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’s introduction to racing came at the invitation of his brother, L.P., who walked onto the family farmland on a summer day in 1949 and offered his younger brother a chance to drive a race car he had obtained.
The race was to be held at nearby North Wilkesboro Speedway, and L.P. determined that Junior, having shown his driving talents on moonshine runs, was the best guy to drive it.
“It seemed like a lot more fun that plowing, so I agreed,” Johnson said. It was that simple.
He finished second. The die was cast.
“I had hauled moonshine pretty much since I was about 15,” Johnson said. “I was very talented with a car compared to most of the guys I grew up with. I had probably more nerve than they had.
“That sort of set the stage for me starting to get into it. Now and then, somebody would call me and want me to go drive their race car for them. I did that for a few years and kept working my way up. The first thing you know, I was in it full-time.”
Johnson said moonshine running was a perfect introductory course for racing.
“It was almost like, ‘I’ve done been to this school,’ ” he said. “Now I’m getting a refresher class. I think I was as good the first time I sat down in a race car as the day I quit driving.”
In 1951, Johnson drove in what would become the Cup series for the first time. He traveled to Darlington (S.C.) Raceway for the second Southern 500, accompanying his friend, driver Gwyn Staley. The race was unusually hot, and Staley decided he needed a relief driver during the event. Johnson jumped in the car.
Since it was a relief appearance, it didn’t count as an official start for Johnson. His first official start came two years later, also in the Southern 500. He finished 38th.
Before he stopped driving, in 1966 (at the age of only 35), he had made a name for himself across the country and cracked victory lanes at many NASCAR speedways. One thing he didn’t do – win a driving championship. He raced to win races, not gather points.
His best season probably was 1963, when he won seven times driving Ray Fox-built Chevrolets. In 33 races, he started on the front row 17 times. It was a season in which Ford Motor Co. chased Johnson and his Chevrolets with little success.
“That season was so spectacular,” said Bobby Allison, who raced against Johnson and later drove Johnson’s cars. “That Ray Fox Chevrolet was so fast that even in the races he didn’t win he made the fans jump up and down quite a bit.”
If the car wasn’t right, Johnson wasn’t happy.
“There’s a story about Junior running with Fox in 1963 at a short track somewhere, maybe Chattanooga,” NASCAR historian Buz McKim said. “He brought the car in the pits and it was running bad, and he told Ray that if the car wasn’t better after the pit stop that he was going to roll it in three laps. Ray went under the hood and started messing with it, and Junior went back out.
“He came around and held up one finger. Then the next lap he held up two fingers. Then he held up three fingers, and in the first turn he hung the rear end out over the bank and rolled the car out into the field. Then he came walking back to the pits and said, ‘I told you.’ ”
Johnny Allen, who ran against Johnson at many of the short dirt tracks that populated the series in the 1950s and 1960s, said Johnson had “tremendous car control. The tracks were rough, and you raced with little, skinny tires. You had to drive it to the edge and a little bit over to do anything.
“Junior was just wide open. If it lasted, he usually won. But a lot of times the cars couldn’t take the beating. It was pretty much stock stuff back then, and cars couldn’t take the tracks. There were ruts and holes everywhere. But Junior was wide open or stop.”
WEDNESDAY: Inventing The Draft
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.