Editorâs Note: The following is a tribute to NASCAR legend and Southern icon Robert Glenn âJuniorâ Johnson, who passed away December 20 at the age of 88. The conclusion of the article features a Question & Answer article with Johnson that appeared in the Feb. 14, 2003 edition of The Mount Airy News. Memoirs of the interview for that article precede the actual news article from 2003.
As a newsman, you are never supposed to get lost in the moment. No matter how big the event or person is youâre covering, youâre supposed to always keep your composure and focus on whatâs going on in front of you.
That said, itâs not every day you get to interview a real-life folk legend. Itâs even rarer when you are invited to conduct the interview in that personâs home. For me, one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments came on a cold winter day nearly 17 years ago when I was invited to tag along with a co-worker, her husband and a friend to Junior Johnsonâs farm in Wilkes County.
The interview was for a racing tab my previous employers, The Mount Airy News, published each year prior to the Daytona 500. Normally, I probably would have never had a shot at getting this interview. However, it just so happened that my co-workers were good friends with someone who just happened to run moonshine with Johnson in his pre-racing days.
To say I was nervous would have been the understatement of the century. I mean, itâs not everyday you interview a person widely known as âThe Last American Hero.â For Godâs sake, this man was barely 40 years old when The Big Lebowski himself (Jeff Bridges) portrayed him in a Hollywood movie.
Long before his days as a NASCAR team owner or before his country hams and pork rinds lined the shelves at every supermarket in the south, Johnson was known as the hardest-charger of all the legendary racers. And before that, he was known as the one moonshiner the police never could catch. And the one time he actually was caught (lighting a still in the night for his father), he was eventually pardoned by the president himself â Ronald Reagan in 1986.
âJunior Johnson is one of the last of those sports stars who is not just an ace at the game itself, but a hero a whole people or class of people can identify with,â iconic American writer Tom Wolfe wrote in his legendary 1965 article in Esquire magazine. âOther, older examples are the way Jack Dempsey stirred up the Irish or the way Joe Louis stirred up the Negroes. Junior Johnson is a modern figure.â
And so there I was, a 27-year-old rookie reporter face-to-face with the Southâs very own Robin Hood. The outlaw of all outlaws. The man who fought the law and the law didnât win. The man who could drive, repair, or administer a car to Victory Lane in almost any situation. If the South ever had a Renaissance Man, it was most certainly Johnson.
When we first entered his residence in Ronda, Johnsonâs legend immediately grew right before my eyes when we meet his family. At age 71, he had a wife approximately half his age and two young kids ages nine and seven. It seemed as if time would never slow down this man.
I hung back and kept my calm and stayed quiet for the first two-and-a-half hours of our three-hour visit. I didnât want to rock the boat, and besides, how many times do you get to hear a legend talk about running moonshine? He didnât disappoint.
By my count, I have been around true greatness three, maybe four times in my life. I saw it once in 1992 when, as a teenager, I had the privilege of attending a Chicago Bulls game in Charlotte against the Hornets. That night, Michael Jordan had one of the lowest scoring games I can remember â held to 16 points with 90 seconds to play and the Bulls down by four points. The Bulls, en route to their second straight championship, simply let âHis Airnessâ take over. Jordan finished the game on a personal 7-0 run to send his team to a three-point victory. Greatness!
Iâve been around true greatness a couple of other times in concerts. If youâve ever seen Eric Clapton or Eddie Van Halen play guitar, then you know what Iâm talking about. But this was different. Meeting Junior Johnson was just different.
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 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 Wolfe wrote in 1965. âPractically every good old boy in town in Wilkesboro, the county seat, got to know the agents by sight in a very short time. They would rag them practically to their faces on the subject of Junior Johnson, so that it got to be an obsession. Finally, one night they had Junior trapped on the road up toward the bridge around Millersville, thereâs no way out of there, they had the barricades up and they could hear this souped-up car roaring around the bend, and here it comesâbut suddenly they can hear a siren and see a red light flashing in the grille, so they think itâs another agent, and boy, they run out like ants and pull those barrels and boards and sawhorses out of the way, and thenâGgghhzzzzzzzhhhhhhggggggzzzzzzzeeeeeong!âgawdam! there he goes again, it was him, Junior Johnson!, with a gawdam agentâs si-reen and a red light in his grille! I wasnât in the South five minutes before people started making oaths, having visions, telling these hulking great stories, and so forth, all on the subject of Junior Johnson.â
Q & A with NASCAR legend Junior Johnson
Printed Feb. 14, 2003 in The Mount Airy News
By Allen Worrell
RONDA â Nobody epitomizes the sport of stock car racing as well as Junior Johnson.
Thanks to his now legendary days of running moonshine, Johnson learned from an early age how to maneuver a vehicle at high speeds and how to keep ahead of those in hot pursuit â be it a competitor on the track or a sheriff on the back roads of Wilkes Countyâs Brushy Mountains.
Johnson rode those skills to 50 NASCAR victories in 13 short years from 1953-1966, earning him a reputation as one of the most aggressive drivers in the sportâs history. In fact, Sports Illustrated named him the greatest driver in NASCAR history in 1998.
After dominating the sport as a driver, Johnson found even more success as a car owner. Over the next 29 years, Johnson won more races than any other car owner in the history of the sport. In total, his teams won 139 races, 128 poles and six Winston Cup championships. Johnsonâs drivers could make up their own Motorsports Hall of Fame with names such as Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Bill Elliott, Curtis Turner, Lee Roy Yarborough, Darel Dieringer, Charlie Glotzbach, Terry Labone, Neil Bonnett and Jimmy Spencer.
Johnson said he distances himself from the sport today with his involvement being no more than âwatching a few minutes of a race every now and then if itâs on.â While he doesnât have NASCAR to keep him busy anymore, Johnson still has plenty going on with Junior Johnson Brand old fashioned sugar-cured ham and pork rinds. The business has expanded in recent years and now is available in almost all chains and supermarkets.
Johnson, 71, now devotes most of his time to his two young children, Robert III (age 9) and Meredith (7). Johnson and his wife, Lisa, spend a lot of time traveling with their children and keeping up with their activities.
Johnson took some time out of his new schedule to sit down with The Mount Airy News and talk about the current state of NASCAR racing as well as his storied days as a driver and owner.
Mount Airy News (News): The big rumor lately is NASCAR is thinking about taking a race away from some of the older tracks like Rockingham, Darlington, Charlotte and Atlanta to expand add races into some newer markets like California, Texas and Kansas. What do you think about that situation?
Junior Johnson: I think you are going to see that happen a lot because there are just too many big towns that can afford a superspeedway race. The Winston Cup circuit up in a place like Martinsville with two races â one I think is okay and it is a shame that it has come down to this â but that is how popular the sport is and that is what it is going to demand. One day it will probably be all they will be able to keep there because I know they are looking to expand into St. Louis and they have already went into Kansas and Chicago and those places. Theyâll definitely go north somewhere in the San Francisco area with a superspeed race I think before too long. Theyâve already looked at it, but the environmental laws and stuff in California is very strenuous as far as putting a race track in certain places and that will eventually work itself out.
Itâs like North Wilkesboro. It had two dates and it was beginning not to be able to support the purse. Because of the track size, they couldnât get enough people in to pay for a Winston Cup event. When that comes about y ou will see that date go somewhere else. There is no question that it is close to being there at Darlington and Rockingham. Atlanta, I think, will eventually be okay, but Martinsville is going to maybe have to give up a race.
The south is infested with superspeedway races. The whole United States needs to be infested with it to get the most out of it. New York City has got to have a superspeedway because they could run there and run twice a week almost. Thatâs how many people support it in that area. A lot of the stuff that is going on right now in NASCAR and the superspeedway races, there is a lot of guys coming out of that area. There will be a racetrack built there.
News: I know you had a lot to do with NASCAR securing R.J. Reynolds as its main sponsor. What do you think about the tobacco companies pulling out? It has got to be a sad day for racing considering how long theyâve been in it and as much as theyâve put into it.
Junior Johnson: Winston has been, I think, 90 percent of what has brought the sport to what it is right now. In 1970, NASCAR did not have a big sponsor for the events. You could just about run a Winston Cup race anywhere you wanted to at any time because they just didnât have enough races that were popular enough that they had to start scheduling them in isolated places. I think losing Winston will hurt and hurt a lot, but it will recover. It is too big a sport not to. There are too many big corporations out there that will be glad to take a hold of it. Nailing down the right one that will help the sport proceed and go forward will be the biggest job that NASCAR will have.
News: Being a veteran driver and owner, what do you think about the trend where rookies are coming on so strong? Does that disturb you, knowing that guys donât earn their dues as much as they used to?
Junior Johnson: Well it is a different trend than when I was involved in it. The biggest thing that is going on now in the rookie situation is you might say when Darrell and Cale and David Pearson and all of them guys came along I was driving and I was about ready to get out of it. Them guys had already went through the Sportsman and Saturday Night Shootouts and all of that kind of stuff. They had to come in with a top-notch race team and sometimes they didnât even make it with a top-notch race team because they didnât have enough experience.
Right now the cars are so sophisticated through the engineering stuff and the motor companies, you could almost put a monkey in them things and they could drive them. They are set up through the engineering staff for springs and shocks. NASCAR tells them what springs they can run and Goodyear handles the tire side of it and compounds and everything else. Basically the motors are blue-printed in all makes of them pretty equally. The aerodynamics of the cars â NASCAR now has almost made a blueprint for every make of car. The only thing you got left that makes a difference in it right now is when you put a driver in it â is he aggressive enough to hold it wide open and does he know when to turn the steering wheel?
News: The rules change so much from one week to the next as far as car setups go, tell me a little bit about your time building engines.
Junior Johnson: You cannot use your knowledge in the engines anymore. In other words, they have left no stone unturned as far as being able to control the engine side of it. Before I quit, if you burned enough midnight oil you could get the advantage on everybody. Now they just lay the motor on a table and let everybody come along and look at it and see what everybody is doing. It is a blueprint motor that most anybody can put together and itâs got the clearances and stuff that everybody knows. Itâs almost like youâve got to be lucky and hit the right combination of setup for that race. Either that or you are lucky enough to make the pit stops fall where you have gas and they ainât got none and you can finish the race. There is a lot more luck in it now than there used to be.
News: Are there any drivers out there right now that remind you of the way you used to race?
Junior Johnson: I like Tony (Stewart). I know he is outspoken and stuff like that, but so was Darrell Waltrip; so were a lot of the guys that came along. Mouth donât get you nowhere. You have to use your head and produce on the racetrack. You canât talk nobody out of a race. You have to go out and win it. He is standing his ground and I think that is good. I always did. Even with the NASCAR. They could bluff and knock a lot of people around but they didnât do that to me. If they were wrong they were wrong and they are wrong a lot. If you donât stand up they will be wrong twice as much. They need controlling just like everybody else does.
News: When people look back on Junior Johnson, how would you like to be remembered?
Johnson: Iâm not a person that wants to be remembered as some kind of heroic type of person. Iâve always tried to be honest and treat people like I like to be treated myself. Thatâs basically the way I would like to be remembered. I did my work and left other people alone and I expect them to do the same to me.
News: What are some of your favorite moments in racing?
Junior Johnson: I guess I had more fun in racing as a car owner because I had an opportunity to have some good race drivers. I had probably the best drivers to come around the sport in a long, long time. But I always based the drivers I hired on the method of how I would drive a race car. A lot of people said, âHow in the world are you going to control Darrell Waltrip?â Darrell Waltrip was a good race driver. He has the will and the determination to succeed and that is what youâve got to have.
Running your mouth donât have anything to do with that. I never said nothing unless I could back it up. I drove against guys like Fireball Roberts. Richard Petty was just coming in and Cale was just getting started.
I raced against (Dale) Earnhardtâs daddy. I saw him grow up. I saw him when he was born. Ralph Earnhardt was a fierce competitor but we were always friends. His wife and my wife were friends also. When Dale was born, my wife used to sit and hold him during the race a lot of times. You can compete with people and still get along with them. Enemies that do not reveal in racing, that is good. I donât care who you are, there comes a time and a place when you need a favor.
News: Do you still follow the sport closely?
Junior Johnson: No. If itâs on and I walk by I might stop and look at it for a few minutes.
When I was getting ready to quit, I was dominated the sport. They ran 26 races that year and I won 13. When you win half the races it was not interesting to me. There wasnât anybody out there that I feared, so I got tired of it and decided to do something else. Glenn Wood and them boys was about the only ones that was real competitive.
There ainât nothing out there in the cars today that didnât come from me. All of their suspension stuff I made myself â me and my machinists. Today they canât better what I did in the suspension stuff. As highly sophisticated as the sport is today with General Motors, Chrysler, Ford â all of them people with all of them engineers canât better something like that when someone down here in the woods fixed it. Itâs kindly disgusting to me. The aerodynamics thing ainât no big thing because I was doing that plum back in the 60s. There wasnât any rule against it then. You could do just about what you wanted to if you had sense enough to look and see what it took to make the car run. Anybody knows a smaller car will run through the air faster than a big car. You get down to it and they say this little thing helps is, but we were doing it 40 or 50 years ago. It kind of bores me to hear them talk about it. It was more of a skill then.
News: Where were some of your favorite places to race?
Junior Johnson: Richmond used to be a great race and Martinsville was. I won Bowman Gray several times and that is the method you have to hurry up and wait. You can not get in a hurry to run Bowman Gray. You have to wait on your car to settle down. There are certain times where you have to ease into the gas, you canât jump into the gas because you canât get hold of the racetrack.
I had a lot of fun at Bowman Gray because I was supposed to be somebody that couldnât drive on that kind of racetrack. Glenn Wood was driving back then and we were down there one Saturday night. I told Glenn, âIâm going to lap you tonight.â He says, âIf you lap me Iâm going into the pits.â
About 50 laps, I lapped him and I started pointing to the pits.
He went about three laps and he went into the pits. He said, âI wasnât going to be humiliated like that. I would just as soon quit.â
Itâs fun running with those guys. Those situations come up, but that is a good racing operation Glenn and them boys have. Iâve been friends with them for years and I think they will do a lot better with Ricky Rudd than theyâve been doing.
News: In 1979, Daytona was on television and just about everybody in the country was snowed in. Your driver, Cale Yarborough, got into a big fight with the Allisons on the last lap. Ratings soared and that moment is still considered one of the biggest turning points in NASCARâs popularity. Tell me a little bit about that day.
Junior Johnson: That was probably the good start of NASCAR really chucking up in the sport. It was okay at that time, but it really took off after that. It has a captive audience and the whole United States was snowed in and they had to sit there and watch it.
What happened on that deal is bright and early in the race, Cale, Bobby Allison, Donnie Allison, and seems like David Pearson all got hooked up on the back stretch and spun out. It rained that night and the mud and stuff was off in the infield and they spun down through there, especially our car.
We got down in the pits and our car had so much mud we had to wash the dang thing off in the pit to go and change tires and everything. It took four laps before we could get cleaned up and back on the race track. That was very early into the 500-mile race and we made up them four laps, so we had a tremendously fast car compared to everybody else. It come down to the last lap and Donnie Allison was leading the race.
Hoss Ellington was a friend of mine and the sportswriters and stuff came down to my pits and asked Herb Nab, âWhen are you going to try to pass Donnie Allison?â Herb spoke up and said, âWe are going to try to pass him on the last lap down the backstretch.â
Well, they went down and told Hoss and Donnie what Herb had said, so when it came down to the last lap down the backstretch Donnie tried to block Cale. And he did a pretty decent job of it because Cale had to go plum down in the dirt to get by and get up beside him.
They were going on down the backstretch there coming up on the third turn. Cale was coming up in the flats because Donnie was in the turn on the bottom groove and wouldnât give him no room to race and they slammed into each other. When they did they spun around, hit the wall and tore both the cars all to pieces.
They were sitting there in the infield and Cale and Donnie got in a fight and Bobby come along and took it up while Richard went on to win the race. It wasnât a deal where Cale tried to wreck him. It was a deal where Donnie just didnât intend for Cale to win that race.
The Allisons are good racers but they were very, very tough to beat. They would rather have a conflict than to get downright beat.
News: How do you think NASCAR has done moving along since Dale Earnhardtâs death at Daytona?
Junior Johnson: Theyâve done fine with it, but I think Dale Junior has helped the situation a lot. He won Daytona and that was sort of forgiveness for losing Dale Senior. But I think the sport will be hampered by the fact Dale Earnhardt has been here for a long, long time. Itâs almost like the NBA is they lost Michael Jordan. He will never be forgotten and I donât think Dale Earnhardt will be. I think he will be one of the heroes of this sport forever.
Allen Worrell can be reached by calling (276) 779-4062 or on Twitter@AWorrellTCN