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.
During his time as a car owner, Junior Johnson played a big role in one of the most important transactions in NASCAR history.
He started discussions with the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., based in Winston-Salem, N.C., about sponsoring his race cars, but Johnson quickly discovered that the company had much more money to invest in marketing. With Johnson’s assistance, RJR, through its Winston brand, became the major sponsor of NASCAR’s top series in 1972, starting a three-decade run of success for both the sponsor and the sport.
After a successful career as a car owner, Johnson left the sport for a second time in 1995, selling his operation to Brett Bodine and David Blair. It was a sad time in and around Ingle Hollow, N.C., as a local legend and one of auto racing’s grandest operations faded into the background.
Johnson said the desire to spend more time with his family – second wife Lisa and their two children – impacted his decision, and he also said he was disappointed in the sport’s direction, adding that money had become much too important as the sport had grown.
“The sport has gotten too big for people who grew up in it,” Johnson said in an interview a few years after he sold his team. “It’s a toy to some people now, or a way to advertise. But I was just a country boy who liked racing and got into it because I liked the competitive side of it and not as a business per se.
“I enjoy my life now. It’s more relaxed than it was at the race track. Racing is really a serious sport if you take it like you should. It consumes your whole life, basically, because you sleep, eat and dream that stuff.
“To do any good in it, that’s what you’ve got to do. It’ll get into you so bad you can’t concentrate on anything but that. I’ve been able to move away from it.
“I’ve made a lot of good friends all across the United States. You miss a lot of those people, but you have to get on with your own life and go on in a different direction when that time comes.
“When I left the driving part, I left it. When I left the owning part, I left it. And I’m glad I could do that. But I left a lot of good times and good friends behind.”
He has remained in contact with many people in racing, however, and he often attends races and other NASCAR functions. His son, Robert, has begun a short-track driving career, one that might eventually place him in the Cup series.
Johnson has a huge cattle farm on his property in Hamptonville, N.C., near his childhood home. He stays busy with numerous business interests, his farming operations and his children’s activities.
“I guess I had three careers in my life – moonshining, driving, car-owning,” Johnson said. “I think I enjoyed the moonshining better than any of them. I don’t know why. I guess it was the youth side of it. You never forget what you do as a kid.”
For a man who became a legend in motorsports, it’s a bit strange that Johnson’s dream as a young teen-ager was to become a major league baseball pitcher.
“But I broke my arm when I was 14,” he said. “I turned a farm tractor over on my arm acting a fool, just acting a fool. I think racing is great, but every kid growing up has a thing he’d like to be, and when I was growing up I was a great fan of the New York Yankees.
“I was like 200 pounds when I was 14 years old, so I was a pretty good-size boy then. Down around places like Statesville and Hickory, they had these leagues with eight or 10 teams. Most of them guys were 30, 25 years old, and I was just a kid, but I’d pitch a ball just like I raced. I’d put them on their pants.”
As history developed, he dusted folks on the race track.
MONDAY: Richard Petty
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.