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Junior Johnson leaves a lasting legacy in NASCAR’s history

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Moonshiner, NASCAR driver and former team owner Junior Johnson passed away on December 20th at age 88. His health had been on the decline recently and he died peacefully while under hospice care. He was a larger-than-life character who became one of the most influential personalities in NASCAR and was one of the first inductees into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, beside Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty, Bill France Sr., and Bill France Jr.

As a moonshiner in and around his hometown of Ronda, North Carolina, Junior built fast cars that could outrun the police when running bootleg whiskey through the local hills, and earned a reputation with said law enforcement to the point where bounties were placed on his capture. Junior never did get caught, although he would be arrested in 1956 for lighting up another family members’ still during a police sting operation, netting him 20 months in federal prison in Ohio. He served only 11 months of that sentence before being released, and later received a presidential pardon for his crime, from Ronald Reagan in 1986.

Rebel 300, Darlington, SC, 1965. Junior Johnson in victory lane.

Junior Johnson’s real passion was driving fast and he soon realized that he could make a few bucks legally by racing his modified race cars at local tracks like North Wilkesboro Speedway, one of the earliest NASCAR-sanctioned venues. His first official race was almost an afterthought, when the track president of North Wilkesboro asked members of the racing audience to enter into a race where there were too few competitors. Junior entered his 1939 Ford and the rest was history. His first official NASCAR start was in the 1953 Southern 500. He would go on to win 50 NASCAR races, the most wins accumulated by any NASCAR driver without winning a championship. His inaugural win in the NASCAR series was in Hickory, NC in 1955, a year in which he won five races.

His first big win was the 1960 Daytona 500. Pontiac had the entire field covered that year in terms of raw speed, but in the week of practice before the race, Junior, driving a year-old Chevrolet, was credited with being the first driver to discover drafting as a way to get more performance out of your own car, and used that trick all the way to the finish line. Junior continued to race on a limited schedule throughout the Sixties, racing in the events that had the big paychecks, but never running a complete schedule. In 1961, he won seven races and finished sixth in points running in only 41 starts. In 1965, as a team owner, he fielded a car for driver Bobby Issac and his success as a team owner continued up into the mid-1990s, winning three owner’s championships in a row with Cale Yarborough from 1976-’78 and another three championships with driver Darrell Waltrip. Future Hall of Famers Terry Labonte, Bill Elliot, and Geoff Bodine also raced (and won) in Junior Johnson-owned cars. Junior eventually retired as an owner in 1994 when he sold his race team to Brett Bodine.

Daytona 500, Daytona, FL, 1965. Freddie Lorenzen (#28) runs wheel to wheel with Junior Johnson (#27).

Junior Johnson was also credited with bringing the RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company into motorsports. While trying to secure team sponsorship in 1971, Junior approached RJ Reynolds. This was shortly after cigarette advertising had been kicked off commercial television. When the company asked Junior how much money he was looking for, Junior said he hoped to get $700,000 to $800,000 for a one-year sponsorship. RJ Reynolds laughed this off saying they had millions in advertising dollars to spend and could not be bothered with such small potatoes. Junior then suggested they become the corporate sponsor for all of NASCAR, and he then put them in touch with Bill France Sr. The Winston Cup was a 33-year partnership for the sport, and NASCAR grew in popularity exponentially during that time. Junior, however, did not get any of that sponsorship money, as RJ Reynolds thought it would not be appropriate to sponsor a single car team in addition to the entire sport.

With the news of his passing, NASCAR Hall of Fame curator Winston Kelly stated “We have lost one of NASCAR’s true pioneers, innovators, competitors and an incredible mechanical and business mind. And personally, I have lost one of my dearest friends. While we will miss Junior mightily, his legacy and memory will forever be remembered, preserved, celebrated and cherished at the NASCAR Hall of Fame and in the hearts and minds of race fans around the world. Please join us in remembering and celebrating Robert Glenn Johnson Jr.” Visitors to the NASCAR Hall of Fame can also view a moonshiner’s still that Junior donated to the museum in the Heritage Speedway display as well as his enshrinement in the museum’s Hall Of Honor. Well wishers and NASCAR fans can leave condolences at his announcement.