Junior Johnson

White Lightning, Burnt Rubber

Junior Johnson is a legend, a living Beowulf and a Robin Hood of the Southern States. The Police chased him for years but couldn’t catch him. He switched to the racetrack and was still out in front. Hard working, hard driving, hard charging GGGGGGGRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRVVVVVVVVMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMmmmmmmmmmm……… There goes Junior.

Two things have dominated Junior’s life, the sleepy rolling countryside of North Carolina and eye-widening speed.

“I guess you can say that the way I lived, I’ve been trying to kill myself, but ain’t succeeded yet. Been beat up, beat other people up. Been shot at, crashed a few times. Yep, I’ve had an interesting life.”

Junior Johnson has driven more cars at the limit than most people alive and he’s broken virtually all of them. The only vehicle he treasures is the first one that broke him, the one that changed his life, an immaculate, Ferrari-red, 1941 Framwall tractor, the slowest of the lot.

“That tractor’s the reason I ain’t a ball player. I was fourteen. Foolin around on it, spinnin circles in the field and it rolled on me. Broke my arm. Pushed a bone through the muscle. Couldn’t pitch so good after that. That’s why I had it restored, wouldn’t have been a driver if it wasn’t for that tractor.”

Junior learnt to drive when he was eight or nine years old. By the time the tractor busted up his arm he was hauling moonshine for the family business. Not old enough to hold a licence but wild enough to drive the dirt roads in a 1940 Ford, packed tight with white lightnin’. His first route was a twenty-mile sprint along dirt back roads. Later he joined the big boys out on the highway on all night delivery rounds. He was soon the best. The po-lice never caught him. He was too fast and way too sneaky. There’s a story, well worn: one night the cops set up a roadblock and waited. Out of the black came the sounds of a siren and a flashing light bearing down on their barrier. They quickly pulled aside to let the speeding patrol car pass but all they saw was Junior aiming his car through the yawning gap like a roman chariot decked out with blues and twos. He grins,

“Yep, I pulled a few tricks on ‘em. But they never did catch me.”

Junior Johnson’s Daddy, Robert Glenn Johnson Senior, made moonshine, illegal alcohol. Moonshine got its name because the people who made it worked at night so the lawmen couldn’t see the smoke from the stills. As the story goes, Junior’s Daddy was one of the biggest moonshine producers in the States. Some of the facts stand clear. In one raid on the Johnson property in 1935, when Junior was four years old, ATF agents seized seven thousand two hundred and fifty four cases of premium North Carolina Maize Mash Whiskey. They smashed the lot right outside the front door, took them a while to get the job done though. When they were through the Johnsons went back up into the woods, dragging wood, piping, drums and barrels to start all over. Few people, then and now saw it as a crime. In the hard days of the depression, distillin’ kept many families from starving and even when the economy started to boom again, the added income was too good to resist for rural people who had little to rely on but the land. But it didn’t just produce pin money. It could be very profitable. Even after accounting for running costs and the sharp losses brought by a visit from the Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco agents, who searched the backwoods for hidden stills then blew them up with TNT, there was still a lot of cash to be made.

Junior is having a business meeting. He makes his money legal nowadays, food manufacture and farming mostly. The sight of two men in suits addressing an older man in jean overalls could be taken as the sorry tale of a bank foreclosing on a family farm. One look at the deferential manner of the suits and the expressions on their faces showed which way this game was being played.

Meeting over and we jump into Junior’s big new GM 4×4. It’s difficult to call a man Junior when he’s more than twice your age, a full head taller and who retired at his peak aged just thirty-four, but when Robert Glen Johnson II tells you to call him Junior, you call him Junior. Behind the wheel the serious old man lightened up and his young-featured face looked just as it did in photo’s from his sixties racing career. He’s talking about his life. Mid flow, a driver in front suddenly brakes late and hard to take a left turn. Junior’s voice doesn’t miss a beat as he pulls the heavy vehicle to a perfect emergency stop. His reactions at seventy one are better than mine, I’d have slammed into the back of the car in front. As I shifted nervously in my seat a big smile erupted on his face.

We drive out to the deserted North Wilkesboro Race Track and Junior goes quiet. He drove in his first race here, and his last win was here, closing his career in a tight circle, just like the tracks he charged around. The circuit has been closed to racing for awhile, although the North Carolina climate has preserved this oval of dreams as good as pickling it in moonshine. Junior stands at the apex of the fourth corner. His back straight, eyes nailed to the racing line he’d followed a thousand times.

“If NASCAR was born, it was born here”

Junior’s transition from liquor running to racing came through his brother who was competing at North Wilesboro track in the summer of 1949. The organisers decided to run a curtain raiser involving boys who hauled whiskey, so L.P. drove home to get his young brother and announced,

“Junior, I want you to drive my car”.

“I really enjoyed it, Wilkesboro was a dirt track at the time and it was just like drivin’ the backroads round here. By the end the track was as rough as a ploughed field”. Junior came second. Dirt track racing really suited him, the skills he’d picked up screaming through the night with a load of illegal alcohol translated perfectly to competition. On dirt, the back of a car tends to drift; at the speeds stock car racers are travelling you either use it or lose it. Junior had power-sliding fine tuned, kick the back out early, stay off the brake and use the throttle to make the car swing gently like a pendulum as it skims sideways through the apex of the turn. Throwing up dirt, dust, hot dog wrappers and stones in a motor-fuelled, sky-bound plume.

“When you’re drivin on dirt you don’t look out the windshield, you look out the side window. You watch where the back end of the car is, make sure it don’t over take you.”

Junior’s racing career took off faster than a good old boy in a customised Chevy. For a while… He just couldn’t kick the moonshine habit, he didn’t like the taste of it much but he just couldn’t stop haulin’ it, the money was too good. The cops couldn’t catch him on the roads but one night they laid an ambush at one of Robert Johnson Senior’s stills. Junior got jumped when he took fuel up there for the fire. He spent eleven months in the Ohio Federal Prison. When he got out he made the dirt tracks of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing his own. He didn’t win as many races as some other drivers, but that was his choice. Junior was a hard charger.

“If you’re truly racing you run as hard as you can the whole race.”

He didn’t drive tactically; he didn’t stalk other drivers waiting for a mistake that he could pounce on like a wild cat on a racoon. He thrashed the hell out of motors, tore axles from their mounts, shredded tyres, he ran cars so fast they fell apart. Junior was a hunting dog with the scent of the finish in his nostrils, he ran blind to everything but the line or ran till the metal and rubber underneath him failed to keep up the searing, rivet straining pace.

“I tried to beat competitors into the ground. Winning was everything, second or tenth didn’t make no difference. I lost doing 100% to win and the car just couldn’t take it. If you lose that race, if a tyre blows and you hit the wall it was the car that let you down. If I lost I was mad cause I didn’t have a better car.”

“Did my best. Did it for myself, didn’t give up and always pushed as hard as I could”

Up until the end of the fifties most racing was still on dirt ovals.

“I loved drivin’ on dirt but the dust was so bad you didn’t get the class of people you needed to draw, the ones with money. They didn’t go ‘cause they couldn’t wear the clothes they like to wear – they’d get covered in dust. It weren’t a classy way to watch racin’.”

NASCAR needed to bring in more money and that meant clearing the air. The purists didn’t like it, but dirt was out. One after another the circuits got new coatings of tarmac and the stands were painted with logos and brand names. A different surface meant a whole new driving technique, but Junior kept on charging. He loved the dirt but the new tracks meant more speed and that was all right with him. He crashed many times but always walked away, even if sometimes bleeding.

“You’re never afraid of a race car if you drive it, never scared of a wreck until you look at it after you walk away.”

The fans loved Junior for his attitude. They loved the simplicity of his cause, win or blow up trying. But team bosses didn’t always see it the same way, they couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t back off when he was clear in front of the pack, didn’t see why he had to push it full bore to the line, even when he had the competition beat. In 1961 at Virginia Speedway, Junior charged from four laps down to take the lead. Then he carried on. He put another four laps between him and the next closest cars. And kept on pushing. Junior had the race won and the pit crew were worried that the car would fail at that pace, they knew he could ease off a little and still take the flag.  Junior was carrying a two-way radio for the first time and probably the first time ever in Stock Car Racing. Team boss Rex Lovette asked Junior to slow down, he told him to slow, he implored him to slow down, he screamed SLOW DOWN. Junior kept his right thigh muscle tight and his ankle locked to the floor. The engine screamed the same note as it had all race, Rex screamed back, but Junior wasn’t listening. He just tapped his helmet, a prearranged sign that the radio had failed, and flipped the off switch so he wouldn’t have to hear his boss rant and rave in his ear. The pit team held out a board that read E-Z. Junior ignored it. When he pulled in for a pit stop Rex lost the plot. He grabbed a sledgehammer and ran to the car waving it like a tomahawk. Junior just smiled, gave him the finger and roared back on to the track. At the same speed as before.

“I knew that car would be fine. A car don’t run good slow if it’s set up to run fast.” Junior won the race, and Rex Lovett?

“Rex apologised.”

In nineteen sixty-three the living legend became immortal in the eyes of Southern race fans. The people of the Southern States have been the underdogs for decades. And like underdogs everywhere they love sticking a fork in the corpulent arse of the establishment. Chevrolet was also an underdog. They weren’t as big as the other carmakers. In nineteen sixty-three Junior Johnson drove a Chevy. Ford and Dodge had their teams, backed them with money and expertise, fuelled by corporate vanity. Junior had none of that. He had a car, but it was built and run without a cent of investment from Detroit. In nineteen sixty-three Junior Johnson drove a Chevy and charged, beat, dominated and simply outclassed everyone else. He didn’t finish on top, drove too hard for that, but in Junior’s head he rarely lost in a race, he just didn’t finish it.

Junior Johnson retired from racing in nineteen sixty-six. He decided at the start of the season and then just stopped after the last race. He’d made his mind up and just did it. He finished with fifty victories from three hundred and thirteen starts and more than a quarter of a million dollars in winnings. He says he never looked back, once his mind was set. But then he had done what he wanted to.

“Got a lot of satisfaction proving doin’ it my way was the best way.”

He got out of the car but he wouldn’t get out of racing. Junior became a team boss, and wouldn’t you know it, he was one of the most successful bosses in NASCAR history. He ran his teams like he ran his race cars, with one thing in mind, winning.

“If you gave me enough money I could set up and race a Greyhound bus – and win”.

He did everything but drive. He pored over blue-prints, grazed his knuckles with a wrench building the damn things, worked air-guns in the pits, heaved huge gravity fuel cans onto his shoulder to fill’ em up and get ‘em running again and picked through the pieces when they broke. He dealt with sponsors, drivers and mechanics.

“If you liked it you liked it, if you didn’t there wasn’t a damn thing you could do about it. I wasn’t hard on them. Just said this was what we’ve got to do to win and we just gonna get on and do it.”

In nineteen ninety-five Junior turned his back again. This time he left racing for good. When Junior Johnson finally quit the track he’d won another one hundred and twenty nine races as an owner and that included six championships. He’d started to get sick of the fact that racing wasn’t racing as he knew it, he could deal with sponsors and lawyers, beat them at their own game, but it wasn’t his game. He was all about race meetings not business meetings. The final straw was that in nineteen ninety-two Junior had married for the second time.  Lisa was less than half his age, a lot of things were said behind their backs but Junior didn’t care. Junior and Lisa have two children, Robert Glenn III and Meredith Suzanne. Family comes first.

“Ain’t trading my wife and babies for no damn race car. Since I quit racing I ain’t never been so happy in my life”

Every morning before seven AM, Junior Johnson wakes up and cooks breakfast for his wife and children. Once they’re school bound, he heads down the driveway from the house towards his workshop. The black, marble smooth asphalt is bordered by a tall black fence; each post and cross-member inch perfect. Inside the fence, green, close-cropped grass and gym-fit, free-ranging cattle. The workshop is a big square white building, a place of utility, antithesis to the large palatial mansion a few hundred yards away. The shop is plenty big enough to drag in a tractor out of the chill winter wind to work on, with space left over. Along the far wall stand heavy machining tools; lathes, mounted drills and cutting benches. An industrial shelving unit houses every bolt, nut or screw a guy could ever need. Along the opposite wall runs a kitchen worktop, cupboards, a sink, an oven and hob. Once inside, Junior cooks again, this time for the farm-boys and anyone who drops by to say “morning”, slouch on the old sofa and talk awhile. Junior’s a damn fine cook, just like most things he’s ever turned his hand and mind to. He enjoys it and it’s a relaxing way to start the day. Bacon, eggs, sausage, hash browns and grey gravy, coffee in the pot, take what you want, there’s Pepsi in the fridge if you need it.

“I don’t think other people put into racing as much as me; time, hours, will to win, to stick with it, determination to succeed….I was more determined than anybody.”

He stares straight ahead out the windshield of the GM.  A few more road miles thread into Junior’s eyes. Silence: then he glances across. That naughty boyish grin crosses his seventy one-year-old face again.

‘If I had my first choice I’d be moonshinin’. Had most fun doin’ that.”

Intersection Magazine, Issue 01

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