Thursday, November 19, 2009

Junior Johnson

Robert Glenn Johnson Jr. was born June 28th, 1931 in Ingle Hollow, North Carolina, just a few miles away from the area that the North Wilkesboro Speedway would be built. Due to Johnson being the second generation Robert Glenn Johnson, people decided to simply call him Junior. This name stuck and from his childhood on Junior Johnson has been known as Junior Johnson.

The first time Johnson really showed potential behind the wheel of a car was back in 1945. Johnson's father had began moonshining to be able to feed his family in the early 1940's and by the age of 14 had the younger Johnson driving his car to make "runs," or making the shipment of their moonshine all over the mountains of eastern North Carolina. The Johnson family did not farm during the time, which was the normal way to make a living in that area in that time, because of the price of the equipment involved. Instead they decided to go the illegal route and distribute moonshine, which slowly was tuning Johnson's driving ability.

By the time the 1950's rolled around Junior had grown in infamy across the state for his ability to outrun law enforcing officials in any situation. Not only did Johnson have a great driving ability, he also had some tricks up his sleeve in how to escape the cops. Johnson carried a cop siren in his car which he used at one point to confuse cops into breaking up a road block at a bridge. Also, Johnson created the now famous Bootleg Turn where he would turn the car sharply to the left, put it in a low gear making the car turn 180-degrees. These actions would put Johnson into a direct game of chicken with the law, and Johnson got away with it every time.

By 1953 NASCAR was growing into a reputable organization for racers to come show their talent, while making a small amount of money in the process. NASCAR was moving into more and more small local dirt tracks across North Carolina, which attracted Junior and many other moonshiners across the state. So with motivation from his brother Fred, Junior started his first NASCAR Grand National (Sprint Cup) race at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina. Johnson ended up crashing out of this race only 220 laps in, but managed to take home a respectable $110.

The Darlington race sparked Junior's interest in NASCAR and in 1954 the young 23 year old Johnson started four more races in the Grand National (Sprint Cup) series. His first was at Hickory Motor Speedway, where he finished an impressive 5th place driving a new 1954 Hudson. The second race he participated in had 63 cars start the race at Langhorne Speedway in Langhorne, Pennsylvania; Johnson started 7th and finished a respectable 15th. Next up was the Memphis-Arkansas Speedway in the now defunct LeHi, Arkansas where Johnson got his first pole in only his fourth Grand National (Sprint Cup) start. The finish of this race, and the next at Martinsville ended in DNF's due to mechanical issues.

In 1955 Junior decided to run a majority of races in the NASCAR Grand National (Sprint Cup) circuit, skipping only those that were too far. An overwhelming majority of these races were run in the B&L Motors #55 Oldsmobile, which solidified his spot in the sport by having a consistent ride throughout the year. Johnson had many mechanical issues throughout the year, posting a DNF in 18 of the 36 races he entered. But these DNF's did not weigh on his mind, as shown by the races that he did not have a problem in, where Johnson finished no worse than 10th. Also Johnson got his first win that year, winning at the Hickory Motor Speedway, and then going on to win four more races across two more states (Pennsylvania and New York). This allowed Junior to finish 6th in the points, which had it existed, would have won him the Rookie of the Year title for 1955.

1956 and 1957 were some of Johnson's worst years in his entire NASCAR career. 1956 saw Johnson only finished two of his 13 races, while one of those finishes was a second at Charlotte, it did not surpass the negativity that came from Johnson getting arrested at his home in Ronda, North Carolina. While carrying wood to his father's still, the cops rushed in and arrested Johnson for his association with an illegal operation. This resulted in Johnson serving 11 months of a 2 year prison sentence in Chillicothe, Ohio. After he got out, Johnson raced one race of the 1957 NASCAR Grand National (Sprint Cup) Series, at North Wilkesboro Speedway. At this race Johnson experienced engine issues and finished 20th out of a 26 car field.

Johnson finally came back to the NASCAR Grand National (Sprint Cup) Series in 1958, picking up where he left off in 1955. He won six races, and finished six more times in 2nd-4th. With these outstanding results also came multiple crashes and mechanical failures, which meant by the end of the season Johnson had ten DNF's. It shows how dominant of a season Junior had when even after ten DNF's he ended his 27 race season with an average finish of 12th. The next year, in 1959, Johnson raced in 28 races, winning five of them and posting fifteen top 10 finishes.

Johnson came into 1960 not expecting to run the year's Daytona 500 but after being persuaded by the Daytona dog kennel owner John Masoni, Johnson strapped into a Ray Fox prepared 1959 Chevrolet. Johnson decided that entering this race would not be a bad idea, stating "it was cold in the mountains where I lived, and I figured a little Florida sunshine would feel good, so I headed down to Daytona." This race featured the largest field of any Daytona 500 in history with 68 cars entered, and later on featured the largest wreck in NASCAR history with 37 cars involved. But once the race settled in, Johnson was able to make a discovery that eventually effected the result of the race. Driving his year old Chevrolet against the brand new Pontiac's, Johnson realized that pulling up behind them really close helped propel his car past and ultimately discovered the new concept of drafting. This monumental discovery helped Johnson get to the lead and hold it for 67 laps on the way to winning his first race of 1960, becoming only the second winner of the Daytona 500.

In 1961 Johnson raced in more NASCAR Grand National (Sprint Cup) races than in any seasons in his career with 41. The season had 52 races overall, but as with any season in the racing career of Johnson he skipped the races that were too far or not worth going to. This was also the first year of the extended relationship between him and the Holly Farms brand when he drove Rex Lovette's #27 Holly Farms Pontiac. In the 41 races Johnson participated in he won 7 races and 10 poles, only winning a pole and the race in the same weekend twice. This year was Johnson's best in the points, tying his 1955 result of 6th.

Johnson no longer ran with the Rex Lovette group after the 19th race of the season at Hickory and by the end of the season had driven for five different owners. This may have been because of the fact that he only finished eight of the 23 races he participated in, winning only one. Even though Johnson only finished eight races, he did manage to finish all eight in the top 10.

In 1963 Johnson managed to get his sponsorship from Holly Farms back, but this time driving with owner Ray Fox in the #3 Chevrolet. Johnson ran 33 races, while only finishing 12 of them. But, as shown by previous seasons Junior managed to have much success in the races he did finish; winning seven races and finishing in the top ten an amazing 14 times Junior had a great season. Johnson almost had an eighth win at Charlotte in the World 600 but after extending a two lap lead he lost a tire with three to go and ended up finishing second to Fred Lorenzen. Following the 1963 season Johnson and Ray Fox decided to switch to Dodge for the upcoming year in hopes of more finishes and opportunities to win races.

The switch to Dodge appeared to pay immediate dividends, as Junior won one of the 100-mile qualifiers at Daytona in February of 1964 and finished in the top 20 in all but one of the ten races he raced with White that year. But after the 18th race of the season, held at North Wilkesboro, Johnson began to drive for Banjo Matthews in his Ford’s, which paid dividends for Johnson to the tune of two more wins that year. That NASCAR season included 62 races, with many people racing nearly all of them, such as Richard Petty, Ned Jarrett, and David Pearson, while Junior only drove in 29 of them, finishing 14th in the points. One of the saddest moments of the 60’s for NASCAR happened at the World 600 when Fireball Roberts was avoiding the crashing Johnson and Ned Jarrett and slammed directly into a gate opening and burst into flames. This severe wreck ended the life of the 35 year old competitor and caused many people to question the safety of NASCAR.

In 1965, NASCAR banned Chrysler’s Hemi engine from race competition, and in protest Chrysler pulled out of the sport which left a huge opportunity for Ford and Johnson to dominate, and that they did. Entering 36 races in his self-owned #26 and #27, Johnson drove to thirteen victories, and five more top-fives. This success was, as with most of his career, littered with nineteen races he did not finish. Johnson got his last win of his driving career at his home track, the North Wilkesboro Speedway, putting his win tally up to 50. 1965 also was the year of the publication The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. Yes! in the Esquire magazine which put Johnson and NASCAR into the public eye in a way that had never happened before.

The last year Johnson ran as a driver was not as glorious as the retirement years of drivers today as he only started seven races, and did not finish the first six. The seventh and last race for Johnson that season was at Rockingham Speedway where he finished fifth. This final race marked Johnson's 313th race, with 121 of those being finished somewhere inside the top 5.

The year after his retirement from driving Johnson decided to focus fully on owning his own team. This paid off early as he won his first NASCAR Grand National (Sprint Cup) race with driver Darel Dieringer at Johnson’s home track of North Wilkesboro Speedway early in 1967.

For 1968 Johnson hired LeeRoy Yarbrough to drive his car for two years, and in those two years the team raced in 48 races, winning nine (including the 1969 triple-crown, the Daytona 500, World 600, and Southern 500)and finishing 28 races in the top 10. Throughout these two years Johnson gained a reputation for modifying parts, when he was constantly getting in trouble with NASCAR for having over-sized engines or gas tanks in search of an advantage.

In December of 1970, Junior paid a visit to R.J. Reynolds tobacco to find out about a sponsor opportunity. Due to the company having extra money in their advertising budget due to the law passed by the U.S. government preventing cigarette manufactures from having commercials on public television Johnson convinced the executives to venture into motorsports. This led to Reynolds speaking to Bill France about sponsoring the entire Grand National (Sprint Cup) series, and thus, the NASCAR Winston Cup Series brand was born.

After taking a couple years off as a car owner, Johnson decided to come back in 1974 to field a car for Cale Yarborough. Early success came as in 1974 Cale won four races on his way to a second place points finish. Then in 1975 Cale only won three races and placed 9th in points. But this mediocre year must have motivated the team because from 1976-1978 there was no stopping the Junior Johnson race team. Each of those three years Cale won the championship, becoming the first to win three in a row. Also in those three years Cale and Johnson won 28 races and finished 70 times in the top 5.

Yarborough drove two more years for Johnson's race team, finishing 4th and 2nd respectively in 1979 and 1980. But when Yarborough wanted to cut back to a part-time schedule, Johnson had to find a replacement. This search led him to the front door of Darrell Waltrip, the young man who the year prior experienced five wins amidst twelve DNF's.

The move to sign Waltrip proved to be a good one because in 1981 and 1982 Johnson's team won 24 races and the NASCAR Winston (Sprint) Cup championship in each year. In 1983 Waltrip won six races and came very close to winning the championship, but narrowly missed out behind Bobby Allison.

1984 through 1986 had Neil Bonnett racing with Johnson's team alongside Waltrip. Between the two drivers in the three years they found 16 wins and 76 top 5's, proving the strength of Johnson's cars even with two teams to field.

1986 also was the year that Johnson received a gift greater than winning a race. On the day after Christmas President Ronald Reagan gave Johnson a full pardon on his previous record involving moonshining.

In 1987 Waltrip made the move to Rick Hendrick's team and Bonnett moved to RahMoc Enterprises, leaving Johnson without a driver. This led Johnson to pickup a driver he had been competing with in the years prior, Terry Labonte. Labonte drove for Johnson all the way through 1989, winning four races and having a best points finish of third in 1987.

Johnson hired Geoff Bodine away from the Hendrick organization for the 1990 season in hopes of a comeback from the prior few year's lackluster. This was only slightly the case as they won three races together in 1990, finishing third in the points. The next year was not as successful as only one race was won and seven races ended in a DNF with Bodine. Johnson had also fielded a second car in 1991 for Sterling Marlin, but that car also did not have much success, only finishing in the top 5 seven times. These two years showed that Johnson's domination from the 80's may have been coming to a close.

In 1992, Junior shocked many in the NASCAR world by divorcing his wife Flossie, and just weeks later marrying his current wife Lisa, who is 30 years younger than Junior. This new marriage resulted in his two kids, son Robert Glenn Johnson III and their daughter Meredith. Johnson also found a new partner in NASCAR as he hired Bill Elliott to drive his #11 Budweiser Ford. This resulted in Johnson's final year competing for a championship as Elliott won five races and finished second in the points to Alan Kulwicki. Marlin's team failed to win a race in 1992, resulting in him being replaced by Hut Stricklin.

Between Elliott and Stricklin the Junior Johnson race team only was able to muster up 17 top 10's over 30 races each. This ended Stricklin's short stint with Johnson's team, and resulted in the placement of Jimmy Spencer in the McDonald's #27 car for 1994.

After going winless since 1992 Johnson finally got to victory lane at Daytona in July with Spencer, then again at Talladega with Spencer. Finally, Elliott found his way to victory lane at Darlington in what would prove to be Johnson's last win in the NASCAR Winston (Sprint) Cup series.

After Elliott and Spencer both parted ways with Johnson for the 1995 season, he hired Brett Bodine to drive his #11 Lowe's Ford. This year resulted in only two top 10's and a 20th place finish in the points. These results convinced Johnson that it was time to retire from NASCAR to his farm, so at the end of the year Johnson sold his team to Bodine.

In 2004 the North Carolina Department of Transportation named a section of U.S. 421 in Wilkes County after Junior, and from that day forward, that stretch of the road, “Junior Johnson Highway,” has marked the significance Junior made in NASCAR, Wilkes County, and the country.

In 2007 Johnson decided to share his family moonshining recipe with the Piedmont Distillers company to be able to publicly sell his product. They labeled it Junior Johnson's Midnight Moon and have since created a brand that is known across the country.

In 2009, Johnson’s name was once again brought to the public spotlight, along with Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt Sr., and the father-son combination of Bill France Jr. and Sr., by being one of the first five inductees to be marked as a part of history at the newly built NASCAR Hall of Fame.

In 2012 Johnson decided to sell his 10,000 square foot home and farm in Ronda, North Carolina for #2.3 million to be able to move closer to Charlotte. The new house the Johnson's moved into was a 8,600 square foot country club home with literal french furnishing, moving far away in design from his Wilkes County farm house. That is where he, his wife, and two kids reside now while Johnson is in his 82nd year and his son is working on his degree from Duke University.

Junior Johnson: Brave In Life (Book)

Driving with the Devil: Southern Moonshine, Detroit Wheels, and the Birth of NASCAR

Junior Johnson Biography

Johnson Sells Former Home

Robert Johnson Picks Duke Over Racing

Johnson Takes Up Residence in New Home

Junior Johnson Career Statistics

Junior Johnson Owner Statistics

Junior Johnson Midnight Moon