Goodbye Last American Hero

The thing that would get you about Junior Johnson is how he was exactly who you thought he would be and nothing at all like you thought he would be at exactly the same time. I think now about the time he invited me to his home for breakfast. It was in his garage out at his North Carolina farm, with car parts strewn everywhere you turned and with so many different kinds of bacon and sausage on the long wooden table that nobody seemed entirely sure what we we were eating.

There were a dozen or so good old boys sitting around in old love seats and couches and chaise lounges that looked as if they were picked up on the sides of country roads, and there at the heart of things was Junior Johnson himself wearing his blue overalls, drinking a third cup of gasoline that they insisted on calling coffee, telling the story of the time he ran Richard Petty into the wall because the son of a gun spun him out one time.

“Did he do it on purpose?” I piped up, my voice for some reason about three octaves higher than normal. You know that moment in the movies when somebody says the wrong thing and suddenly everybody goes deathly silent and turns and stares at the perpetrator. Yes, that was me, and I shrunk a little bit, but Junior himself didn’t miss a beat.

“Don’t know,” he said. “Either he done it deliberate or he done it because he couldn’t drive. Either way, I didn’t like it.”

So, yes, that was Junior Johnson exactly as I had imagined him, exactly as you might have imagined him, the old moonshiner turned race car driver turned race car owner turned legend. This was the last American hero Tom Wolfe wrote about (“The hardest of the hard chargers!”). This was Bruce Springsteen’s Junior Johnson running through the woods of Caroline. Being around him felt like being on the crew in Daytona in '63 when Chevrolet left NASCAR but Junior kept driving his Chevy around the track because he was too damn stubborn to quit. He won that day and he won six more times that year even though he had no money and had to keep fixing the car with old parts he had lying around and wholesale tires he’d find around town.

“You’d buy 15 tires,” he said, “and 10 of ‘em were square.”

But just when you thought you had him figured out, just when you thought you really knew Junior Johnson, he’d turn you inside out. Two years later, he traveled North Carolina canvassing for … Barack Obama. Four years later, he did it again. He loved Obama, loved how he stood up to pressure, admired his commitment to helping people. I once asked Junior how many people in and around NASCAR he thought were Obama supporters. It was shortly after a whole bunch of NASCAR drivers refused to go to the Obama’s White House.

He said, “Oh, probably more than you think.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, “that's assumin’ you think there’s zero.”

You probably know that Junior Johnson was arrested and jailed for moonshining when he was a young man. The federal agents never did catch him in a car. They could never have caught him in a car. No, they just showed up on a hunch at the home of Robert Johnson Sr., Junior’s daddy (it was a good hunch pretty much any day at the Johnson house). As it was, Junior had gotten out of the bootlegging business, but that day his daddy asked him to fire up to the still, and Junior always listened his daddy. The agents were standing outside when it happened. Junior got 11 months at a federal penitentiary in Chillicothe, Ohio. (Many years later, he was pardoned by a man he revered, Ronald Reagan; that was a gift the lifelong Democrat cherished for the rest of his life).

While in his prison, Junior Johnson wrote a letter to the judge who sentenced him and promised to one day urinate on the judge’s grave.

“Did you do it?” I asked.

“Of course I did,” Junior said. “I wasn’t going to let the man make a liar out of me as well as a jailbird.”

There he is again, the Junior Johnson you know, the folk hero you’d expect him to be. But in the next minute, he talked about how his favorite driver was Jeff Gordon, who was as far from a good old boy as NASCAR could get, the last person in the sport you might expect to threaten to urinate on the grave of a judge. “I figured out why a lot of NASCAR fans don’t like Jeff Gordon,” the comedian Jeff Foxworthy used to joke. “A lot of NASCAR fans don’t like Jeff Gordon because Jeff Gordon enunciates.”

Jeff Gordon? Even Gordon himself was genuinely surprised when I told him that he was Junior Johnson’s favorite driver. “Really?” he asked. I mean, wouldn’t you expect Johnson, who was so dangerous himself, to identify with another dangerous driver like a Dale Earnhardt or Tony Stewart or one of them Busch brothers? But for Junior, the admiration was simple. “That son of a gun can drive anything with four wheels on it,” he said of Gordon, and that was that.

Junior wanted to be a ballplayer, you know. A pitcher. To tell you the truth, that day in the garage Junior would have been happier just talking baseball. He was a lefty, and he could throw hard — he, like Bob Feller and Monty Stratton and Roy Hobbs and Old Hoss Radbourn grew up throwing baseballs against the family barn — and he really did believe that he would have pitched in the big leagues if a tractor hadn’t rolled over on him, crushing that arm. As we talked about it, You could sense a whiff of regret, well, no, not regret, that’s the wrong word. It was more like a whiff of wonder. He seemed to be off for a moment thinking about what that life might have looked like.

Instead, he began doing moonshine runs for his daddy through the dirt roads of the Brushy Mountains, and he learned how to soup up his car so that no vehicle with a siren on it could ever catch up. He drove like nobody else. He invented what he called the bootleg turn — whenever he’d come up upon a fed roadblock, he’d throw the car into second gear, turn the wheel as fast and far as it could be spun, slam on the pedal and head off in the opposite direction. Years later, when the moonshine war was over, fed agents used to say, “You used to keep up nights, Junior.”

To which he’d say: “Why was you losing sleep? There wasn’t no way you was going to catch me.”

He was a genius behind the wheel. You might know about the legend of 1960; Junior had a lousy car that year. It burned out 15 times. And it was at Daytona while driving that lousy car he figured out that if he tucked himself behind another car, he could keep up with that car with ease and it helped his fuel mileage too. He’d discovered drafting. He won the race.

He won 50 races in his time on the circuit, including 13 in 1965. That’s when he quit. Junior just didn’t see the challenge in it. Seemed like every time his car made it to the finish line, he won. “I get bored pretty easy,” he said. “I’d win a race, and think, ‘I already did that.’”

He became a car owner for a while — his fights with his drivers became legendary, particularly with Darrell Waltrip. Junior particularly remembered one time in Atlanta when Waltrip wanted to bring the car into the pits because it felt loose. Johnson got on the radio and said: “Like hell you are. You bring that car into the pits, I’m going to break the windshield with a hammer and strangle you.”

Waltrip stayed out on the track, slid and skidded through the turns, and won the race. “He was one dumb son of a gun,” Johnson said. “But he sure could drive a race car.”

And there’s the Junior Johnson you recognize.

But then I asked him if NASCAR had gone too Hollywood, too far away from its hard-charging, moonshining, wall-crashing roots.

“People say it’s gone Hollywood,” he said. “I think that’s good. They make a lot of money in Hollywood.”

And there’s the Junior Johnson you might not recognize.

My favorite Junior Johnson story comes from the last few years. He became a successful businessman away from racing. He remarried and had two kids. He left his farm and his beloved breakfasts when his health turned for the worse, and he moved into a quiet Charlotte suburb where he stayed busy and out of the way.

That’s when the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte was coming together, and they wanted a display that would show racing’s gritty roots. The sport began with those moonshiners outrunning the law. So they asked Junior to sketch out a moonshine still that they could display.

Instead of doing that, Junior Johnson built an actual moonshine still and gave it to them.

I love that so much; it would be like getting Philo Farnsworth to rebuild the first television system for the Television Hall of Fame or William Mayne to rebuild the set of golf clubs he made for King James IV for the Golf Hall of Fame.

But that’s not even the best part. The best part is that after creating a room large enough for the still — they had originally planned for a small model — the Hall of Fame pulled out all the parts and realized they had no idea how to put it together. So they called Junior Johnson and asked him to talk them through it.

“Aw hell,” Junior reportedly said, “I’ll be there in a few.”

He showed up at the Hall of Fame just a little while later, wearing his beloved overalls and holding pliers and a pipe wrench. He put the still together to the amazement of all. And as he walked away he said, “If you have any problems with it, you just let me know.”