“And it’s not just attention seekers, like [Ken] Kesey, who throw open the doors to the man in the white suit. [In 1965 Tom] Wolfe writes a piece on the origins of this new sport called stock-car racing and its greatest legend, Junior Johnson. Junior Johnson doesn’t talk to reporters. He’s famously reticent: no one outside his close circle of family and friends has any idea who he really is. Without a word of explanation, Tom Wolfe is suddenly describing what it’s like to be in Junior’s backyard, pulling weeds with his two sisters and watching a red rooster cross the lawn, while Junior tells him everything … and the reader learns, from Junior himself, that NASCAR racing basically evolved out of the fine art, mastered by Junior, of outrunning the North Carolina federal agents with a car full of bootleg whiskey.
“Wolfe’s Esquire piece about Junior Johnson, ‘The Last American Hero Is Junior Johnson. Yes!’ is another sensation — and still no one writes to ask him: How did you do that? How did you get yourself invited into the home of a man who would sooner shoot a journalist than talk to him? (This fall, 50 years after Wolfe introduced the world to Junior Johnson, NASCAR Productions and Fox Sports released a documentary about the piece. That’s the effect Wolfe routinely has had: to fix people and events in readers’ minds forever)….”
Lewis turns up numerous eye-popping nuggets in his mining of Wolfe’s papers, which became available earlier this year at the New York Public Library.