The Last American Hero
It was Tom Wolfe who originally dubbed Junior Johnson as “The Last American Hero” in an article he wrote about Junior for Esquire Magazine in 1965. Reading Wolfe’s article is a journey back in time to an era that could hold a mirror to modern day. Conflicting political views reaching their boiling point as a new generation prepares to take the world stage.
“We were all in the middle of a wild new thing, the Southern car world, and heading down the road on my way to see a breed such as sports never saw before, Southern stock-car drivers, all lined up in these two-ton mothers that go over 175 m.p.h., Fireball Roberts, Freddie Lorenzen, Ned Jarrett, Richard Petty, and—the hardest of all the hard chargers, one of the fastest automobile racing drivers in history—yes! Junior Johnson.”
– Tom Wolfe
So why was Junior Johnson given this title? Some of you may not even know the name since Junior retired from racing in1966. Not every car enthusiast is an avid motorsports fan, but it’s important to know what made Junior Johnson a legend as one of the best drivers in American history both on and off the track.
Today, many race car drivers sharpen their craft at a young age racing go-karts and bump up the horspower as their career advances. Rewind several decades back to North Carolina where Junior learned and sharpen his car control skill by racing through the dirt roads of the Carolina hills. Tearing through the night in a supercharged 1940 Ford Business Coupe loaded down with a trunk full of illegal whiskey. He became an expert on dirt and perfected the “bootleggers turn” which was a 180 spin to turn around and escape the roadblock up ahead. Running whiskey was a family business since before Junior Johnson was born. His father, Johnson senior, was a career bootlegger that cost him 20 years behind bars.
Junior’s ability to out maneuver and outrun the law made him a local hero. Junior’s first stock-car race was in 1953, the Southern 500 in Darlington, South Carolina. In 1955, he started to race for NASCAR full-time and won 5 races that year, but his intro into motorsport was cut short when he was arrested in 1956. Junior was tending to the whiskey distillery while his father was out of the house. By coincidence that was also the day revenue agents had scheduled one of the largest raids of illegal alcohol in American history and seized 400 gallons. Junior was given 1 year in prison for operating an illegal still, but went back to stock-racing when he was released in 1957. Junior won 6 races during his first season back in 1958.
Junior Johnson competed in 314 races in NASCAR over a 14 year period. His career saw 50 wins, 11 of them in major tracks, and retired as one of the most winningest drivers without a championship. That’s right, Junior never won a NASCAR championship, but his legacy in racing goes beyond trophies.
Junior Johnson the Draft King
In 1960, Junior was asked to race the Daytona 500 in a stock 1959 Chevy with a 409 big block. At the time, Pontiac was dominating the races with newer models and race tuned engines that had a 22mph advantage on Junior’s “old” Chevy. Junior’s crew chief Ray Fox used every trick in the book to squeeze out every bit of performance from the 409 truck engine. As the race went one Junior knew he couldn’t beat them with horsepower and discovered something that changed NASCAR forever – drafting.
Junior got behind a Pontiac and noticed that his speed increased and raised RPM’s past 7,500! Allowing him to then slingshot around the car and pass him. The Chevy rode Pontiac’s coat tails all through the race into a 2nd place position. These full-size sedans racing at over 150mph in an oval was a middle finger to the laws of physics. Junior’s Chevy was drafting behind the leader for so long that it sucked the rear window out of the 1st place Pontiac during the final lap. The rush of air caused the rear wheels to lift off the ground and sent the car into the infield allowing Junior to cross the checked flag in a 1st place finish at the 1960 Daytona 500 in his old ’59 Chevrolet.
The Last American Hero – The Movie
Tom Wolfe’s article was republished in the early 70’s and went viral (figuratively speaking). It threw Junior Johnson’s name into the national spotlight making him popular with more than just racing-fans. The fame was so great that they made a movie inspired by his life under the same name as the article. The Last American Hero was released in 1973 starring a young Jeff Bridges (The Big Lebowski) as Junior Jackson, a good old boy whiskey-runner turned stock-car driver. The trailer for the movie has one of the best lines I’ve ever heard:
“He drives his car like he lives his life, flat-out!”
It’s worth watching the trailer just to hear that line. If your heart rate doesn’t rev up for a moment while listening to that line you are not a true car enthusiast – plain and simple.
Redline 7000 – One Mean Ford
In 1965, the film Redline 7000 starring James Caan (the Godfather) was released. It was a drama about 3 race car drivers and the strain of trying to keep a relationship in a life threatening career. I believe the film is on Netflix. I tried watching it and could not finish it – too much soap, not enough speed if you know what I mean. But, there is one scene featuring a 1964 Ford Galaxie 427 stock-car that really caught my attention. It was Junior Johnson’s racecar! The scene takes place at Ascot Park dirt track in California.
The big Ford takes it sideways and flat-out on this dirt track in spectacular fashion. It really gives you a sense for the steel lined guts it took to wrestle these hell-hardtops around an oval at 175 mph. Now, depending on which article you read some say Junior did the stunt driving, while others suspect it was a professional stunt driver. I like to believe it was Junior himself behind the wheel since it was his car and the driving shown is at an expert level. You can see the car’s rear wheels dig in as it goes flat-out down the straight away. Great stuff!
Presidential Pardon and Legal Whiskey
To understand the level of fame Junior had with the American people in the 20th century. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan gave Junior Johnson a presidential pardon. Clearing his record of his 1956 conviction and it was one of Junior’s proudest moments.
Junior’s life really went full circle in 2007 when he launched a new product called Midnight Moon Moonshine. Grain alcohol ranging between 70-100 proof in mason jars available in 8 flavors, including original white lightning, sold legally in all 50 states. The journey from running illegal whiskey through the woods under a full moon to stocking that same product in shelves across a nation. Junior Johnson described his moonshine as “Smoother than vodka. Better than whiskey. Best shine ever.”
I can tell you from experience that Midnight Moonshine is a fine product. There are many a nights I will never remember because of Midnight Moon.
A Driver’s Driver
Junior Johnson passed away at the age of 88 on December 19, 2019. It serves as a reminder that drivers like him may never come around again as we charge forward to a digital future. Most recently a group of college kids from Stanford University successfully program a DMC-12 DeLorean to drift autonomously through a road course without mistakes. This is a tremendous accomplishment that makes me sadder the more I think about it. Because while seeing a DeLorean drift on its own is a fascinating sight to witness – I much rather do it myself. I’ll hop on a roller coaster if I want to experience a ride.
Drivers like Junior Johnson inspired me to dig deep and learn car control on the back roads of South Texas. Figure out through trial and error the skill involved in handling two tons of steel at speed on loose surface roads. Find the edge of traction and develop a limit, a line, to push but never cross. There is an art to driving and Junior Johnson was one of America’s greatest artists. A whiskey runner turned NASCAR legend in cars that are death traps by modern standards. Junior’s story embodies the American spirit of independence – the Last American Hero.
So this New Year’s, if you happen to find yourself holding a container full of high-octane spirits remember to pour one out for old Junior Johnson.