Robert Glenn Johnson Jr. was born on June 28th of 1931 in the small area of Ingle Hollow, North Carolina. The son of Lara Belle Money and Robert Glenn Johnson Sr. was called Junior from his birth, even until today when the name Junior Johnson is synonymous with NASCAR.
The Johnson family made a living, just as many did in the 1940’s in the eastern North Carolinian county of Wilkes, by making and running moonshine illegally through the streets of the small towns and dirt roads. Though farming was their primary source of food, and spending massive amounts of time by today’s standards behind a plow wasn’t given a second thought, they needed some way to make ends meet, which is where moonshining came into their lives. Junior was moonshining before he got his driving license, but later admitted “I didn’t need a license, because I wasn’t going to stop anyway.”
During the 1950’s, Junior became relatively famous around eastern North Carolina for his ability to outrun any cop, using tricks such as adding a cop siren to his car to make the cops break up a road block up ahead. At this point, NASCAR was growing to a magnitude that gave them access to tracks in North Carolina to run smaller local races, which attracted many moonshiners, including Junior at the urge of his brother Fred. So in 1953 and 1954, Junior ran a total of 5 races.
In 1955 Junior ran 36 of the 45 races across the NASCAR Grand National (Sprint Cup) circuit. In only his sixth race that he completed since the dawn of his career, Junior won his first race at Hickory while driving for B & L Motors in an Oldsmobile. This win was on dirt, as fifteen of his first sixteen wins were. In 1955 Junior won five races while on his was to finishing sixth in the points, which put him in the position to win the NASCAR Rookie of the year, had it of existed in 1955. (The “Rookie of the Year” honors were not implicated until two years later, 1957)
1956 was most likely one of the first shining examples of a “sophomore slump,” after suffering many back of the pack finishes, and finishing in the top five only once in the first thirteen events. Then Junior’s year got even worse, while carrying wood to his father’s still in Ronda, North Carolina on a Sunday night after a race, the cops arrested him for his association with the illegal operation, which eventually led to a two year prison sentence in Chillicothe, Ohio. Junior later said that "the revenuers had it staked out." But less than twelve months from his sentencing, Junior was released from Chillicothe.
Junior wasn’t expecting to drive in the 1960 Daytona 500, but after persuasion from local dog kennel owner John Masoni, to drive his Ray Fox prepared 1959 Chevy, and a high competitor rate, with 68 cars entered to race, Junior decided it wouldn’t 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.” Though once he made it to the track and drove his car, he realized his car had little of the speed that the newer and more expensive Pontiacs had, and wasn’t happy. But once he tucked in behind one of the faster Pontiacs in practice and realized his car went faster, he was destined for a great showing, as he was the first to realize the concept of drafting, in which he unsurprisingly kept to himself as long as he could. After making this monumental discovery, Junior spent 67 of the 200 laps of the 1960 Daytona 500 leading, on his way to his first win of the season. After the 500, Junior raced the rest of the season for Masoni with only four races as an exception.
1961 saw Johnson accomplish seven wins to earn his career best finish of 6th in the points, which came after not even racing in eleven of the events.
1963 saw Johnson win seven races, and see the World 600 slip away after blowing a tire with three to go in his #3 Chevy while leading the field by two laps. While in his success, Junior also suffered 21 DNF’s in a total of 33 starts. And at the end of the season Johnson and his car owner Fox decided to switch to Dodge for the upcoming season.
The switch to Dodge appeared to pay immediate dividends, as Junior won one of the 100-mile qualifiers at Daytona in February of 1964, but soon, after the 18th race of the season, held at North Wilkesboro, Johnson started driving for Banjo Matthews in his Ford’s, which paid off to 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.
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, in entering 36 races Johnson drove his self-owned #26 and #27 to thirteen victories, eighteen top-fives, and being the lap leader of 56% of his laps ran, in arguably his best year of driving. Though, as with most of his career, Junior’s season was littered with nineteen races he did not finish. Junior’s fiftieth, and last, win was at his home track of North Wilkesboro Speedway the last time it was visited in 1966.
1966 saw Junior’s last start as a driver, at Rockingham Speedway, though not for performance reasons as he won three poles in just the seven races he ran that season. Junior wanted to start focusing on building his team to a standard that he felt it should be at.
The year after his retirement from driving, and focusing fully on owning his team, Johnson won his first NASCAR Grand National (Sprint Cup) race with driver Darel Dieringer at Johnson’s home track of North Wilkesboro Speedway in 1967.
In 1969, after multiple run-ins with NASCAR officials over oversized engines or gas tanks, Junior finally let everything come into place at his team, when he hired LeeRoy Yarbrough to drive. This choice showed to pay off after he won NASCAR’s first triple-crown, in winning the Daytona 500, World 600, and the Southern 500.
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 was such a great salesman for the stock car racing sponsorship venture that by the end of the meeting, Reynolds was ready to talk to Bill France about sponsoring the series. And thus, the NASCAR Winston Cup Series brand was born.
Cale Yarborough drove for Johnson from 1974 until 1980, winning the championship from 1976-1978, becoming the first to win three championships in a row, and the only until Jimmie Johnson broke his record in 2009, winning four in a row.
On the day after Christmas of 1986, Ronald Reagan gave Junior a full pardon on his previous record involving moonshining.
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 III and their daughter Meredith.
After three wins in 1994 with Bill Elliott and Jimmy Spencer, Johnson’s team went winless in 1995 which convinced him that it was time to retire from NASCAR to his farm, so at the end of the year, Johnson sold his team to Brett Bodine.
In 2004 the state 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 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 2011 Junior announced his plans to launch a new race team to help thrust his 17 year-old son Robert to stardom in NASCAR. The new Junior Johnson Racing shops will be based on his 278-acre estate in Hamptonville, North Carolina. The team will run the full K&N Pro East Series and maybe one or more races on the West Series, while intermediately running UARA and Whelen All-American Series late model races. The eventual plan is for Robert to make it to the Sprint Cup series, after attending Duke University once high school is out of the way, which should be in less than two years.
Junior now lives with his wife Lisa and two children, Robert and Meredith, in their 14,000-square-foot home in Ronda, North Carolina. At home Johnson loves to garden, and fix his friends, workers, and others breakfast almost every morning from his successful Junior Johnson meat products. Johnson claims his kitchen is his “gossip shop” where “the next president will probably be decided right here in this room.” His two kids have previously attended the Forsyth Country Day School. Junior also owns part of a moonshine business, that he makes sure to tell people is definitely legal, unveiling in 2009 his own brand called Midnight Moon, which is sold in Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.
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