Sons have followed fathers into stock car racing as long as there has been stock car racing.
Richard Petty followed his dad, Lee, and broke his records. Kyle followed Richard. Larry Pearson stepped into racing after his dad, David, and won two Nationwide Series championships. Davey and Clifford Allison followed their father, Bobby, into the driver’s seat. And Dale Earnhardt Jr. carried not only his dad’s legacy but also his name into another generation of racing.
For many years – indeed, for most of his life, it was assumed that there would be no child to continue the driving legacy of one of the best ever in NASCAR – Junior Johnson. He and his long-time wife, Flossie, were one of the signature couples of NASCAR for decades, but their marriage did not produce any children.
Then Johnson shocked the racing community by divorcing Flossie in 1992. Three weeks after the divorce was final, he married his current wife, Lisa, 30 years his junior, and they had a son, Robert Glenn III, and a daughter, Meredith.
Robert is now 16 years old and a sophomore at Forsyth Country Day School in Lewisville, N.C. He plans to attend Duke University. But last year, like his father before him, he became a race car driver.
Tellingly, he won his first race, a Sportsman event at Caraway Speedway in Asheboro, N.C. Now, with help from his father and his considerable bankrolling, Robert is racing a full UARA Late Model schedule, with a target of being in the Sprint Cup series in five years.
After all, the circle is not broken.
Junior Johnson, now 78, the Last American Hero, the Wild Man from Ronda, dubbed “an American icon” by no less than McDonald’s when they formed a partnership, a moonshiner-turned-millionaire on the verge of becoming one of the first five inductees into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, finally has a son with a lead foot.
Polished, polite and poised beyond his years, Robert is miles removed from the Robert Glenn Johnson Jr. who, as a teen-ager, left behind a plowing mule on the Johnson family farm 60 years ago and accepted an offer to drive a race car for the first time. He enters a sport that is astonishingly different from the one his father helped build, and he’s trying to establish his foundation even as his father is about to be honored for being one of the sport’s all-time greats.
“It’s great to see him get recognized for all he’s done for the sport,” Robert said. “In my opinion, he’s done more for the sport than anybody has. I’m glad he’s getting recognized.”
Junior has been a sideline player in his son’s racing education, supplying him with good equipment and good mechanics but avoiding making the effort too “personal.”
“If he sees me about to go off a cliff or something, he’ll step in and say, ‘This is the right thing to do,’ ” Robert said.
Although he originally showed more interest in piloting airplanes than in racing cars, it was natural for Robert to pick up the racing bug. Although Junior left the racing game in the early 90s, he retained connections and visited tracks now and then, often taking Robert along for the ride.
“He used to carry me all over the place,” Robert said. “We usually went to the Bristol night race because that’s around my birthday. I was a big Jeff Gordon fan when I was 9. Dad took me to his motorhome.
“We knocked on the door, and Jeff came out. I was kind of star-struck to see Jeff Gordon. Jeff was sort of star-struck to see Dad. That’s when I first started knowing that Dad meant a lot to the sport.”
Since then, Robert said, he has “sort of grown into racing. It’s where I want to go now.”
He’ll be following a familiar path.
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.