It Was Like We Was All Crazy
He was born Robert Glenn Johnson Jr. in Wilkes County, North Carolina. His father was a farmer and bootlegger, who’d, spent twenty years of his life in prison. Young Robert Glenn attended country schools, before leaving, in the Eighth Grade. It has all the makings of a sad story, a poor man from a poor back ground, little education, crime and few job prospects, but it’s not a sad story.
Robert Glenn had something inside of him, an intelligence which can’t be taught and a cunning, which cannot be learned. Bruce Springsteen wrote a song about him, he’s published his autobiography (being made into a movie) and they’ve already made one movie about his life. He’s a multimillionaire living in the same town he grew up in and he’s a living legend. In NASCAR racing, he goes by just one name, like Elvis or Madonna, but he’s Junior, Junior Johnson.
What in your opinion makes a driver fast?
Junior: Nerve, one word, that’s it.
Junior Johnson has nerve, asked by a reporter, “How old were you when you started hauling moonshine?”
“So, you didn’t have a driver’s license?”
Junior: Didn’t need one, I wasn’t planning on stopping.
From his earliest days Junior loved cars, watching as his two older brother’s drive in the driving business, before NASCAR, better known as moonshine running.
Junior: I had two brothers that was very influencing on driving. Both of them was older than I was, and they was kind a in the moonshine hauling business. I picked up on fast cars and stuff because I seen them doing ’em and driving ’em and had an opportunity to see their mistakes and stuff. And I picked up on the fast cars and driving, basically, when I was just a young boy through my father’s effort of trying to have fast cars to haul whiskey with and my brothers.
Well, they’d wreck cars and tear ’em up a lot, that type of thing. I tried to avoid all that stuff I could, because I could see what kind a shape they was in when they wrecked. Sometimes, I was with them in a car and the car would get away from ’em and they’d tear it up, that type of stuff.
Junior spent a year in an Ohio prison, for an illegal still, but was never caught behind the wheel.
Junior: They built a local speedway there close to where I lived, and one thing led to another. I was sort of the brave type young boy that lived in the community. If there was something that nobody else couldn’t do, I’d either try it or do it, one of the two. I became a little bit more braver than most of the other guys did. And it wasn’t long until I was in the racing, proving that I was braver than the rest of ’em. And it just kept growing from that on to, the first thing I knew I was in racing full-time.
This wasn’t the multimillion dollar operations of NASCAR today. This was outlaw, dirt-track racing, where anything goes. You might go to the winner’s circle for beer money or you might go home in a box.
Junior: I worked on the cars a tremendously lot when I was driving ’em because it become pretty, well, it become pretty important that you know what it took to make the cars do what you wanted ’em to do, that you knew what the car was going to perform like. So you can take care of the unexpected basically. That was basically the reason I wanted to work on them, so I’d know what it took.
There’s no doubt Junior knew what it took, in 1955, Junior began his NASCAR career winning five races, finishing sixth in the points standing. He won six more in 58 and five more in 59, lot’s of driver’s win lots of big races, but there is something special about Junior, he’s the genuine article. In 1960, Junior and his crew chief were preparing for the Daytona 500. Their car was slower than the leader and they knew it. It wasn’t a just little slower, but a lot slower, 22 miles per hour slower. Junior noticed, when he’d close on the car in front of him, his own speed increased. Junior hung to the lead car, until the last lap, and then sling shoting past him to win the race.
If it had been a NASA engineer, who discovered drafting, well, that would have been one thing. But a good ole boy, moonshine runner from North Carolina… that’s something else entirely.
This is what makes Junior more than just a race car driver, his brains and his never say quit attitude.
Junior: Once you’ve seen it done, you know it can be done, and you’ll try it if you’re a race driver. I think a lot of these things was instrumental in pushing a lot of people forward in racing. I think myself, I came from nowhere and come to where I’m at today, and it’s basically living proof that if you try hard enough and work long enough, you can succeed in this sport. And I think it’s been instrumental in a whole lot of race teams, that they didn’t give up and quit because they had living proof that it could be done.
Junior won over 50 NASCAR races with a 148 top ten finishes in 313 races, before retiring in 1966. He then fielded his own racing team, winning 139 races and six NASCAR Winston Cup Championships.
But Junior is more than statistics, he is, as he was called by Tom Wolfe; The Last American Hero. Do or die clever, smart and if you’re not smart enough, you work harder and find an angle. Junior was once accused of pressurizing his roll cage with nitrous – oxide and maybe he did, and then again, maybe he didn’t. Behind the wheel, you couldn’t catch Junior, period.
Junior: To start with, it was like we was all crazy, and we might have been cause, like I said before, we did it mostly for fun to start with because we all enjoyed the challenge. And we didn’t make that much money, so the crews, the guys that we’s friends with, would pool their money. We’d put it all in a car and go see if we could beat the other guy. So it was definitely a challenge to us more so than the money cause wasn’t that much money in it.
Junior on racing: It’s a very hard life. You’re on the road a lot. You’re away from your family a lot. You extend your ability and physical ableness beyond what you believe you can do. And if you extend your energetic system twice what it’s capable, because your determination not to give up. It’s a very tough life. It’s basically, like you say, like a circus. You come here and you set up and do this. It is like a circus to a certain extent, setting up and getting ready to perform. But when the time comes to perform, the circuit that our stock cars, is physical ability to produce and give the strength and energy beyond any belief. A circus is a performance that you perfected. You do it because you’re good at it and you won’t extend yourself to the physical ability that you would be exhausted, or you couldn’t go no further and that type stuff. That’s the difference in the circus and what we do.