Junior Johnson, "The Last American Hero," Dies At 88

Dec 23, 2019
Originally published on December 24, 2019 9:06 am

Junior Johnson, a legendary race car driver, infamous bootlegger, and iconic North Carolinian, died Friday. He was 88.

For many years Johnson lived a double life. Under the moon lit sky he worked in the family business, evading authorities while making illegal deliveries of moonshine. On the weekends, he was a NASCAR pioneer, beloved by fans as he won dozens of races in the 1950s and 60s. He later became one of NASCAR’s most successful owners and is regarded as having a place on the Mount Rushmore of stock-car racing. An almost mythical figure, Johnson was nicknamed the Ronda Roadrunner, the Wilkes County Wildman and the Last American Hero.

Whether it was at Daytona International Speedway or on a back road in the Appalachian mountains, the man could drive.

“Excitement up here in the grandstand as Junior Johnson just went into the same lap with Freddy Lorenzen," said an archived radio call. "Junior Johnson has moved past Freddy and will now have to go all around the track and do it again before he can take the lead from Fred Lorenzen.”

“Despite the fierce reputation he earned while driving a race car, he was a kind, gentle, courteous man. And in many cases proven a good Samaritan,” said Tom Higgins, a Johnson biographer, who covered NASCAR for more than 40 years. He describes Johnson as one of the smartest men he ever met, immensely popular because of his full bore style.

“His motto was go or blow. If his car would handle the punishment he gave it. He usually would win the race. He was almost reckless you might say,” Higgins explained.

Back Road Beginnings

Robert Glenn Johnson, Junior was born June 28th, 1931 in the Wilkes County town of Ronda. His father began making moonshine during prohibition and had dozens of stills throughout the country side. Junior first got behind the wheel at age 11, and by 14 was hauling liquor for his daddy.

"He once told me that he could drive from North Wilkesboro to Charlotte and never get on a paved road, except when he crossed 'em," Higgins said. "He knew all the dirt back roads. That was one of the ways he evaded the revenuers."

His farthest deliveries were to Norfolk, Virginia, bringing white liquor to thirsty sailors. Mainly the runs were to Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Asheville, and Charlotte. Johnson began driving at a time when there was no power steering, wheels were just a few inches wide and many of the tracks were made of dirt. While bootlegging, he drove a souped up Ford, complete with a V-8 or tractor engine. He outran police regularly and if they blocked off one of those dirt back roads, Johnson used what he coined the 'bootleg turn' to escape.

"What you did was you dropped the speed down real slow,” Johnson said in a 2013 interview, "and then dropped the wheels on the grass and cut it real quick and slammed the breaks and the thing would just spin around."

Midnight Compromise

The tales of his powerful Ford roaring through the mountains late at night evading federal agents are legendary. Once in the early 1950s he was making a run from Wilkes County to Norfolk, Virginia, when he came around a bend on a country road. Biographer Tom Higgins picks up the story:

"Lo and behold a car had slid up into the woods, and had turned over, steam coming out of it and two men were walking around the car in a daze. Well Junior being the kind and good Samaritan fellow that he was had to stop and help them see if they were hurt."

To Junior's surprise, it was the sheriff of Wilkes County and the chief deputy.

"They had liquor on their breath and lipstick on their collars. They had been somewhere they shouldn’t have been," Johnson remembered of the moment, noting the two men who had been chasing him for years now needed help.

"The sheriff said 'thank heavens it's you Junior, you gotta get me to the courthouse. If they find me in this shape they will throw me outta office." And Junior says "Hell man, I can't take you to the courthouse I’ve got a load of liquor in my car," recalled Johnson.

The sheriff said "Junior if you'll get me back to the courthouse and save my skin I'll never chase you again and I'll see that my deputies don't ever chase you again."

After a moment of coaxing, Junior was convinced to rearrange the crates of moonshine in his car and provide a ride. His reward: immunity. The sheriff kept his word and the two never crossed paths again, at night.

"Junior said that in later years he would see the sheriff on the sidewalk up in north Wilkesboro. He said he'd just wink at the Sheriff and say 'have you been across the mountain lately?'," said Higgins.

Convicted

Johnson was never caught while driving. He skirted authorities for years and his racing career took off at the same time. He won five races in the 1955 season and was on top of both worlds until one night revenuers corned him at a family still. He was arrested, prosecuted and sentenced to time at a federal prison in Ohio.

"Any place like that you gotta get along and treat people right or when you go to bed at night and they cut the lights off they'll cave in on you and you're lucky if you survive it," Johnson said.

Johnson credited working on the prison’s farm helped him stay out of trouble while incarcerated. He served 11 months and three days. Upon his release, he went right back to running moonshine. Ultimately it was about the money.  He would make four or five runs in a night, earning as much as $500. All told, Johnson took home more than $100,000 delivering alcohol. And for a long time those earnings were much greater than any prize money NASCAR could offer.

Stock Car Surge

By the time Johnson won the 1963 Dixie 400 the midnight rides had stopped. The prize money from that victory alone was $15,000. Corporate money had begun fueling the NASCAR beast and Johnson was a household name in the racing South. He became one of the most feared and respected drivers and was even credited with accidentally discovering drafting – a practice widely used today.

"I wanted to grow up to be just like Junior Johnson," said Cale Yarbrough, an admirer and competitor of the legendary driver. When Johnson retired following the 1966 season with 50 career wins he turned his focus to ownership, and Yarbrough.

"I was looking for a ride and Junior Johnson was looking for a driver. So we got together and I drove him for eight years," Yarbrough said.

Together they would win an unprecedented three consecutive Winston Cup championships. In total, Johnson’s drivers won 139 races, making him the third most successful owner ever.

"Junior was tough and he had a lot of talent driving race cars and he was a good, good person. He was fair, honest and a handshake was all you needed with Junior Johnson."

Later in life, 30 years after his conviction, Johnson got another handshake at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue; President Reagan pardoned him for having an illegal still. Even in his final years, Johnson managed to make money off the family recipe. North Carolina made sales of his Midnight Moon legal in 2007.

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