How did Tom Wolfe get into Junior Johnson’s backyard?

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)….”

— From “How Tom Wolfe Became … Tom Wolfe” by Michael Lewis in Vanity Fair (November 2015)

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.

 

Tom Wolfe’s first try at dressing for NASCAR

“I thought I’d better try to fit in, so I very carefully picked out the clothes I’d wear. I had a knit tie, some brown suede shoes and a brown Borsalino hat with a half-inch of beaver fur on it. Somehow I thought this was very casual and suitable for the races. I guess I’d been reading too many P. G. Wodehouse novels.”

— Tom Wolfe, recalling (for interviewer Chet Flippo) his sartorial naivete when undertaking “The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. Yes!” for Esquire magazine (1965)

Can’t beat moonshiners? Then join ’em!

“In North Carolina, the ‘Moonshine Capital of the World’ (3,846 stills seized in 1954), state officials have inaugurated a shrewd new strategy against moonshiners.

“On the shelves of state liquor stores there has appeared a civilized but untamed 100-proof corn liquor respectably labeled ‘White Lightning — Clear as the Mountain Dew’ and respectably distilled on order by a subsidiary of the Brown-Forman Distillers Corp. in Louisville. The North Carolina Board of Alcoholic Control had decided it would stop trying to wean moonshine guzzlers, and would offer them a better product.

“White Lightning is produced from a mash of 85 percent corn. 15 percent malt — no rats, snakes or lye. It is aged less than 30 days, and then the aging process is stopped by storing it in uncharred, paraffin-lined barrels. At $4.40 a quart, it costs less than most aged amber whiskies but slightly more than moonshine ($3.50 to $4 a quart). North Carolinians snapped up the first consignment. ‘Man,’ said one satisfied customer last week, ‘that’s just like I was raised on.’ ”

—  From Time magazine, July 25, 1955

The Brown-Forman version of moonshine seems no longer available. In 2005, however, Piedmont Distillers in Madison introduced Catdaddy Carolina Moonshine, and it has since added Junior Johnson’s old-family-recipe Midnight Moon.