Junior Johnson

The Moonshining Days

Although it might seem strange, a good place to start the story of Robert Glenn "Junior" Johnson is in the backwoods of western Pennsylvania around 1794. A group of disgruntled and independent minded farmers and mountain dwellers rebelled against the newly formed federal government to start what is known as the Whiskey Rebellion. These backwoods farmers had no good way of transporting their produce, so it was more efficient for them to distill their corn into whiskey, which is much easier to store and move. However, with the ratification of the new Constitution in 1789, the federal government placed an excise tax on whiskey. These western farmers were having a tough time surviving as it was, and were not about to send what little money they had to this new, tyrannical central government. Their rebellion was quickly put down by federal troops dispatched by president George Washington, and the event was an important assertion and demonstration of the new federal governments power. However, the American anti-authoritarian spirit of the rebellion started by whiskey makers did not die in 1794.

Hard times for mountain farmers would come again, especially in the 1930s. Moonshining in the hills and backwoods of the rural Southeast, especially in western North Carolina, became a neccesary means of survival. Moonshining brought a farmer a comfortable income even in hard times if he could avoid the authorities. The Scotch-Irish decendants in Appalachia had the courage to buck the system. Tom Wolfe describes Southern Appalachia as a "pocket of courage," citing the statistics that in the Korean War there were only 3 Medal of Honor winners from the metropolitan New York area, even with millions and millions of people there. There were also 3 Medal of Honor winners within a 50 mile radius of Junior Johnson's front porch in rural Wilkes County North Carolina. Wolfe goes on to add, "They were almost like Turks in that way!" (Wolfe 150). Junior Johnson's father, Glenn, was one such rebellious and courageous mountain man.

Junior's father made whiskey and Junior would drive it to the delivery point, whether in Charlotte or High Point or wherever in the surrounding area. Junior began running whiskey at about age 13 and quickly gave the law enforcement agents fits. In an interview with Peter Golenbock, Johnsons commented, "...on the roads, that became a cat and mouse game... and as a result, I learned how to make the motors fast and how to make the cars drive good, and it was a trade that I took right on to racing with me" (qtd. in Golenbock 19). Junior did not look at moonshining as activity for amusement and excitement, as the popular myth that goes along with bootlegging might suggest. Many Americans have a romanticized ideal of the moonshiner as a sort of "noble rogue," Dukes of Hazard type character. Johnson is the first to say that moonshining was "the hardest way in the world to make a living, and I don't think anybody'd do it unless they had to" (qtd. Wolfe 151). Running whiskey was just a way to survive, like "making a milk run or something" (Johnson qtd. in Wolfe 151).

Moonshining may not have been a pleasant way to make money, but the good ole boys who drove the whiskey sure did take pride in their cars. Especially after World War II when the boys came home and the economy began to pick up, good ole boys began to have a little more money, and that extra cash bought them cars. As Wolfe points out, the cars were a symbol of freedom for the rural South, a way in which the lower classes could beat the old social order. Moonshiners had the fastest cars on the road out of neccesity, and they began to hold informal competitions out in the pasture to see who was the fastest. One of Junior's contemporaries, Tim Flock, remembers, "We didn't have no tickets, no safety equipment, no nothing. Just a bunch of these bootleggers who'd been arguing all week about who had the fastest car would get together and prove it" (qtd. in Golenbock 17). Before long these races got to be bigger and bigger, and before long these good ole boys could make a little money in racing. Johnson got into racing his first race when he was standing barefooted behind the plow in his garden one day, and his friends drove up and convinced him to go over to the race track and enter a stock car race. Junior recalls the event, "So I just put the reins down and rode over 'ere with them. They didn't give us no seatbelts or nothing, they just roped us in. H'it was a dirt track then. I come in second" (Wolfe 145). These backwoods boys were wild, and they loved to race just for the hell of it. Junior began to win some pretty good money in racing, but he could still make a lot more racing against the federal agents running whiskey. He continued moonshining until around 1959 or so until it became "no longer attractive, moneywise" (qtd. in Golenbock 22), and he even went to jail for about a year out of a two year sentence. He was caught early one morning guarding his father's still, but he never was caught in his car.

Junior Johnson was never bitter about going to jail, and even commented later that all in all it was a good experience. The moonshiners observed a sort of code of "just trying to live and let live" (qtd. in Golenbock 22). In a sense they truly were, as the Dukes of Hazard's theme song suggests, "just some good ole boys, never meanin' no harm." Johnson recalls the mentality of the moonshiners, which many people outside of the whiskey business identified with, "The government was selling whiskey in liquor stores, so most people didn't look at it as against the law, but there was a law against it" (qtd. in Golenbock 22). Johnson was an independent and simple, no nonsense kind of guy. He was brave and talented at the wheel, and he was a picture of what other good ole boys wanted to see in themselves. He never lost touch with the values he learned growing up in the whiskey business, and the sport of racing is yet to lose the idealized image of rebels and daredevils like Junior Johnson.

"If you made a gallon of whiskey, they made $11 in tax on it...How did they expect you to pay $11 a gallon when you only sold it for $4 dollars a gallon?" --Junior Johnson

"I made as many as four runs a night. I did that from the time I was thirteen until I was in the mid-twenties, 365 days a year, seven or eight times a week, probably more than that" --Junior Johnson

"God! Junior Johnson was like Robin Hood or Jesse James or Little David or something." --Tom Wolfe

"I don't want to pull any more time, but I wouldn't take anything in the world for the experience I had in prison. If a man had to change, that was the place to change. H'it's not a waste of time there, h'it's good experience" --Junior Johnson

"I always had the idea that I had as much sense as the other person and I didn't want them to tell me what to do. In the penitentiary there I found out that I could listen to another fellow and be told what to do and h'it wouldn't kill me" --Junior Johnson

Hardcharging into NASCAR


Barney Oldfield Junior Johnson Dale Earnhardt