made them more approachably American.
These were the rangy, plain-spoken men of the agrarian American South, clearly born to be on the race track. Johnson was one of the best. With dry-as-a-bone backwoods humor, and a laconic, razor-sharp talent that kicked in best as the red needle nosed up over a hundred, he sang his song in speed.