Robert Glenn “Junior” Johnson, the moonshine runner-turned-NASCAR driver described as “The Last American Hero” by author Tom Wolfe in a 1965 article for Esquire, died Friday. He was 88.
NASCAR announced the death of Johnson, the winner of 50 races as a driver and 132 as an owner. He was a member of the inaugural class inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2010.
“From his early days running moonshine through the end of his life, Junior wholly embodied the NASCAR spirit,” NASCAR Chairman Jim France said in a statement. “He was an inaugural NASCAR Hall of Famer, a nod to an extraordinary career as both a driver and team owner. Between his on-track accomplishments and his introduction of (sponsor) Winston to the sport, few have contributed to the success of NASCAR as Junior has.
“The entire NASCAR family is saddened by the loss of a true giant of our sport, and we offer our deepest condolences to Junior’s family and friends during this difficult time.”
From North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, Johnson was named one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers in 1998 after a 14-year career that ended in 1966 and included a win in the 1960 Daytona 500. He honed his driving skills running moonshine through the North Carolina hills, a crime for which he received a federal conviction in 1956 and a full presidential pardon in 1986 from President Ronald Reagan.
He was first immortalized by Wolfe in 1965 and later in a 1973 movie adaptation starring Jeff Bridges.
As a car owner for drivers that included Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough, Bill Elliott and Terry Labonte, Johnson claimed six Cup championships. His last race win as an owner was the 1994 Southern 500 with Elliott.
Waltrip said he grew up only dreaming of one day meeting Johnson, but surpassed that by getting to drive for his hero.
“He became my boss and made me a champion, I loved that man, God Bless Jr and his family. You were the greatest!” Waltrip said on Twitter.
Johnson also is credited with bringing the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company to NASCAR, which then led to Winston sponsoring its premier series from 1971-2003.
“The Last American Hero is gone and so leaves a huge dent in NASCAR racing. Junior Johnson was one of American sports’ great characters and one of the best racer and car owners ever. His mountain man drawl and tricks were legendary,” former race promoter Humpy Wheeler said. “He’ll go down as one of racing’s great ticket sellers.”
Johnson is credited with discovering drafting — using the slipstream of the car in front of you on the track to keep up or slingshot past. Using that maneuver, he won the 1960 Daytona 500, outrunning several cars that were about 10 mph faster.
As a young man, Johnson built a reputation as a moonshiner who could outrun the law on the mountain roads like no one else. He’s credited with inventing the Bootleg Turn, a maneuver that spins the car into a quick 180-degree turn and sends it speeding off in the opposite direction.
Johnson began driving at age 8, long before he had a license.
“I didn’t need one anyway,” he often said with a laugh. “They weren’t going to catch me.”
At 24, Johnson turned that talent to racing and became a superstar in NASCAR in the 1950s and 1960s. He walked away from the sport in 1996 to concentrate on his other businesses, including a line of fried pork skins and country ham.
“I had done just about everything in racing that I wanted to do,” Johnson said in an interview with The Associated Press before driving the pace car for the start of the 2008 Daytona 500, the 50th running of that event. “I do miss being in the garage sometimes, but I just wasn’t excited about going racing anymore.”
Johnson was never caught on the roads during his moonshining days, but he was arrested by federal authorities in 1956 when he was caught working at his father’s still. He was sentenced to 20 months but was released after 11 months in federal prison in Chillicothe, Ohio.
Although a lifelong Democrat, Johnson was pardoned by Reagan. In his later years, Johnson often said that the pardon in December 1986 was “the greatest thing in my life.”
Johnson is survived by wife Lisa, daughter Meredith and son Robert Glenn Johnson III.