Flat Spot On – It’s Junior Johnson. Yes!

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, January 5 2020
Junior Johnson could beat the best drivers in NASCAR and the best drivers in the U.S. government. (Photo by RacingOne/Getty Images)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

Some 10 years ago, on a Sunday prior to the start of the Daytona 500, I sat in the eating area of the Daytona track’s media center, ho-humming. Free food is always a major calling card and the place was jammed. Quite unexpectedly, I heard Junior Johnson’s booming voice over my shoulder. “Ah’m sitting he-ah!” he declared, grabbing a chair from another table and pulling it up next to me at a blank spot left open at the table where I was sitting.

To promote his deal with a legal moonshine brand, during the pre-race morning hubbub I had seen Junior in the passenger seat of a golf cart, which was dodging fans milling through the garage and pits amid forgettable public address pronouncements.

These PA pronouncements were akin to the radio ads Tom Wolfe claimed to have heard in the mid-1960s while going to the North Wilkesboro Speedway in pursuit of his story “Junior Johnson is the Last American Hero. Yes!” Wolfe recalled something funny, bawdy and probably untrue about a labial cream ad, which sponsored a couple of talking pointy heads who filled the airwaves with the usual useless crap about the state of things in the South.

On this day, Junior was with two young PR reps, the prim female proudly driving the cart straight-backed, arms fully extended, and the other directing from the rear-facing back seat by cocking himself sideways and leaning forward. They kept Junior, who always traveled in style and often as not with moonshine, moving. The whirlwind single-cart cavalcade, which included a carboard carton of the officially labeled—and taxed—moonshine, did not hesitate, an effort to prevent fans and gawkers from bird-dogging Junior for autographs.

Junior Johnson is presented with his Hall of Fame jacket by NASCAR president Mike Helton. (Photo by Chris Keane/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Once stopped, Junior had a penchant for everyday conversation with racing people who initiated one, so the youngsters kept the cart moving. Junior held his usual deadpan face and wily, knowing eyes as the cart trundled through the milling fans, destined for another pre-race appearance. No time for talk with the Last American Hero.

Once they’d arrived in the media center lunchroom, I’d like to think that Junior recognized me from all our conversations in the garage over the years. Invariably, those garage exchanges were about matters at hand in the conduct of NASCAR’s version of stock car racing, so Junior understood me to be about racing and not chit-chat. It was probably more a matter of getting away from the two young PR reps, who possibly had the bright idea of incorporating the media members on their tour by stopping in for a pre-race lunch. Junior ditched them in a heartbeat. “Ah’m sitting he-ah!” The words, as always, came from the deeper regions of his ample throat and upper chest.

Here was the man who loved to see his hunting dogs go at it with a cornered coon, the blood-curdling ferocity rising into the night as razor-sharp claws and ravenous teeth fought to the death in the nether regions of the North Carolina forest. Here was Junior, ready to talk about racing, ready to reveal his philosophy and none of his secrets unless you asked the right question.

Even then, the coon hunter often played possum. Like Wolfe, who had to get with the people of Wilkes County, you had to get with the people in the garage to crack into the legend when it came to racing.

Wolfe’s story helped make Robert Glenn Johnson Jr. a household name beyond the established shores of stock car racing in the Southeast. Within his own territory, Johnson’s bootlegging and stint as a federal guest at Chillicothe, the lurid, hellbent slides through the corners on dirt tracks, the drafting that brought him a Daytona 500 victory in 1960, the dust-ups with the likes of Lee Petty, and a philosophy that it was OK to beat the hell out of somebody who deserved it, this all preceded him whenever he curled that hefty body through the window and into a stock car.

Tim Brewer (left), Junior Johnson and Bill Elliott perform some engine work.

Throughout his driving career, people loved him or called him out with words like “Hog-jaw!”—from a safe distance. Like frat boys hazing a hulking college football player in a campus bar, the name callers were looking to pole-vault into another man’s success built on physical prowess and intimidation and just sheer horse’s ass cockiness. 

In his story, Wolfe studiously ignored the word redneck, the “r” word for white Southerners. In fact, it had proud origins and came from the red bandanas the reprobates in the Scottish Lowlands wore around their throats when defying the English army’s efforts to keep coming north. The brave-hearts of Jack the Bruce became the Scots-Irish who eventually careened all over the Appalachians from Pennsylvania down to Alabama.

The Lowland Scots fancied mobility as a form of survival from the start, often finding themselves on different sides of the same coin in this pursuit of the next horizon. Having failed to establish a boundary with the English, they soon got up and went—taking an offer of free land in Ulster, boosting the English crown’s stake in Ireland.

It was all about land and freedom. Finding the Ulster Plantation not much to their liking, the Scots-Irish, proud rednecks, migrated again to America, heading for the next horizon so long as it was isolated enough a man could do as he pleased with his passion for land, independence, self-determination, and loyalty to like kind. The kinfolk, including hard-working and tough women, sustained life in a difficult environment that yielded little but independence.

Junior Johnson, an American hero. (EPSON MFP image)

Meanwhile, the loyalty to like kind could just as easily turn into virile and violent differences of opinion, not unlike coon dogs and raccoons. This tendency toward violence, according to “Hillbilly Elegy,” included women, too. No wonder they often showed up in rough-and-tumble short track grandstands.

Hello, Junior—a man who became the face of the 20th Century South’s melting pot where the Scots-Irish values incorporated the English (see Petty) and the Germans (see Earnhardt). Stock car racing, it turns out, was nothing more, or less, than the Lowland Scots and their allies against the Establishment once again. It was the rowdy rebellion of the lower orders in the South, again hung up on mobility, this time in the form of the automobile. I saw this as a boy when a carpenter would visit our house in Northern Virginia to help my father finish the basement, driving from the hinterlands of West Virginia in a low-slung, dust-covered Chevy with a burbling engine.

I also saw it at the Beltsville Speedway in Maryland. A man could be loyal to the cherished land and still make a living with an automobile without giving up freedom, which often enough manifested itself as driving stock cars on Saturday nights. The whole wild thing with cars had an appeal as combustive as gas mixed in multiple four-barrel carburetors, swirled into gigantic cylinders, then hammered by big pistons, rushing to the glorious judgement of a spark.

This mobility and anchored-ness to the land was a welcome order to life’s business exemplified by bootleggers poppin’ rocks from underneath tires on dusty back roads under the blanket of darkness in the backwoods at breakneck speeds. Moonshine money could buy mobility a lot quicker than carpentry. Out on the highway, quicksilver quickness was the key. That way, the chases with Revenuers didn’t last long.

As Junior once told newspaper writers at a dinner in Daytona, his 1951 Ford equipped with a Cadillac engine and three carburetors was almost too fast for driving. “I’ve had cars that run so fast on a straight road that it looked like it was two-foot wide, on down the road, you know. And I never had nothing like that on the racetrack.”

Bobby Allison – and his Junior Johnson-owned car – came home second best at North Wilkesboro in 1972.

The Revenuers never caught him in the car, tackling Junior at his family’s still one day, and they never caught him carrying ’shine to Daytona in the Junior Johnson and Associates hauler throughout his NASCAR team owner days, either. The defiance, standing up to City Hall in the name of a country boy/mountain man’s independence never quit. He defied NASCAR by dodging the rulebook to win races or championships so often they might as well have not had one. When Big Bill France wanted him to run regularly in his still growing series for a NASCAR points championship, Johnson chose instead to appear in selected races with his “go or blow up” approach that won 50 times and even in defeat usually left little doubt about who was the fastest car and engine and driver on the track.

“The chicken is participating,” he told Big Bill over a breakfast of eggs and sausage one day. “That hog was committed.” Junior preferred participating, and by doing so on his own unmistakable terms he became the unofficial king of this “wild new thing” in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Later, his drivers Cale and DW each won three points titles out of shops in little Ingle Hollow, unincorporated, that allowed Junior to do his farming thing along with tilling his garden barefoot behind a mule and to maintain a racing schedule at his leisure as a team owner while still conducting himself in that deadpan, wild-ass manner he had of doing things.

He got serious about the points championship only after he helped bring R.J. Reynolds in to sponsor the Winston Cup, which meant those points paid good money. When the big money businessmen arrived as team owners, Junior out-sponsored them for a while, but the portents were clear and he made good on his threat to quit, which he did every time the France family got sideways about him fudging on the rules. Life was bigger than being a racing hero or a sports hero, which, of course, sustained the anti-hero status of Junior. Uh-huh. He had all angles covered.

Junior Johnson joined Darrell Waltrip in Victory Lane after the 1985 All-Star race. (Photo by RacingOne/Getty Images)

Welcome, Junior! I had never gotten an invitation to breakfast at Junior’s house in Ingle Hollow, only covering the North Wilkesboro race occasionally, like the 1991 season when Harry Gant, Mr. October, tried to win a fifth straight race on the new Goodyear radial tires. (Junior soon came up with some rear suspension “technology” of his own with the radial tires that enabled Bill Elliott to win four straight races in 1992 before NASCAR ownership publicly admitted it was being snookered and created some new procedures for rear suspensions.)

Once the money got too big and Ford chose Robert Yates’ cylinder heads as the designated choice in NASCAR’s scheme to create a standard part to try to prevent team owners from out-spending each other on engine development, Junior lost the edge of more money. And, he also had to give up on his big pistons versus those smaller domed jobs used by Yates and the Ford-approved cylinder head.

But there were always the restrictor plate engines. When he really needed a win, such as the summer Elliott was trying to walk off with sponsor McDonald’s to return to running his own team in Dawsonville, suddenly Jimmy Spencer won races at Daytona and Talledega, the only two victories of his career.

Those wins came driving as a teammate to Elliott, demonstrating it was Junior’s car that won, not necessarily the driver. It seems Junior concocted a special baffle to direct the air beneath the carburetor and restrictor plate in the manifold on Spencer’s car. By the rules, any baffle had to be secured inside the manifold when inspectors tugged and pulled on it. But this trick version was released when Junior’s mechanics re-installed the carburetor after the NASCAR pre-race inspection by back-clicking on two of the mounting screws. When the engine cranked, that supposedly stationary baffle sucked up under the carburetor and restrictor plate, directing the air into the manifold more smoothly, adding horsepower that nobody else had. Prior to post-race inspection, mounting screws were again back-clicked to lock down the insert for inspection.

Junior Johnson sits with Glenn Wood and Leornard Wood, who joined Johnson in the Hall of Fame. (Photo by Getty Images for NASCAR)

No wonder that manifold eventually sat on the corner of the air-craft-carrier-sized desk of Bill France Jr., who challenged any technical person that came into his office to figure out how it worked. By then, Junior was long gone, back to the farm and eventually to a $5 million house in Charlotte, raising a family with his second wife. If you can’t beat them, then join them. That retirement house was in the same posh neighborhood where NASCAR team owners Rick Hendrick and Felix lived, each a multi-millionaire from businesses outside racing.

Yeah, buddy. Junior didn’t just go around the track sideways at full speed, he went full circle. And here he was, grabbing a chair and pulling up to the table. The PR minions, taken by surprise, offered to get him a plate of lunch, which he declined.

“Nice to see you, Junior,” I said. Deadpan. About this time, I was reminded of the day I talked to him in the garage when he was wearing one of those tiny cloisonné pins high up on his red Budweiser jacket. Inside the little glass bubble against a blue background were two words in gold stacked one above the other: Moon Dick. You couldn’t make it out unless you were standing close by. Even then, it took a little study to actually see the words. “Junior,” I said, “Am I reading that pin correctly?” “Uh-huh.” Big, sly, almost bashful smile.

You just never know with Junior, so after some talk about taxable moonshine I told him I had recently completed a book with a chapter in it about Raymond Parks, the biggest bootlegger in Georgia, possibly the Southeast, who lived in Atlanta. Parks’ car had won the first NASCAR Cup championship in 1949, an Olds built by Red Vogt and driven by Red Byron.

But I knew Junior held north Georgia bootleggers in low regard for what he said was the poor and sometimes dangerous quality of their liquor. Parks himself had confessed to me his crews sometimes used castor oil as an accelerant in his vast wooden mash tuns. It produced, in part, a nasty, unhealthy mash that bubbled to the top, which was then scooped off, distilled and sold to poor people at a lower price.

Junior’s father was the biggest moonshiner in North Carolina, so big that he was the first to have a home with indoor plumbing and electricity in unincorporated Wilkes County. He made quality corn liquor, a tradition Junior continued throughout his life with his famed—and privately distributed—cherry moonshine. Junior first began running liquor for his Daddy at the age of 14, which led to racing because a tractor accident took him out of contention for a pro baseball contract as a pitcher, a profession where he was also shining among the veterans in the minor leagues of North Carolina.

Junior and Richard Petty were members of the first class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. (Photo by Chris Keane/Getty Images for NASCAR)

No doubt, Junior, a left-hander, didn’t mind throwing the high hard one to batters to keep them guessing. Junior threw me a high hard one about Raymond Parks.

“I heard this story,” said Junior. “Parks was driving along one day outside of Atlanta and he came across a nice big house in the country sitting up on a hill. He stopped and went to the door of the house and knocked on it.  When a fella’ answered the door, Parks asked who owned the house and said he wanted to buy it. The fella’ said a man in Atlanta owned it. Parks went to check on who owned the house when he got back to Atlanta and found out he owned it hisself!”

Junior never let up. After his release from federal custody in Chillicothe, not long after Parks was there, he returned to driving at high speed under the cover of darkness. He spent his nights driving all over North Carolina and Virginia collecting his debts in cash for what had been delivered prior to his incarceration. One night, he fell asleep at the wheel, ran a stop sign and hit another vehicle, killing the occupant.

There were other feet of clay episodes beyond losing McDonald’s sponsorship to Elliott, which led to Junior’s decision to quit racing as a team owner. For the 1991 season, Junior had tried to hire Alan Kulwicki, telling the Wisconsinite that “nobody can outcheat us.”

Owner/driver Kulwicki, who earned an engineering degree in Milwaukee, held honorable racing in high regard and turned down the offer to join Johnson’s team, an offer made because Junior believed Kulwicki to be one of the Cup series’ best drivers on worn tires late in a driving stint, a significant advantage. Junior then snaked Kulwicki’s sponsor, Maxwell House, leaving the owner/driver without sponsorship for the 1991 season. Junior declared Kulwicki to be “ignorant,” because he worked on his own cars.

“He ain’t gonna ever succeed in it. You know, even if he runs his own car, he’s still got to turn it over to somebody else. He can’t work on it and drive it, too.” A year later, Johnson hired Elliott after persuading him to give up working on his own cars. But in 1992, it was Kulwicki who defied Junior’s prediction after landing Hooter’s sponsorship and beat Elliott to the championship by the closest margin in Cup history in the season finale in Atlanta, a race considered by many as one of the greatest in NASCAR history. Junior high-tailed it out of the track with his soon-to-be second wife, a much younger gal than first wife and high school sweetheart Flossie.

The greatest of heroes in stock car racing have all had ups and downs. Nobody wins all the time. But Junior, because of his bootlegging, stirred up the collective loins, hearts and minds of the work-a-day Southerners who thrilled to stock car racing and helped make it big enough for the pointy heads in Detroit to sit up and take notice of fans buying the same cars that were racing. None of the emerging stars of the 1960s had run moonshine in the manner of the legendary Johnson and his bootleg turns. It was a matter of fate that he, unlike, say, Tim Flock or Buck Baker, arrived when the superspeedways got built, creating a far bigger stage for ex-bootleggers. The lone exception to Johnson’s status might have been whiskey tripper Curtis Turner, but he, as the saying goes, was a pussy, afraid to fight unless he was surrounded by sheet metal.

Fireball Roberts had a lot of nerve and high-speed skill, but he came up by pitching baseball in college. Then Junior was gone from driving, leaving that stage to the four horsepower men—Petty, Pearson, Allison and Yarborough—before re-establishing his mobility and anchored-ness to the land as a free-wheeling team owner and farmer. Once Junior transitioned from those two-lane blacktops and no limits about building Cadillac engines with three carburetors and hauling loads of white whiskey without ever getting caught in his car, well, people always knew they were seeing a real wild-ass, mother-thumping, ingenious, wily, fearless good old boy, one who would remain forever defiant toward those greedy bastards of convention, living large until the very end.   

(Editor’s note: Jonathan Ingram is a 43-year veteran of reporting on racing and the author of six books. CRASH!How the HANS Helped Save Racing, is being released this month. For more information, see www.jingrambooks.com.)   

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, January 5 2020
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