In our serie of stories on historical drunkards we usually report about the drunken escapades. Not this time though, Robert Glenn Johnson Junior, better known as Junior Johnson, rather supplied people with tasty handcrafted booze. He kept a fine family tradition going as he was making and moving moonshine from a young age. As a bootlegger he was simply too fast for any officer of the law, which turned out to be the best possible training for a career in professional stock car racing. After an article in Esquire in 1965 Johnson gained the nickname “The Last American Hero”, and why not? A kid that seemed destined for a life in and out of prison became a respected sportsman, later a successful NASCAR-team owner and in recent years co-owner of a legal “moonshine” company. If that’s not a perfect example of the American Dream…
Unlike many famous moonshiners Junior Johnson was not active during the prohibition days in the United States. Simply because that period ended in 1933 and Johnson was born in 1931. But the fact that alcohol was now legal again didn’t stop his family from producing illegal alcohol. Like many people in the poor state of North Carolina. Making moonshine was a very popular way to make some money in a way that didn’t hurt anyone but the tax collectors. In Junior Johnson’s glory days as a bootlegger his hometown Wilkes County gained itself the nickname Moonshine Capital of the World. Father Robert Glenn Johnson Senior spent 20 of his 65 years on Earth in prison, all on charges related to illegal distillation of alcohol. And the generations before him were all active moonshiners as well.
Growing up in such a family it was only logical that Junior Johnson got into the alcohol business too. At a young age he learned how to make quality handcrafted booze and gained experience as a fearless bootlegger. “I was hauling booze quite a bit when I was 12”, he confessed many years later. “We didn’t need a driver’s license. We weren’t going to stop no how. We’d just jump out and run.” As Johnson got older this tactic changed. He would not stop for the law anymore. With his faster cars and better driving skills he had no problem ditching the agents on his tail. The NASCAR legend takes great pride in the fact that he never lost “a race” to officers of the law.
A pretty impressive record given the fact that Junior Johnson in the 1950’s was running 4 stills at the same time, where he had 25 people working for him. Just imagine the amount of booze that had to be moved on a daily basis. And not just in Wilkes County, or even North Carolina. Johnson: “Sometimes the revenuers would get so hot around here, you’d have to move away to do business. I’d just move off to other areas and keep right on going. I’d go down in Mississippi or Louisiana and Atlanta. I’d buy it south and haul it north.”
From a succesful bootlegger to a professional stock car racer turned out to be a small step for Johnson. Not a huge surprise since many of the early drivers, mechanics and team owners in NASCAR were moonshiners. Professor Daniel S. Pierce of the university of North Carolina and writer of the book Real NASCAR, said: “I started doing research on NASCAR, and obviously one of the important questions I wanted to look at was the whole role of moonshine. I pretty much assumed that what I was going to find was that it was something that had been mythologized and overblown, that there was Junior Johnson and a few other people that were involved in the early days. That was my expectation, but the deeper I looked into the whole thing and the more research I did, the more liquor I found. It was just so foundational. I knew it played a role, but the thing that surprised me was that it was so much a part of the foundation of the sport.”
Even as a professional driver Junior Johnson wouldn’t or couldn’t give up the exciting family business. In 1953 he was arrested a first time after a still was found on the Johnson family’s property. Only after a costly federal appeal he managed to escape his sentence of 18 months in prison. But 3 years later the already famous driver was caught red-handed as he tried to fire up a still to produce moonshine. Junior Johnson was convicted to 2 years in jail, of which he served 11 months and 3 days. A third case followed in 1959 when the state built up a big federal case against the Johnson family. In a 4 day trial several NASCAR officials were called on as witnesses to prove that Junior Johnson was racing on dates he was suspected of moonshining. Unlike the other family members he got off free. As his father and 2 brothers went to jail, this was the moment Junior Johnson left the moonshine business and focussed completely on stock car racing.
With 50 victories he was pretty successful, even though the famous bootlegger never won a championship. Perhaps because of his drastic “all or nothing-approach”. Johnson didn’t finish in 161 of the 310 races he started in, giving him a high failure rate of almost 52 percent. The crowd loved his wreckless ways, but for Johnson there was no bigger thrill than the chases he had in his moonshining days: “I had some purty fast race cars, but I never run anything as fast as the fastest cars I had on the highway. The cars we ran on the road, you could modify ’em to the tip. Plus, they were supercharged and turbocharged We could just do anything we wanted to ’em. There was never a time we could do everything we wanted to the race cars, even the Modifieds.”
After his active career Johnson became a legendary team owner in NASCAR, with 139 victories and a total of 6 Winston Cup championships, as well as a successful businessman. However his past as a moonshiner made him careful to never put any property in his own name, afraid the state would confiscate any of these belongings. Even after a presidental pardon by Ronald Reagan in 1985 he righteously feared the authorities. The downside came in 1992. As Johnson wanted to divorce his wife Flossie Clark Johnson all he ever worked for in his life was in her name, and it took quite some time in court to get half of that back.
From 2007 Junior Johnson went back to his first love liquor as co-owner of the brand Midnight Moon moonshine. For these drinks he uses the old family recipes and good old fashioned handcraftship in the style of the old moonshiners. The only difference with the good old days is that Johnson is now paying his taxes too, making the high speed car chases on the highway just a nice memory: “It was very exciting, and there was a competitive side of the thing that a lot of people liked. Moonshiners and revenuers had a pretty good rapport. Winning races was a thrill, but hauling whiskey was more exciting. If you lost that race, you went to jail.”
One thought on “Junior Johnson, notorious moonshiner and bootlegger and a NASCAR legend”
Back in my high school days, Junior Johnson was who I followed in NASCAR. He drove hard, pushed the envelope first to draft and develop the technique. His museum in North Carolina is on my bucket list and hope it stays open with his passing.