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