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He grew up in impoverished, rural North Carolina during the Great Depression. But young Junior Johnson and his family did not starve. Instead, an old family business kept the Johnsons solvent. The fact that the business, making and selling moonshine, was illegal had its complications; Johnson recalls countless raids by the FBI, who came so often that Junior's mother served them coffee and pie. Johnson's father was often arrested, and ended up spending 20 of his 63 years behind bars. But Robert Glenn Johnson taught his son ethical values of the highest order. "Do unto others, and not worry about them doing unto you. Don't hold a grudge. Help somebody if you can." And though Johnson Sr had only a third-grade education, his son regards him as "the smartest man I've ever known." Johnson, Sr. also taught his son to drive - something Junior excelled at from the start. "I got where I could outrun my two brothers and my dadâ€¦so he started letting me haul whiskey."
By the time he was a teenager, Johnson was driving moonshine all over the South - and outrunning state feds in the process. His prowess on back roads would serve him well not only in the bootlegging business, but on sanctioned tracks as well. Junior's racing debut happened almost by accident in 1949, when his brother asked him to drive his car in a bootlegger's event at the North Wilkesboro Speedway. "I was plowing my daddy's corn down in the bottom, below the house, with a mule, and I was barefooted." Junior grabbed his shoes in time for the race. He finished second. Six years later, Johnson notched his first NASCAR victory, at Hickory. Though he was arrested in 1956 and served time, by 1960 he was through with the whiskey business, and back on the race track.
Part two of Biographical Conversations with Junior Johnson begins with his victory at the 1960 Daytona 500. Junior triumphed through expert driving and brilliant strategy - exploiting a hydraulic draft he had discovered during practice runs. He notes that though he used the draft that day to stay close to the lead car, Daytona racers today are "doing it all the way around the racetrack," from beginning to end. Junior's Daytona win helped propel him to the front of an elite team of early NASCAR legends, including Fireball Roberts, Ned Jarrett, and Fred Lorenzen. Then in 1964, a young writer named Tom Wolfe came to Wilkes county to interview Johnson. "Here stands a guy with a suit on - a brown wool suit in July," says Johnson of their first meeting. "There was three or four people in there, and when he left - he talked funny anyway - they wanted to know who he was and stuff." Wolfe's story on Johnson--"The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. Yes!" was published in Esquire the following year. But though was a stellar year for Johnson - he notched 13 NASCAR victories racing his famed #3-Chevy - he was beginning to leaving the driver's seat.
"Your car tears up one time, and you win five times, and the one time it tore up made me madder than the joy was for winning four or five races." On October 3 1965, Junior drove to his 50th, and final, NASCAR victory. "I thought I was at the end of my racing career," he says of that day. "But I was wrong." By the end of the decade, Junior was back on the track, managing his own race team as the owner of Junior Johnson and Associates.
Part 3: Making NASCAR History
Part three of Biographical Conversations with Junior Johnson begins in 1972. Bobby Allison had just left Junior Johnson and Associates, and Junior, needing a new driver, hired Cale Yarborough. "He brought a fearless-type atmosphere...and a strong determination of not never giving up," Johnson says of Yarborough, who drove Junior Johnson and Associates to its first Winston Cup Championship in 1976. Then came two more, in 1977 and 1978. For the first time in NASCAR history, a team had won a "three-peat." Johnson attributes his unprecedented success with Yarborough to a "trustworthy relationship" between owner and driver. "Good, good relationships win championships. Bad relationships are not trustworthy. You will not win with them." After Yarborough departed in 1980, Johnson formed a trusting relationship with his new driver, Darrell Waltrip. Soon after Johnson hired "that mouthy boy from Tennessee," Waltrip began winning, and in 1981, Johnson's company won its fourth Winston Cup.
Waltrip would drive Junior Johnson and Associates to two more NASCAR champions, in 1982 and 1985, to give Junior his sixth trophy in ten years. But Johnson received an even better gift at the end of 1985, when he received a full and unconditional pardon from President Ronald Reagan. "When you're sitting there with a felony over your head, you can't vote," says Johnson of his forgiven prison record. "You're really not even a citizen of the United States. You know, and a lot of people don't care but I do." The pardon also cleared Johnson for entry into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame; he was officially inducted in 1992. Three years later, Johnson retired, once again, from NASCAR. Having married Lisa Day in 1992, he was now the father of a son, Robert Glenn, and a daughter, Meredith Susanne. Johnson spends his days marketing his own line of completely legal moonshine; coaching Robert, who has driven to a few NASCAR victories; enjoying his successful marriage, and reflecting on his own colorful history. "If somebody had to ask me what would you change in your life, I wouldn't change nothing," says Junior. "Because I've had a good life."