Bill Vance and Junior Johnson
Bill Vance and Junior Johnson (right) 1984
Photo: Richard Jacobs

by Bill Vance

Stock car racing is rooted in the southeastern United States where cars, particularly after the Second World War, represented liberty from a largely land-bound society. And building and driving fast cars relates to another southern tradition: making moonshine whiskey. The drivers easily transferred moonshine running skills to the southern stock car tracks springing up in response to this new car culture.

The good ol’ boys developed tremendous ability at evading the law with their souped-up liquor-laden cars. One of the most celebrated was Robert Glenn “Junior” Johnson whose roots were in the best moonshining tradition.

The Johnson family lived in the community of Ingle Hollow, near Wilkesboro, North Carolina. Writer Vance Packard called Wilkes County the “the bootleg capital of America.”

Junior’s father Robert Johnson was one of the biggest copper still operators in the area. The older men did the distilling, the younger ones transported the moonshine, and the women “called the cows” if the U.S. alcohol and tobacco tax agents appeared.

Junior, a big strapping fellow with good reflexes, soon built a reputation as a fast whiskey runner. He always seemed able to elude the agents.

He is credited with inventing the “bootleg turn” in which a whiskey hauler jammed the car into second gear and gave the steering wheel a mighty tug to the left. If successful, the car spun 180 degrees, stayed on the road, and charged off in the opposite direction.

Johnson’s evasive ability, and the agents’ embarrassment, became legendary. His reputation grew beyond Wilkes County, culminating in Tom Wolfe’s essay, “The Last American Hero Is Junior Johnson. Yes!,” in the March, 1965, Esquire magazine.

As Wolfe tells it: “Finally, one night they had Junior trapped on the road up toward the bridge around Millersville, there’s no way out of there, they had the barricades up and they could hear this souped-up car roaring around the bend, and here it comes – but suddenly they can hear a siren and see a red light flashing in the grille, so they think it’s another agent, and boy, they run out like ants and pull those barrels and boards and sawhorses out of the way, and then – Ggghhzzzzzzzhhhhhhggggggzzzzzzzeeeeeong! – gawdam! there he goes again, it was him Junior Johnson! with a gawdam agent’s si-reen and a red light in his grille!”

Johnson was soon driving on Wilkesboro’s dirt track, “power sliding” the turns so he got around quicker and came out pointed in the right direction. With his whiskey driving techniques, Junior soon held track records all over the area.

Junior’s racing career was really rising in 1956 when – he was caught! The agents stole through the hollows and over the ridges and arrested Junior right at his father’s still.

Junior “pulled” two years in the federal reformatory in Chillicothe, Ohio, although he served only 11 months. Ironically, Junior had been doing well enough in stock car racing that he was cutting back on moonshining.

When he returned, Detroit was getting into National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. Tracks were bigger and faster, and paved, and at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida, Junior made his mark.

In 1960, racing a Chevrolet, Junior was losing up to 16 km/h (10 mph) to the hot Pontiacs. Then on a whim coming out of a corner in practise he nosed his Chevy up near the bumper of a fast Pontiac. To Johnson’s surprise he stayed with the Pontiac and went faster than ever.

Junior had discovered “drafting,” an aerodynamic phenomenon that makes two nose-to-tail cars run faster than either could go alone. Junior drafted through the 500, hitching rides wherever he could. He won the race and added to his legend, because as a Chevy privateer winning against factory cars, he was a giant killer, hero of every underdog in the South.

Junior raced until 1965, collecting 50 NASCAR wins, It wasn’t a record, but he established such a reputation that in 1998 he was named the greatest NASCAR driver of all time by Sports Illustrated magazine. He became a NASCAR race team owner and his cars built excellent competition records. He sold the team in 1995 to spend more time with his new young family, and run his 300 acre beef cattle farm near North Wilksboro.

Junior is long out of the moonshine business now, but there’s still nostalgia for those old ” ‘shine runnin'” days when he outran the “revenoors” through the cuts and hollows of North Carolina’s Brushy Mountains.

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