Noted author Tom Wolfe called Robert Glenn Johnson Jr. (June 28, 1931-December 20, 2019) of Wilkes County, North Carolina, “The Last American Hero” in March 1964’s ESQUIRE magazine; a story that introduced to the general public a man known to everyone in motorsports as “Junior.”
A fierce, hard-nosed driver and an innovative mechanic and team owner, Johnson’s and NASCAR’s roots share the rural South’s moonshine history where on Sunday afternoons the delivery drivers raced against each other on makeshift tracks to see who had the fastest car.
Johnson was part of this lifestyle as his father was a moonshiner and at age 15 he began such deliveries of this illicit product by way of making high-speed runs on the dirt roads of North Carolina. And on these nightly trips he learned the car control that arguably made him the sport’s best dirt-track driver.
He has also admitted that, including all of his NASCAR rides, the fastest car he ever drove was a moonshine delivery vehicle – quite possibly his black 1940 Ford Standard Coupe powered by an overhead-valve V-8 engine from an early 1950s Cadillac ambulance.
Johnson’s first victory in major NASCAR Modified competition took place on July 4, 1953, when he won a 200-mile 73-car race at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway. Then on September 7, 1953, he made his first start in NASCAR’s top series at Darlington and raced almost exclusively in the Cup Series until he retired as a driver after finishing fifth in his No. 47 Ford in the American 500 at North Carolina Motor Speedway in Rockingham on October 30, 1966.
But while getting his NASCAR career going, Johnson continued working for his father and on June 2, 1956, he was caught at the still and charged with making non-taxed whiskey. He pled guilty, paid a $5,000 fine and spent 11 months and three days of a two-year sentence in the federal prison in Chillicothe, Ohio. He was then released on December 27, 1957.
However, he continued delivering illegal liquor because the money – $500 a night – was just too good to pass up. And it was not until 1960 when Johnson – who was pardoned by President Ronald Reagan in 1986 – decided to just concentrate on his race-car driving.
Identified in 1998 as one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers, Johnson’s most important win came at the 1960 Daytona 500 as it had a major influence on the development of the sport.
In practice for the February 14 event and during the race, itself, Johnson found that if he drove his underpowered John Masoni-owned/Ray Fox-prepared white No. 27 1959 Chevrolet right up to the rear bumper of faster cars that he went faster, too. And this practice that he is crediting with discovering – “drafting” – helped him move through the field and on to victory.
He also drove one of 1963’s “Mystery Motor” Mark IV 427-cubic-inch Chevrolets – the white No. 3 Holly Farms Poultry Impala – and won seven races and nine poles in 32 starts.
While as a car owner his yellow No. 26 Holly Farms Ford Galaxie driven by Fred Lorenzen in the Dixie 400 at Atlanta (Ga.) Motor Speedway on August 7, 1966, was so outlandishly “massaged” – sloped, narrowed and lowered – it was known as the “The Yellow Banana” and it caused NASCAR to begin using body templates during technical inspections.
Instrumental in 1971 in getting R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. to invest millions of dollars into NASCAR – which created a tighter, richer and more marketable Winston Cup Series – the popular driver was never a NASCAR Cup Series champion as his get-to-the-front-and-run-all-out driving style often saw his engines blow instead of taking him to victory. But he won 50 Cup races (including at least one win at every superspeedway of his era) and 47 poles in 313 starts.
As a car owner, Junior Johnson & Associates’ long list of top drivers won 140 races and 129 poles in 838 events (1966-1995). Plus, the Ingle Hollow, North Carolina, operation won six NASCAR Cup Series Championships – three consecutive (1976-1978) with Cale Yarborough and three (1981-1982 & 1985) with Darrell Waltrip, all in factory-backed Chevrolets.