“The Last American Hero”

Junior Johnson at the Mile High Swinging Bridge

Junior Johnson posed in front of the Mile High Swinging Bridge at Grandfather Mountain. This photograph was part of the exhibition titled, “Do You Recognize These Grandfather Mountain Visitors?” seen below.

“He is a coon hunter, a rich man, an ex-whiskey runner, a good old boy who hard-charged Stock cars 175 mph…he is the lead-footed-chicken-farmer from Rhonda…the true vision of the New South.” —Tom Wolfe in Esquire, March 1965

On December 20, 2019, America lost its “last hero.” Robert Glenn “Junior” Johnson lost his battle with Alzheimer’s at age 88. Over the years, Johnson crossed paths with photographer Hugh Morton a few times. Morton included a picture of Johnson in his 1988 book “Making a Difference in North Carolina” and also his 2003 book “Hugh Morton’s North Carolina.” On this day, one month after his passing, Morton Collection volunteer Jack Hilliard looks back at the life and times of a NASCAR legend.

Junior Johnson visiting Grandfather Mountain exhibition

Junior Johnson visiting Grandfather Mountain exhibition, circa 1996. A news article in the August 13, 1996 issue of the Johnson City Press about the exhibition’s recent opening provides a “no sooner than” circa date for this portrait of Johnson.

I remember hearing my dear friend the late Charlie Harville talk about having breakfast with Junior and Flossie Johnson on race days in Ingle Hollow. It was a tradition for media personnel to stop by and join racers, crews, and car owners for bacon, eggs and grits. Afterward, all would go down the road to the track where Junior Johnson entered his first race—a 100-miler—at age 16, in 1947 at the North Wilkesboro Speedway.

Johnson finished second that day; six years later, he set up a race team in 1953.  Johnson began his full-time NASCAR career in 1955, winning five races and finishing sixth in the Grand National points race. In 1956, Junior was caught firing up his dad’s moonshine still and became entangled in a barbed wire fence while trying to escape. The conviction that followed put Johnson on a forced eleven-month, three-day sentence that took him away from NASCAR. (Johnson always made it a point of pride that the federal agents never caught him on the highway).

Once back at the track, Johnson continued winning. By 1959 he was considered a master at “short-track-racing.” In 1960, he got his first “superspeedway” win at the Daytona 500. Johnson made an important discovery while preparing for that race. He and his crew chief Ray Fox were trying to figure out how to increase their speed and during a test run at the track, Johnson noticed that when he moved in close behind a faster car his speed would also increase due to the faster car’s “slipstream.” Following that Daytona win, other drivers picked up Junior’s technique and the term “drafting” became a NASCAR tradition that continues today.

When Johnson retired as a driver following the 1966 season, he had fifty wins—eleven at major speedways. He then became one of the most successful crew chiefs and car owners in NASCAR history. He teamed with drivers including Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Bill Elliott, and Darrell Waltrip, among others. In all, his drivers won 139 races, which included six Winston Cup Championships: three with Waltrip and three with Yarborough. Darrell Waltrip said on December 21, 2019 on his Twitter account: “He became my boss and made me a champion. I loved that man. God Bless Jr. and his family. You were the greatest.”

North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame inductees 1982.

North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame inductees for 1982: (left to right) Glen E. (Ted) Mann, sports information director at Duke University; Wake Forest footballer Red O’Quinn, who played in the National Football League and the Canadian Football League; David Thompson, North Carolina State basketball player who went on to play in the American Basketball Association and the National Basketball Association; and Junior Johnson.

On September 15, 1982 Junior Johnson was inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame during a ceremony at Gardner-Webb College in Shelby, North Carolina. Photographer Hugh Morton was there that night when Master of Ceremonies Jim Thacker introduced Pat Preston, who in turned made the formal induction speech for Johnson. Morton’s picture of the hall’s Class of 1982 is in his 1988 book, Making a Difference in North Carolina, on page 160.

A little over three years later, on the day after Christmas in 1985, Junior Johnson received a full and unconditional pardon from President Ronald Reagan for his 1956 conviction in federal court for moonshining.

In 1991 Johnson was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America and seven years later he was honored as one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest.

In 2004, he joined Michael Jordan, Dale Earnhardt, Sr., Richard Petty and Charlie Justice by having a stretch of highway named in his honor. An 8.5-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 421 from the Yadkin and Wilkes County line to the Windy Gap exit is named the “Junior Johnson Highway.” And he was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2010.

It was May of 2007 when Johnson teamed with Piedmont Distillers of Madison, North Carolina to introduce a moonshine product called Midnight Moon. Johnson became part owner of Piedmont Distillers, the only legal distiller in North Carolina at the time. Midnight Moon followed the Johnson family’s generations-old tradition of making moonshine—every batch produced in an authentic copper still and handcrafted in small batches. The ‘shine is a legal version of his famous family recipe, and is available in eight varieties that range from 70 to 100 proof. Junior described his moonshine as “Smoother than vodka. Better than whiskey. Best ‘shine ever.”

It seems as though everybody who knew Junior Johnson has a favorite “Junior” story. Scott Fowler, Charlotte Observer columnist, shared this story on twitter last month:

“NASCAR writer Tom Higgins once told me that Junior…was asked in the ‘70s if he ever went to the GM engineers for help. ‘Naw, but sometimes they come to me,’ he said.”

Greensboro News & Record columnist Ed Hardin added this story in the paper on December 21:

We were in Rockingham back in the late ‘80s, and a group of writers had followed Junior out to his pickup. Along the way, he stopped to sign autographs and pose for pictures. . . . When we finally got there, he reached into the bed and dragged a cooler down to the tailgate. Inside was a big pickle jar filled with cherries floating in a clear liquid. . . . And to this day, I remember Junior looking at me and giving me words of advice I still pass on to folks not accustomed to North Carolina cherries from Ingle Hollow.

‘Son,’ he said, ‘don’t eat two.”

Finally, Hugh Morton, in his 2003 book, Hugh Morton’s North Carolina, (on page 185) says this about the “Last American Hero”:

. . . if you go to a race or a car show and are able to obtain Johnson’s autograph in indelible ink on the lid of a quart fruit jar, you have a priceless souvenir.

Rest in Peace, Junior Johnson. You will be missed.

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