Junior Johnson, Moonshine Runner And NASCAR Champion, Dies At 88

Illustration for article titled Junior Johnson, Moonshine Runner And NASCAR Champion, Dies At 88
Image: AP Images

Robert Glenn Johnson, Jr. was among the most prolific NASCAR champions of all time, having run 313 races over a 14 year career, netting 50 wins of his own before winning six Cup championships as a team owner, three each with Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip. The 88-year-old NASCAR legend passed away Friday after entering hospice care earlier this week. He is survived by his wife Lisa and their two children, Meredith Suzanne, and Robert Glenn Johnson, III.

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Johnson embodied the Good Ol’ Boy image that NASCAR was known for in the 50s and 60s, getting his start in 1955 after a career as a second-generation Bootlegger ostensibly taught him how to drive.

While Johnson was never caught on the road haulin’ shine, he was arrested in 1956 when his family farm was raided, and spent a year in jail in Ohio. He later received a presidential pardon from Ronald Reagan in 1986.

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Johnson grew up not far from the North Wilkesboro Speedway in North Carolina. According to legend, the track had scheduled to run a modifieds race, but didn’t have enough cars entered to run the race. Rather than leave the track empty for that time, promoters invited race attendees to run their street cars. Johnson ran his 1939 Ford, and was immediately bit by the racing bug.

Once he started winning, he didn’t really stop, having eight successful seasons with victories in each of them. He never came close to winning a championship, however, finishing as high as 6th in the season. In the height of his career, he was called the “lead-footed chicken farmer”. He retired from the sport at 35 years old, still with plenty of driving ability.

For three additional decades, Johnson could be found on the NASCAR circuit as a team owner. With more than a hundred victories as a team owner, his final race win came with Bill Elliott’s Southern 500 win in 1994.

In fact, NASCAR owes much of its success to Johnson as he brokered the deal between the series and R.J. Reynolds for title sponsorship of the “Winston Cup” in the 1970s, which finally ended in 2003. “They told me they had millions of dollars to spend,” Johnson said in a 2016 article in Popular Speed. “Now, I wanted some of that. But it occurred to me that if I made a counter proposal, it could benefit NASCAR and everyone in racing — including me.”

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He was inducted into the NASCAR hall of fame in 2010.

Jalopnik contributor with a love for everything sketchy and eclectic.

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DISCUSSION

offyatindy
offyatindy

Junior lived forever or so it seemed. They made an autobiographical movie, called The Last American Hero, with Jeff Bridges, Gary Busey and Valerie Perrine about him almost 50 years ago after writer Tom Wolfe, he of white suits, wrote a story about him in Esquire magazine. It wasn’t a bad movie, at least not for 1973. Which is about when I last saw it....and (edit) I almost forgot...I have a Junior story...Back in the early 80's I went to a Winston Cup race at Richmond Raceway with my cousin Steve. Now Steve wasn’t much of a racing fan, but he was a reader of Esquire magazine and fan of Tom Wolfe. We were wandering around outside the track area when Steve spotted Junior in a sedan of some sort with the windows rolled up. Steve knocked on the window, Junior rolled down the window, silently proferred an autograph and went on his way, which made Steve’s day.

Also, I remember reading an interview with Junior where he said the old moonshine runners had turbochargers (or maybe superchargers) way back in the day, implying the cars were pretty advanced, even though they looked like jalopies.

Finally, I understand there is a spirit called Midnight Moon Moonshine, which is said to be made from the Johnson family recipe. Perhaps I’ll try a sip or three.

Seems like Mr. Johnson had a good run. RIP Junior.