NASCAR lost its most innovative and arguably best driver ever with the passing of Junior Johnson last week – and Wilkes County lost its most well known native son and a source of local pride.
Johnson’s popularity was largely due to his good old boy persona and representation of southern Appalachian tradition, but he had the drive and ambition to move on to new things. This was evident when he made the transition to racing team owner in the late 1960s after winning 50 races in 14 years in NASCAR’s top division, the most of any driver without a championship.
Johnson added 132 victories and six championships as a team owner through 1995, when he sold his teams. He won six championships in just 10 years of his stint as an owner - three straight by Cale Yarborough (1976-1978) and three by Darrell Waltrip (1981, 1982 and 1985). Nine future NASCAR Hall of Famers drove for him.
The cars that won those six Winston Cup titles were built in Johnson’s shops off Somers Road in Wilkes when NASCAR’s popularity was exploding, growing from a regional sport to a national and international sensation.
Johnson was a good judge of talent, but cautiously trusting. As a team owner, he reportedly often worked on cars at night to avoid having his innovations shared if his crew members left to join other teams.
Although equipped only with an eighth-grade education, Johnson had innate gifts and drive that helped him become a mechanical genius and shrewed businessman. Engineers from the Detroit automakers came to Johnson’s shops to seek advice and learn how he tweaked their engines for extra horsepower and durability.
Born and raised on an eastern Wilkes farm in the foothills of the Brushy Mountains, Robert Glenn Johnson Jr. also had the advantage of learning at an early age that it took hard work and drive to survive and be successful. For Johnson’s family and many others in his and earlier generations in Wilkes, that included making and hauling non-taxed liquor.
Robert G. Johnson Sr., like the son who bore his name, apparently didn’t lack ambition. When law enforcement raided the family farm and arrested Robert Johnson Sr. in 1935, they confiscated over 7,000 gallons of corn whiskey in the largest inland seizure of illegal alcohol at that time.
Johnson dropped out of school and started hauling liquor for his father at age 14. He took pride in the fact that he never was caught while making these runs. At age 16, his driving skills were honed well enough for him to take second place in a race at the North Wilkesboro Speedway in 1947. This race on the dirt track was his first.
Johnson didn’t shy away from talking about his roots in the moonshine business, but neither did he glorify them. He credited the illicit business with giving birth to stock car racing and NASCAR, and with providing him basic racing skills. Johnson acknowledged that Holly Farms did much to end moonshine’s prominence in Wilkes by making chicken farming a steady income option. He raised chickens for Holly Farms for many years, while also racing.
In 1956, law enforcement caught Johnson when he was firing up his father’s still. He served 11 months in federal prison in Chillicothe, Ohio. To his credit, Johnson said this was a turning point in his life. In an interview with The Sporting News, he said, “I learned a lot of discipline and to listen to people and evaluate their ideas and stuff. I didn’t do that before I went there.” President Reagan granted him a full and unconditional pardon in 1986.
As a race team owner, Johnson is credited with doing much to bridge the gap between NASCAR’s formative and modern years. Many of NASCAR’s top crew chiefs and engine builders got their start with Johnson.
One of his greatest single accomplishments was suggesting to Winston-Salem-based R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. that it sponsor NASCAR in 1971. Johnson had approached the company about sponsoring his team after realizing a new federal law banning cigarette ads on TV and radio would free up tobacco advertising dollars.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Johnson asked for $850,000 and was turned down, but suggested they contact Bill France about sponsoring NASCAR when he learned the company had $570 million to spend. This led to R.J. Reynolds’ Winston brand becoming title sponsor of NASCAR’s top series. With the resulting influx of cash from R.J. Reynolds, improvements to the North Wilkesboro Speedway and other tracks were made, the purses got bigger and the sport entered a new era of popularity.
Wilkes County directly benefitted from this for many years when the North Wilkesboro Speedway hosted races on the Winston Cup series.