Junior Johnson

Hardcharging into NASCAR

Junior Johnson worked his way up through the minor leagues of racing, winning championships at every level, and won his first Grand National race (the big leagues) in 1955. He quickly became famous for his hardcharging, daring, aggressive style, applying what he had learned on the backroads of Wilkes County North Carolina running whiskey. Johnson was known for his power slide technique, in which he would keep on the gas through the turns and turn the wheel hard, sliding without ever slowing down. It worked for him running moonshine, and it worked for him on the race track. Johnson was out of racing in 1956 and 1957 due to his prison sentence, but we he got out, he quickly moved back to the racing forefront. By 1959, he was America's most popular driver. People loved his rugged, outlaw image and his exciting, hardcharging style.

Johnson was an innovator and a genious behind the wheel and under the hood of a car. Even after he had made it in the big time, Junior still loved dirt track racing just for the fun of it. Dirt track racing, he thought, was less about the machines and more a competition of the drivers' raw courage, and in that department, Junior was as tough as it gets. Junior would get into a fierce race and bang around out there on the track in the practice runs, before the qualifying even started. Junior was also famous, much like Barney Oldfield for being able to win without having the fastest car on the track. When he won the Daytona 500 in 1960, Junior claims his car was, "about ten miles an hour slower than the rest of the cars" (qtd. in Wolfe 146). However, Junior "discovered" the idea of drafting in one of the practice rounds before the race and was able "hitch rides" all day and come out on top. Drafting is the technique of riding along close to the bumper of another, faster car, and both cars are pulled along faster than either car could go alone, a tactic now used by all drivers. Junior was a "Lion killer, the little David of stock-car racing" (Wolfe 146) that day at Daytona.

In similar form, in 1963, Junior Johnson continued to drive a Chevrolet even when they had pulled all their money from racing sponsorships. Johnson put together his car, often with parts he had made himself, and still managed to outrun all qualifiers and set a speed record at Daytona, competing against other drivers who had huge sums of money in support from their sponsors. Junior Johnson was known for being a great qualifier because he was willing to take the "pure risk" that qualifying demands. In qualifying laps, the drivers are all alone on the track, and so they have no other drivers against which to measure the risks of taking curves too fast (Wolfe 146). Junior had the guts to push it to the limit all alone. Junior finished his miracle 1963 season winning 7 Grand National races. He couldn't be outrun, other drivers could only hope he would have to drop out due to mechanical failures. The next year when Junior reluctantly elected to drive a Ford, many good ole boys were disappointed. Ford was seen as the establishment company in auto-racing, and they liked Junior's image better when he was beating the system alone, from the outside. The good ole boys idealized Junior as a link to the artisanal culture of the past, an opposing force to the industrial, big-business and big-money establishment. He was proof that a little country boy could still make it on his own, without help from anyone, and they admired that tremendously.

Before Junior Johnson's racing career was over he won 50 Grand National races and over $300,000. He got out of racing, saying that after he reached a certain level of success, racing lost its excitement. Junior commented, "I had won a lot of races on all the big tracks, and when I'd win a race, I had already won it before, and there wasn't any excitement in it" (Golenbock 111). Junior was a brave, exciting thing to watch on the racetrack, and his legend was in breaking the rules, especially if the rules did not make any sense. Perhaps he was not actually all the things that people believed he was. More than anything, Junior was a good ole fashioned survivor, a real American pragmatist. He had a chicken farming business and a grading business that built roads for the state. He also had a prosperous career as a racing owner and car builder. He got out of moonshining when it was no longer practical. He was solid, honest, and independent, and despite his lack of education, he still has a kind of simple wisdom about him. As I said in the introduction, he is a good ole boy to the core, a personification of the values most blue-collar, rural, especially Southern and white, Americans would like to see in themselves. He is the home town boy who makes it good. Dale Earnhardt has much the same sort of appeal, but is a character of a different era, and a bridge between NASCAR's past and its quickly expanding future.

Fred Lorenzen: I've been buying stock in Esso...with my race winnings. Where are you putting your money Junior?
Junior's reply: I puts my money in my jeans

"My basic nature is a perfectionist, and I don't want anybody to tell me it can't be done, or there ain't no way of doing it. I don't like that." --Junior Johnson

"I've been criticized for things I've done. You can't worry about what other people say about you" --Junior Johnson

"I'm not a person to destroy some driver just to win a race. That's not me. I like to win a race, but I like to beat the guy to win it." --Junior Johnson

"My first victory came at Hickory, North Carolina, in 1955...A friend of mine...and I ran against the factory teams. It was a big feat for a rookie, a young guy who didn't know what he was doing, to show up and beat up on the big guys" --Junior Johnson


Barney Oldfield Junior Johnson Dale Earnhardt