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.
In virtually every ranking of the top drivers in the history of NASCAR, Junior Johnson lands in the first 10.
If there was any doubt about his ability early in his career, Johnson dashed those thoughts with a gritty performance in winning the second Daytona 500 in 1960. He was driving a Chevrolet prepared by Fox, and it was no match for the faster cars in the race.
Yet Johnson won. He is widely credited with “discovering” the art of stock-car drafting at Daytona in that race, picking up faster cars on the track and letting them “pull” him to the front. The physics of drafting had been experimented with in other forms of motorsports over the years, but Johnson generally is credited with being the first to use it effectively on the relatively new frontier that was Daytona.
“When I figured the thing out, I didn’t know what it was, to tell you the honest-to-God truth,” Johnson said of the Daytona draft. “Cotton Owens came by [in practice], and I was trying to get the car running better. I ducked in behind him. When I got to the first turn, I was running all over him at just about half-throttle. I couldn’t figure it out.
“I thought maybe Ray Fox had got the car running a lot better. I came in, and he thought he’d fixed it, too. We put on a new set of tires and went back out. Here came Jack Smith, and I got behind him, and the same thing happened. I was running all over him, and he was the fastest car at the track.
“I went back out by myself and it wouldn’t run, something like 15 miles per hour slower than the other cars. I was about ready to go home. It was so slow it was disgusting. But I found out what I’d do – I could grab people all day long and ride behind them. But I never thought I could win the race.
“Basically, I stole the race. I didn’t win it.”
After putting his helmet away for the final time, Johnson moved into team ownership, and it was in that role that many fans remember his success. He built a winners’ factory in his shop at Ingle Hollow, N.C., in the shadow of the western North Carolina mountains. Junior Johnson and Associates became a headquarters for great young mechanics and drivers seeking championships.
Cale Yarborough won three titles (1976-78) in Johnson’s cars, and Darrell Waltrip (1981, ’82 and ’85) followed with three more.
With a direct line to General Motors movers and shakers and great loyalty from the crew chiefs and mechanics who learned under the Johnson system, Johnson became one of the greatest team owners in the sport’s history.
“Being a driver himself, Junior knew what had to go in the chassis,” said retired team owner Bud Moore, who wrestled with Johnson for dominance. “He knew about the engines. He knew everything he needed to do. And he had a direct connection to Chevrolet. They were helping him along the way.”
Johnson hired or developed some of the best shop and pit-road mechanics and workers of the era. Among those who worked for him were Tim Brewer, Mike Hill, Jeff Hammond, Herb Nab, Robert Yates, Harold Elliott, Andy Petree, Mike Beam, Beecher Hetland, Shorty Edwards and Pete Wright.
“Pete Wright [a long-time Johnson mechanic] told me one time that if he knew he had it so good at Junior’s he would have kissed the floor,” said Brewer, now a television racing analyst.
“Junior hired you, and he didn’t look over your shoulder or hold your hand. He said, ‘I didn’t hire you to work by the hour. I hired you to do a job. If it takes two hours or 24, that’s what you got to do.
“He did a tremendous amount for the sport. He and Bill Junior [NASCAR president Bill France Jr.] didn’t see eye to eye all the time. I stepped in between them getting ready to have a slugfest on the Fourth of July one morning in Daytona.”
Johnson famously tested NASCAR’s rulebook, and he and France Jr. (also a Hall inductee) often were at odds. But Johnson had wild success with a string of drivers before closing his shop and selling his equipment in 1995.
“He came to life in a hurry when he became a team owner,” Moore said. “He won all those championships. He put out a hell of a piece of equipment. He was the man to beat then – no ifs, ands or butts about it.”
Will Johnson be remembered more as the combative, in-your-face driver who ran relentlessly to the front or as the wise-old-owl car owner who took teams to the top? That debate likely will ring across the corridors of the Hall for many years.
“I always tend to lean toward him as a driver,” NASCAR historian Buz McKim said. “Look at what he did with a race car. A lot of the times he won, he didn’t have the best car. He won at Daytona in 1960 with an underpowered car. That’s the sign of a racer.”
And it was as a driver that Johnson built the huge fan base that would follow him into team ownership. Because he lived so close to North Wilkesboro Speedway, he became a virtual legend in that part of North Carolina. It was never a smart move to pull against Johnson or one of his drivers at that track. Arguments often ensued.
THURSDAY: The Last American Hero
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.