Dirt and gravel go flying, as sirens wail behind a speeding jet black car. Moonshine jars rattle around in the back seat, and sweat covers the drivers face. One sharp turn down a country road and suddenly… silence. The bootlegger has lost the pursuing revenuers, at least for the time being. He slowly puts his sedan back in drive and continues on his way. This was the life of a bootlegger, and this is how the story of NASCAR and Junior Johnson started.
Stock car racing was born out of the Great Depression in the rural southeastern United States. Many Southern families lived in poverty, and fathers were desperate to provide for their families. Some turned to the very lucrative business of transporting illegal alcohol, or bootlegging, as a way of providing for their loved ones. Bootleggers took their family cars and sedans, tuned them up, and turned them into racecars that could haul moonshine, and outrun any pursuing cops. Bootleggers naturally became very skilled drivers, and became very used to driving at break neck speeds around twisting back country roads. As one can imagine, the question of which bootlegger was the fastest often came up. Inevitably, informal races were being set up all over the south by former and current bootleggers trying to prove their worth as a driver. As time went on, these races became more popular and professional with permanent tracks popping up all over. One man, Bill France, saw the potential for the sport of stock car racing, and in 1948, he set up a new sanctioning body to govern the sport called the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR). It was in this world of moonshine, fast cars, and NASCAR that one man became famous. That man was Junior Johnson.
Johnson’s story mirrors the story of NASCAR as a whole, and his life closely follows the growth of the sport. Junior Johnson was born in 1931, in rural Wilkes County, North Carolina. His father, Robert Glenn Johnson, was a lifelong bootlegger who would spend many of his years behind bars for running shine. Junior’s father brought him into the family business at a young age, and soon he became a master at the art of moonshine. It was during this time that Junior developed his incredible driving abilities. Junior often found himself behind the wheel of the family car transporting moonshine from point A to point B. Police chases were not uncommon, but Johnson was never caught by the police while running shine. In fact, word of Junior’s abilities spread and he became a local legend in Wilkes County, which was already known as the moonshine capitol of the world. Eventually, in 1949, Junior’s family and friends convinced him to test his driving abilities at a nearby racetrack. While Junior didn’t win his first race, he became hooked on racing for the rest of his life. By 1955 Junior Johnson was racing professionally in NASCAR, and it didn’t take long for his presence to become known. Johnson quickly gained a reputation as a driver who would go big or go home. Winning was all that mattered to Johnson, and he would crash his car trying to win the race before heading home in second place. Johnson’s approach quickly paid off, and at Hickory Speedway in 1955 he scored his first of many NASCAR victories. Johnson reeled off four more victories in the 1955 season, for a total of five wins, something that was incredibly impressive for a young driver. The following season, however, was not without drama.
Johnson never fully left behind his past of making moonshine, and midway through the 1956 season Johnson found himself in a federal prison after being caught at one of his family’s stills. Determined not to let this setback ruin his young racing career, Johnson returned to the NASCAR circuit in 1958, and posted a then career best six wins. From that point on, the only direction Johnson’s career headed was up. Soon Johnson began to win on everything from backwoods dirt tracks to the world renowned Daytona International Speedway. By the end of his racing career in 1967, Johnson had amassed 50 wins at the top level of NASCAR. Not surprisingly, just because Johnson had stepped out of the car didn’t mean his career with NASCAR was over. Johnson began fielding and building cars for other drivers as a team owner, and soon Johnson owned cars were tearing up the tracks. Johnson would amass six championships and 132 wins as a team owner, until he finally retired from the sport in 1995. Notably, as impressive as Johnson’s on track performance during his career was, it was his off tack performance that may have been the most important for NASCAR. Johnson’s fascinating story of moonshiner turned sports super star captured the attention of the popular men’s magazine Esquire, and in 1965 writer Tom Wolfe published a featured story on Johnson’s incredible life. The story was so successful that a few years later, in 1973, his story was adopted into a big budget Hollywood film called The Last American Hero, which starred a young Jeff Bridges as Junior Johnson. The movie wasn’t the end of Johnson’s national fame either. President Ronald Reagan formally pardoned Johnson in 1986 for his previous 1956 moonshine conviction, further cementing Johnson’s place as an American folk hero.
All of Johnson’s national fame spurred tremendous growth in the sport of NASCAR, helping with everything from securing sponsorships to putting more fans in the seats. Johnson became a bridge between the early days of NASCAR, where small town dirt track races were the norm, to the modern era of NASCAR, in which races are nationally televised and thousands of loyal fans pack the stands. Thanks in part to Junior Johnson, NASCAR sits proudly as one of America’s favorite sports.
Cover Photo By Ted Van Pelt [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons/Cropped from original