For many NASCAR is little more than a southern sport born out of the days of moonshine, stills, and escaping the wrath of the revenuer.

But thanks to the likes of Hall of Fame legendary car owner Junior Johnson, NASCAR and the sport of stock car racing has advanced far beyond the days of running through the backwoods to escape the “revenuer”.

Former NASCAR driver and car owner Junior Johnson died December 20 at the age of 88. While no official cause of death was given, Johnson had been in declining health and was in hospice care at the time of his death.

Johnson was a former moonshine runner before becoming a 50 race winning driver before becoming a car owner and Hall of Famer. As a car owner, Johnson’s drivers won him over 130 races and six championships – three with Cale Yaroborough and three with Darrell Waltrip. Johnson was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame as a member of the inaugural class in 2010.

Over the years Johnson had several drivers who ran his race cars including Bobby Isaac, Curtis Turner, Darel Dieringer, AJ Foyt, Gordon Johncock, Fred Lorenzen, Lloyd Ruby, LeeRoy Yarbrough, Donnie Allison, David Pearson, Earl Ross, Cale Yarborough, Richard Childress, Darrell Waltrip, J.D. McDuffie, Neil Bonnett, Davey Allison, Terry Labonte, Geoffrey Bodine, Sterling Marlin, Bill Elliott, Hut Stricklin, Jeff Green, Tommy Kendall, Jimmy Spencer, Loy Allen Jr, Brett Bodine, Jimmy Horton, Greg Sacks, and Elton Sawyer.

Former driver and NASCAR history buff Dale Earnhardt Jr called Johnson, “the last American hero.”

The film “The Last American Hero” is based on Johnson’s life as a moonshiner.

NASCAR team owners are known for pushing the envelope when it comes to following the rules; Junior Johnson was one of the best at finding loopholes in the rules. Johnson is partly responsible for NASCAR designing templates that car owners must follow.

He was born Robert Glenn Johnson Jr on June 28, 1931 in Ingle Hollow, North Carolina the son of bootlegger who learned his driving style on the back roads of North Carolina running moonshine for his father. Johnson was the middle child of seven children.

While moonshine and the backwoods still are little more than a memory; the legal whiskey Midnight Moon is based on Johnson family recipe that dates back to 1791. Junior is part owner in the company.

Like many NASCAR drivers, Johnson got his start at the local race track in North Wilkesboro and Hickory Motor Speedway in the 1950’s. He entered his first race in 1953 and won his first race on May 7, 1955.

He was caught and convicted of running moonshine in 1956; but after “The Boss” Bruce Springsteen included Johnson in his song “Cadillac Ranch” with the line “runnin’ through the woods of Carolina”, then President Ronald Reagan pardoned Johnson.

An innovator, Johnson contacted R. J. Reynonds – a tobacco company – for sponsorship on his car after then President Richard Nixon singed into a law a ban forbidding tobacco advertising on the television and radio. It was Johnson who also put NASCAR and R.J. Reynolds together for the first big sponsorship of the sport.

Johnson is survived by his third wife Lisa and children Robert III and Meredith.


feature photo credit: By Ted Van Pelt – originally posted to Flickr as Junior 1985 Photos by Ted Van Pelt, CC BY 2.0,