Junior Johnson, a teenage moonshiner from the North Carolina hills who became one of the greatest drivers in stock-car racing and the personification of its country roots, died on Friday at an assisted living facility in Charlotte, N.C. He was 88.
His death was confirmed by his wife, Lisa, who said he had Alzheimer’s disease.
Long before NASCAR grew into a force in auto racing, the good old boys of the hardscrabble rural South in the 1940s were racing souped-up autos at small-town dirt tracks. Johnson was among the fastest and most daring of them all. By the time he retired in 1966 he had won 50 races on what became the NASCAR circuit.
He was an innovator as well, pioneering the technique of “drafting” — staying on the tail of a faster car and being dragged along in its aerodynamic draft until an opening arose — when he captured the 1960 Daytona 500 in a relatively underpowered Chevrolet.
After competing in NASCAR for 12 seasons, Johnson became one of stock-car racing’s leading team owners, with 132 victories and six points champions. He was an inaugural inductee of the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, N.C.
Richard Petty, one of Johnson’s most celebrated rivals, was once quoted by The Tampa Tribune as calling him “the toughest, most stubborn driver” he knew.
Johnson’s persona was defined for all of America in 1965, his last full season as a driver, when Tom Wolfe profiled him for Esquire in the article “The Last American Hero Is Junior Johnson. Yes!”
The years immediately following World War II, Mr. Wolfe wrote, brought “a mania for cars” that was especially intense in the South, where “to millions of good old boys, and girls, the automobile represented not only liberation for what was still pretty much a land-bound form of social organization but also a great leap forward into 20th-century glamour.”
It was a perfect time for the emergence of Johnson, who honed his driving skills in wild pre-dawn rides down country roads, with federal revenue agents in futile pursuit, delivering jars of the untaxed whiskey his father produced. “Junior Johnson is one of the last of those sports stars who is not just an ace at the game itself, but a hero a whole people or class of people can identify with,” Mr. Wolfe wrote. “Junior Johnson is a modern hero, all involved with car culture and car symbolism in the South. A wild new thing.”
Mr. Wolfe’s profile inspired the 1973 Hollywood movie “The Last American Hero,” with Jeff Bridges portraying a character based on Johnson. His name was invoked in Bruce Springsteen’s song “Cadillac Ranch.”
In his years delivering moonshine, beginning when he was around 14, Johnson invented the “bootleg turn” when he was being chased by revenuers, putting his car into second gear, turning the wheel and stepping on the pedal, creating a 180-degree spin enabling him to zoom back past them.
He was just as aggressive on the track. He slid his cars through curves instead of riding the brakes so he could quickly regain speed when he was back on a straightaway.
“I was good on the highway and good on the back roads,” he told The News-Journal of Daytona Beach, Fla., in 2008, recalling his old-time moonshine deliveries. “The track was not quite as exciting as it was running from the revenuers. If you got caught, you knew you was going to jail.”
Federal agents never caught up with Johnson on back-country roads, but in 1956, his second NASCAR season, they arrested him while he was tending to a family still. He was convicted of manufacturing untaxed whiskey and served 11 months at a federal prison in Ohio.
“I got more fans because I went to prison,” Johnson told Sports Illustrated in 2011. “I was so damn mad when I got out that I went back to it. Never got caught again.”
President Ronald Reagan, an auto racing fan, pardoned Johnson for his felony conviction in 1986. By then he was a highly successful team owner and had won points titles three times with cars driven by Cale Yarborough and another three times with Darrell Waltrip driving.
Robert Glenn Johnson Jr. was born on June 28, 1931, in Ronda, N.C., in the state’s hilly western region. He was one of seven children of Robert and Lora Belle Johnson. The family had a farm, but his father was a moonshiner who spent time in federal prison.
As Johnson related it, one day in 1947 he was standing barefoot behind a plow mule on the family farm in Ingle Hollow, a section of Ronda, when he was told about an auto race on a dirt track at nearby North Wilkesboro. He entered it and finished second. After winning championships in minor categories, he captured his first NASCAR Grand National race at Hickory, N.C., in 1955.
When the NASCAR Hall of Fame opened in Charlotte in 2010, Johnson was one of its first five inductees. The hall’s artifacts included a still that Johnson once owned.
Johnson’s marriage to Flossie Clark ended in divorce in 1992. The next year he married Lisa Day, a registered nurse. In addition to her, he is survived by their daughter, Meredith Johnson; their son, Robert III; and a sister, Shirley Blackburn.
Johnson retired from team ownership in 1995. He continued to live in Ingle Hollow, where he had built a mansion, and had interests in cattle, real estate, Southern-style foods and a distillery with a flagship liquor named Catdaddy Carolina Moonshine.
But he still had a soft spot for the NASCAR of yesteryear.
“It’s not a redneck sport like it used to be,” he told The Tampa Tribune in 2005. “And I liked that part, because you need to let off some steam. If you want to knock the hell out of somebody, I think that’s your privilege.”
Daniel E. Slotnik contributed reporting. Jack Begg contributed research.