Junior Johnson is possibly better known as the “Last American Hero”.
Though he went on to be a pioneer in NASCAR and a total legend in the state of North Carolina in terms of racing, he was also a husband, father, grandfather, chicken farmer and a moonshiner.
For the first story of this series, we’re going to focus on a wild one that became almost synonymous with Junior’s personality and what people really resonated with in terms of his racing career.
If you want to read more on the beginnings of NASCAR, and this series as a whole, you can check that out HERE.
Back in the day in Wilkes county, it wasn’t all that uncommon for a bootlegger to double as a chicken farmer, seeing as it was probably the second biggest industry to making moonshine. Certainly, it was the largest legal industry for a while.
And though he would eventually settle down some as he got older, Junior got his real start in the family business of moonshine. His dad, Robert Glenn Johnson Sr., was known around the hills of North Carolina as the “King Head” of the moonshine business. So yeah, Junior had a lot to live up to it. Moonshining was in his blood.
Born in the rural speck of a community in Wilkes called Ronda in 1931, Junior was always fascinated with the running side of liquor. His dad and brother made it all, and he would do all the driving in the darkness of the night from the hills of western North Carolina to the piedmont area where many counties were dry.
He even said before it was his whole life for a while. The part he loved so much about it was the rush of adrenaline and excitement that came with outrunning the law.
Back then, they were called revenuers, and their entire job was to catch these moonshiners on their way down the mountain. And, because he was a straight up badass, he never once got caught running any of the liquor.
Junior even said:
“It was nothing unusual if you didn’t get chased about every night.”
It included dozens of law enforcement from different agencies that were constantly on the lookout for him. He literally never, ever got caught driving. That’s how good he was. And it was no small operation, either. He had more people working for him in the moonshine business than he did in stock car racing, if you can believe it.
Part of the reason he was so good at outrunning the revenuers was because he could do anything and everything he wanted to his cars. Unlike in NASCAR, where even at the time of its inception there were rules and limits on what you could do, he could soup his moonshining cars up as much as he wanted.
He noted in previous interviews that the cars he used hauling shine were so much better and faster than anything he ever drove during his professional racing career.
I can’t even imagine what that really meant and what it looked like back then to see a car like that in action on the road, but damn if it doesn’t sound cool as hell.
One of his tricks to disguise his car was to put a police siren on it, blue lights and all, to try to blend in. Something you could absolutely never get away with these days, but you had to do what you had to do back then. Obviously, I don’t think they were all too concerned with what was legal or not, either.
Over time, he got so acquainted with the law that he was on a first-name basis with pretty much every branch of law enforcement in the county, which I found particularly funny.
The best story of them all, though, is about the time Junior got arrested at his moonshine still site soon after he had finally signed a contract to race full-time and let go of his outlaw ways. As luck would have it, he ended up at the wrong place at the wrong time early one morning.
It’s a now-legendary story that took place in 1956, in an incident also known as the “Johnson Family Raid”, where law enforcement (barely) busted up the largest moonshine operation in American history:
“I had won a race in Oxford, Pennsylvania on a Saturday night, and I come in that morning it was almost daylight when I got home.
And my dad and brother had a still back over in the woods on the other side of the house. Both of them had kinda overslept, and my dad, he asked me to go fire his still up for him.
Rumor has it, they were actually hungover and that’s why the “overslept”. Nonetheless, somebody had to get out there:
“‘Cuz, if you didn’t fire it up and get the smoke away before daylight, somebody would see the smoke and they’d say well, ‘Mr. Johnson’s got a still over in the holler.’
I didn’t think anything about doing what my dad said, today I’d still go do what he asked me to do. When I went into the still, there was nobody but me there.”
The fact that he never regretted that moment gets me.
I mean, most people who go to jail on felony charges seem to have some sort of remorse, especially when they get to prison and realize what they’re in for (more on that later).
Not Junior, though, and that’s why he’s a legend.
“I was firing the still up, and I’d got the fire going real good and I heard my brother and one of my uncles comin’ up through the woods down there. I said, you know, I’ll fire the burner one more time and I’m going to the house. They can take it from here.
When I reached over to shovel some coke up and stick it in the burner, I heard something right behind me. I looked over my shoulder and there’s a guy standing on top of the box just fixin’ to jump on my back, you know.”
Like I said, he was on a first-name basis with all of the law enforcement agents and this was no different:
“So instead of throwing the coke in the burner, I just threw it back over my shoulder and hit him in the face with it and all that stuff. And he was a well-known revenuer there in Wilkesboro that everybody knew him, his name was John West.
And when I hit him with that shovel, he hollered out ‘Catch Junior Johnson! He’s hit me in the head with a shovel!’
Well, they had it surrounded, they had the thing staked out, it was probably 15 officers all through the woods.”
So, instead of accepting the fact that he’s finally been caught and surrendering knowing that he’s surrounded by officers, he took off:
“I had got away from John down through the woods, and I knew where there was an opening in the gate of the fence down there.
I know’d I was gonna have to hit that opening, if I didn’t I was gonna run into that fence.”
Of course, any good moonshiner knows any one of their given routes by heart, and Junior did everything he could to escape.
Unfortunately, he missed the opening by a slim margin and instead got caught up in a barb wire fence and got pretty tore up from it, too:
“And, I did miss that opening in the fence, and I hit in that barb wire fence, got tangled up in it.
And Todd and two other guys caught me.”
So, the legend of all legends who had escaped all other attempts for many years finally got caught.
We’re talking thousands of gallons of liquor he was busted for, too. 800 gallons to be exact.
According to the News&Record, it was worth a hell of a lot of money:
“Had the federal agents not found the still where they caught Johnson, it would have turned about 20,000 gallons of mash into about 800 gallons of sugarhead moonshine in two days, which in turn would be sold for more than $2,000.”
In Wilkes county during the heyday of running illegal liquor, the average weekly salary was $40 for any given person with a normal job. So, you can see how lucrative of a business it was and why so many men were enticed by it from that perspective.
The fact that this was the thing that took Junior out, though, after all those years of evading punishment is quite impressive. Not only that he could escape local police for so long, but rumor has it that there were more agents in Wilkes county at the time this happened than they had west of the Mississippi River.
This is an example of something you should probably take with a grain of salt.
If you remember what I said in the introductory article, southerners like to exaggerate for dramatic effect. It might not have been quite that many, but you can be sure they were not short on help trying to catch local moonshiners across the county, and probably, the entire state.
So, Junior accepted his punishment and spent 11 months and 3 days in federal prison in Ohio. Once he got out, he strictly stuck to racing and became pretty damn good. And after reading this, I’m sure you’re not surprised one bit.
Maybe one of the coolest things to his name is that Junior is credited with inventing what’s now-known as the “Bootleg Turn”. This means that the driver would slam on his breaks, turn the car 180 degrees and put the pedal to the metal in the opposite direction.
Take a wild guess where he perfected that one…
In total throughout his career, he won 50 cup series races and placed in the top ten 148 times before retiring from driving in 1966. As an owner, he tallied 6 cup series championships. He was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on May 23, 2010.
Ultimately, President Ronald Reagan did pardon him in December of 1986 of his prison sentence and restored his right to vote, which meant a lot to Junior.
Unfortunately, when NASCAR finally incorporated in 1948, they attempted to wipe out the bootlegging image that was attached to racing for fear that it wasn’t going to be good for business as they entered the superspeedway era.
They wanted to get the sport into the mainstream and clean up the image that it was made up of criminals who made illegal liquor and broke the law.
Even though that’s exactly what it was and how it all started, and personally, I find it to be an incredible story, they viewed it as bad PR at the time. And because of that, a lot was done to keep Junior from getting to the top of his career due to his criminal record.
And, just like the best outlaws in country music, that’s ultimately what people loved so much about him.
Oh, and I told you there was more about those cherries. They’re not just cherries; they’re cherries that sit in the moonshine for as long as the moonshine’s in the jar and soak it all up.
Well, local North Carolina journalist Ed Hardin once had a one of them at the track with Junior. Ed says he still passes on advice to folks not accustomed to North Carolina cherries from Ingle Hollow that Junior gave to him the first time he ever tried one:
“Son, don’t eat two.”
And he goes on to say that while he only had one that day, he ended up writing a few stories for his journalist buddies who didn’t head the warning and ate a couple.
They’re dangerous, we’ll put it that way.
Ultimately, to the fans, Junior was someone who didn’t give a shit, lived a truly unbelievable life, and had an outlaw spirit that you seemingly only read about in books or see in movies.
Eventually, in 2007, he launched his own brand of (legal) liquor called “Midnight Moon” based on his family recipe.
And, sadly, he passed away in December of 2019 at the age of 88. Though we lost a true pioneer and larger-than-life character when he passed, he really was one of the last American hero’s.
There has never been another one like him, and I doubt the world will ever see another Junior Johnson.
The effect he had on not only racing, but the rural south, cannot be overstated.
His outlaw spirit can still be felt in NASCAR today, and you know what they say… legends never really die.
And if you want to learn a little bit more about him now, check out these awesome documentaries: