The NASCAR Hall of Fame will induct the five members of its inaugural class May 23. Leading up to the hall’s induction ceremony, SPEEDtv.com is profiling the first five racing legends chosen for this unique honor.
Junior Johnson had no reason to believe that he couldn’t drive a race car when he was issued the invitation to do so while he was working the ground of the family farm in Wilkes County, N.C. behind a mule. It was the summer of 1949.
The only immediate problem was footwear. “I had to go in the house and get some shoes,” Johnson said.
Then he was off to begin a racing adventure that would result in 50 victories at NASCAR’s highest level, six national championships as a team owner, widespread acclaim as an iconic figure in stock car racing history and a place in the inaugural class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Back then, though, Robert Glenn Johnson Jr. was simply a mountain farm boy who knew how to go fast. Why did he know? He had done so numerous times in hopped-up street cars built for the illegal liquor trade. Johnson was a driver for his family’s whiskey operations, and he spent countless dark nights blistering the two-lane mountain roads from western North Carolina to points south, making deliveries of the illegal moonshine that had been manufactured deep in the backwoods of the mountains.
When his plowing was interrupted by an invitation to go racing, it was as normal to Johnson as wandering in from the fields late in the day for supper.
“When I got into racing, I already had the experience I needed,” Johnson said. “I didn’t have to learn how to drive fast. I already knew how to do it. I could run fast right off the bat.”
Johnson, who showed little concern for protocol on the race track, soon became known as the Wild Man from Ronda (N.C.). He slammed and bammed and jammed his way to wins, and, in 1953, at the age of 22, he arrived in Cup racing. For the next dozen years, he would blaze a trail across the sport, building a reputation as one of the most fearless drivers in the history of racing. He won 50 times in 313 starts and was leading dozens of other races when his cars, stretched beyond the limit by his aggressive driving, failed him.
“You have to just not care to race like that,” said NASCAR historian Buz McKim. “Curtis Turner and Tim Richmond had the same kind of attitude. They were reckless – really kind of scary crazy. Junior was fearless, but he could control it. He was in command of the situation. It was a pretty nice combination. He was able to drive beyond the limits.”
Johnson was the opposite of what has become known in the modern era of racing as a points racer. Some drivers can stack up top-10 finishes and do well in the overall picture without necessarily racing to win. Such an approach was foreign to Johnson.
“That’s the way he was,” said Dale Inman, who was crew chief for Richard Petty in the 1960s when Petty Enterprises and everyone else had to deal with Johnson and his bravado. “He drove the car unmercifully. Curtis Turner was in that same league. Junior was hell-bent for leather the whole time he was in the race car.
“You always had to wonder if the car would hold up under him. If it didn’t, you had him beat. But he was a tough competitor. The thing about him, he knew his car. He was one of the few who came along who built cars.”
Long-time team owner Bud Moore said Johnson “was going to be up front, one way or the other. If he had to spin you out or run over you, he got there. He was there to win the race. There was no other way.”
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Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEEDtv.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.
The NASCAR Hall of Fame Grand Opening is set for May 11, 2010. Outdoor Opening Ceremonies are May 11th from 9 to 10 am ET free of charge, open to the public. Outdoor festivities including driver appearances and concerts May 11th from 10 am until 8 pm ET open to the public, free of charge. Tickets to enter the NASCAR Hall of Fame are on sale now at www.NASCARHall.com or by calling 877-231-2010. The countdown to the NASCAR Hall of Fame is on! Visit www.NASCARHall.com/50days for daily updates about the NASCAR Hall of Fame.