Arrrrrgh! One of the things about moving is the time it takes to unpack and put your stuff where you can find it again. I’m frustrated by that fact today as I learn of the death of Junior Johnson, the bootlegger turned stock car racer. He was 88, and he packed those 88 years with plenty of living.
What has me frustrated is that somewhere, probably in a box in the storage unit I’m slow in emptying, I have a copy of The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, Tom Wolfe’s 1968 book that I think includes his 1965 Esquire cover story “The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. Yes!”
I wanted to quote from that article because Wolfe’s words would do a far better job than mine in presenting Johnson and his role in American car culture.
Wait! Car culture? What role did Johnson play in American car culture?
Just this: He and his fellow moonshiners and their runnin’ from the revenuers were the things of legend, and when they weren’t racing away from the feds, they were racing around farm fields against each other. Such frolics evolved into a truly American athletic art form, stock car racing that spans both fairground ovals and high-banked superspeedways.
And for a decade or so, and not that long ago, and with the exception of the National Football League, NASCAR was perhaps the biggest thing in American sports, with President Reagan landing Air Force One at the airport adjacent to the Daytona International Speedway so he could attend the 1984 Firecracker 400 and witness Richard Petty posting his milestone 200th victory on a July 4 that has been called the “most American day ever.”
By 1984, Johnson had retired from driving and was a successful team owner who won multiple NASCAR championships with Cale Yarborough or Darrell Waltrip in his cars. He also brought major sponsorship dollars into the sport for his own and other teams, and for NASCAR itself.
Speaking of President Reagan, in 1986 he pardoned Johnson of his conviction in 1956 for running ‘shine illegally. Born Robert Glenn Johnson Jr. he was the son of a bootlegger who spent nearly 20 years in prison.
Though reportedly never caught on the road by the feds, Junior served a year in prison for his participation when his family’s home was raided. Years later, however, he would have a legitimate distilling business under the Midnight Moon label.