Past Times

Racing legend outran the law

Junior Johnson ready to race in the early 1960s.
Junior Johnson ready to race in the early 1960s. News & Observer file photo

This week, as part of its “First Friday” program, the N.C. Museum of History will host NASCAR’s Junior Johnson and show the feature film “The Last American Hero,” which was inspired by Johnson’s career on and off the track. When the movie was first released in 1973, N&O writer Gerald Martin chatted with the racing legend.

The last American hero stood outside the Capri Theater and talked about the movie his life inspired. Bedecked in sporty clothes, a wide-lapel blue blazer with red stitching, the hero talked about a bygone day, a day of T-shirts and overalls, flathead Fords and Mason jars, fighting and starving, and getting caught and getting rich.

“The Last American Hero” was unveiled here last week at a sneak preview. It is based on articles by Tom Wolfe which were inspired by the life of the hero – a stout gentleman with a double chin, flecks of gray streaking his hair, calluses on his hands and lead in his feet.

Leadfoot. That was the only way Junior Johnson knew to go from point Y to point Z, whether on a dirt, half-mile race track or on a backwoods road out of Ingle Hollow, running fruit jars of moonshine to High Point, Winston-Salem or Greensboro.

Did you like the movie, Junior?

“I have to like it, don’t I,” he grinned. “Really, it’s not supposed to be the story about my life, but some of the stuff comes home. There’s things in the movie that are a lot like they were when I was messin’ with booze.” …

Junior Johnson, as best he can recall, began hauling white whisky as a lad of 14 or 15. He ran … seven nights a week and was never caught by a “revenooer.” He was busted once, while his car was being loaded at a still. Once his engine revved, though, Junior Johnson was king of the road.

“You ran wide open loaded or empty,” he recalls. “The theory was if you passed the law on the side of the road you’d be gone before he could ever get in high gear.”

The cars used to haul the moonshine were usually Fords, 1939 or ’40 coupes, complete with souped-up engines, sirens and red light in the grills.

“We were able to get away because they (the law) had nothing but stock cars,” said Johnson. “They just weren’t meant for high speeds. Even in the last months, when we’d get chased about every time we made a run we didn’t have that much trouble getting away.”

Running scared from North Wilkesboro to Charlotte made racing on a track in broad daylight a cakewalk for Johnson. Reflexes honed to a keen edge by broadsliding through dead man’s curves and outrunning headlamp beams, Johnson found the transition to legalized speeding a breeze.

“I could drive a race car just as good the first day I ever raced as I could the day I quit,” Johnson said. “I think I could have driven and been pretty successful at it if I hadn’t run booze, but it would have taken a couple years.”

The N&O May 27, 1973

Johnson was inducted into the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame in 1982, and Martin visited him at his home near Ronda, “within earshot of his Ingle Hollow birthplace.”

Twenty-six acres of racing success, a bit of it bought on the spoils of luck, most of it earned on high-speed, hard-charging Sunday afternoons. And all of it is shared with Flossie, a dear woman who bakes the best biscuits in Wilkes County – and points north, south, east and west.

Junior and Flossie have been waiting a spell for this day, which they thought might never come. The moonshining past, you know. But the man Tom Wolfe once described as “the last American hero,” will have his day.

Johnson quit driving at the height of his career, after winning 13 races in 1965. ….

He had won the original stock car racing grand slam – Daytona, Darlington and Charlotte – at the only super speedways then in existence. The desire to keep going had ebbed. …

Johnson’s background intrigued reporters back in the ’50s and ’60s. They wouldn’t let his midnight runs and Mason jar livelihood gather dust. Though Johnson avoided the issue for years, he now contends the stock car driver’s legacy of illegal booze was a blessing. …

“The writers made heroes of us all. And the booze made race drivers of a lot of us because of the racing experience we got on the highways. It was the best kind of experience because it was for keeps.”

Without the moonshining experience, he said, he may never have driven a race car. …

Johnson paid the price, though he was never caught in any of those chases by “revenooers” in the Wilkes County hills. He and his daddy were arrested at a still in 1956 and Johnson served two years in a federal penitentiary in Ohio. …

Regrets? None, Johnson said. The illegal liquor he ran, he said, was the best, because his daddy made it. His racing career was the best, he said, because he went out on top. …

And the way Junior looks at it, the past is just an early chapter in the present and the future. Without it, the book isn’t complete. The N&O Sept. 15, 1982

Read more stories from local and state history and send us your own stories on the blog Past Times, newsobserver.com/past-times.

Leonard: 919-829-4866 or tleonard@newsobserver.com

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