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 life as a driver was described for all to see in a brilliant article by writer Tom Wolfe in the March 1965 issue of Esquire magazine.
The story – titled “Junior Johnson is the Last American Hero – Yes!” – described the rise of Johnson, his natural habitat in the Brushy Mountains and the attraction of stock car racing to the thousands who streamed into North Wilkesboro Speedway to watch him run.
Johnson, a mountain man most comfortable in overalls, and Wolfe, a refined New Yorker, were polar opposites, but the story Wolfe produced became one of the most honored in the history of sports journalism. It also boosted NASCAR’s national profile and added to Johnson’s status at the center of the sport.
“He came to me and said, ‘Tell me about this and that’ and was wanting to get all about my racing and the whiskey business and all that stuff,” Johnson said of Wolfe. “He told me what his story was about. I said, ‘I’m not going to give you a story on me because that will be my story, not yours. I can take all the bad out. You go out and talk to people in Wilkes County to get your story.’ And that’s what he did.”
Johnson was a bit uncomfortable with Wolfe’s Esquire story but said he was impressed with the writer’s research. Did he think of himself as the Last American Hero?
“I didn’t then and I don’t now,” he said. “I’m no more than anybody else – just a common person. That’s all I am. But I’ve seen guys that success ruined and they turned against their friends and things like that. That never was a problem for me.
“I had a lot of problems with the title Last American Hero. But I know why Tom saw that in what I was doing. I was doing what I liked to do and trying to be as good at it as I could be. But it didn’t mean that I was Robin Hood or something. I never felt that way.”
Part of the Johnson life story involves a prison term. Although he was never caught by authorities on the dozens of moonshine runs he made from the mountains to cities to the south, he was nabbed while working at one of the Johnson family stills in 1956 and was found guilty in federal court. He was sentenced to two years but served 11 months in a prison in Chillicothe, Ohio. Upon his return home, he jumped back into race cars and re-energized the career he had begun before illegal whiskey sidetracked him.
The Johnson story includes another dark chapter. Brent Kauthen, a North Carolina State University student from Michigan who had been spending summers with Johnson and working with the race team, was killed in a single-car accident near Wilkesboro in April 1990. Kauthen had been under Johnson’s care part of the year since he was 8, and the loss was like part of his family had disappeared.
“I thought as much of him as if he’d been my own,” Johnson said. “I enjoyed all the years I had with him. It was a sad situation. He was just at the point in his life when he would be stepping out into the world.”
Oddly, Johnson seemed to be at the peak of his driving career when he decided to park for good in 1966. The previous year, he had won 13 races.
“I was on top of the thing and had as much control of anything that went on around a race track as you could possibly have,” Johnson said. “But it never was my whole life. I never looked at it as anything I would have to do.
“I said I had had enough of it and that I had other things I needed to do, and just walked away from it. “I wasn’t that hung up on racing. I enjoyed it. I was very competitive. Once I got into it, it was a deal where I couldn’t stand to get beat. That was one of the things that would drive me.”
Johnson’s years as a team owner stretched from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s. He worked with an impressive list of drivers, including LeeRoy Yarbrough, Neil Bonnett, Geoffrey Bodine, Bill Elliott, Sterling Marlin, Terry Labonte, Bobby Allison, Yarborough and Waltrip.
Asked to describe the talents of some of his drivers, Johnson saw different positives.
“LeeRoy had the most raw talent I ever saw in a race car. He just never did get the opportunity to deliver.
“Charlie Glotzbach was more of a laid-back guy. When I first knew him, he was pretty fearless and had a lot of talent, but he was a laid-back sort of person.
“Bobby Allison was one of the smartest, toughest, most determined drivers in the sport. He just would not give up. He was that kind of person."
“I’ve seen Cale drive cars that I didn’t think anybody could drive. And he would not quit. I think if he was in a situation where he had to get out of a race car because of his stamina, it would be the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to him. There was no end to his willpower. He was kind of sneaky brave.
“Darrell was more of a technique-skill type driver, but if he had to abuse himself to win, he’d do that, too. He’d wait and wait and wait and strike when he had to. He was like David Pearson.
“Terry Labonte was probably the only race driver I ever saw who fit a mold that was thrown away. He’s a gentleman. He doesn’t criticize his people. You never hear him have anything bad to say about his competitors, his mechanics, his car. I did the best with Terry Labonte that I did with anybody as far as the whole chemistry all the way through.
“When we first started with Bill Elliott, I thought we had as good a race team as we’d had in a long time. Then Bill went through a divorce and I went through a divorce, and we had a lot of things to come up in the last couple of years we were together. It was not anybody’s fault. Things just weren’t 100 percent racing.”
Bobby Allison jumped from team to team as a driver and stayed only one season – 1972 – with Johnson. They won 10 races, but the pairing didn’t last.
“He and I just didn’t communicate,” Allison said. “It was sad for me and sad for us. I couldn’t adjust to the way he wanted to communicate. He wanted to communicate through [crew chief] Herb Nab instead of one-on-one, and I wasn’t smart enough to figure out if I could learn how to do it.”
FRIDAY: Three Careers
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.
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