"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 mph, Fireball Roberts, Freddie Lorenzen, Ned Jarrett, Richard Petty and — the hardest of the hard chargers, one of the fastest automobile drivers in history — yes! Junior Johnson."
| Tom Wolfe, "The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. Yes!" Esquire, March 1965.
NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. — Seven o’clock, Friday morning in the hills of North Carolina. Weeds, miles of weeds, sprouting in every direction, millions of weeds spanning the entire brown palette, Dockers khaki weeds, Coppertone tan weeds, mocha cappuccino brown, Captain Crunch beige, sand-blasted brick, rusted-pipe water weeds and then, weeds not quite brown, weeds burned colorless by that old mothering North Carolina sun. The weeds surround North Wilkesboro Speedway, which used to be the soul of stock-car racing.
Now there are no races, no qualifying runs, no Southern belle beauty queens kissing good-old-boy drivers under the spray of cheap champagne. Two cars — one a red Chevrolet pickup, the other a white Lincoln Continental — park in the dirt and rocks in front of a chain-link fence crowned with a John Hancock flourish of barbed wire. A man trudges along the outside of the fence and rattles the chains. Nobody is allowed in.
"We don’t do that no more," the man says.
They used to open the gates, of course, in the hippie ’60s and psychedelic ’70s and even the Reagan ’80s. Miles of cars lined along Route 421 twice a year, people going to the stock-car races at North Wilkesboro. This was where Tom Wolfe wrote his classic story, the one that brought racin’ to the masses, a story about blue smoke, rebel yells, twisted metal and men named Fireball. The patron saint of his story was a convicted moonshiner named Junior Johnson who drove like a demon in his souped-up Chevrolet.
Forty-plus years later, the last American hero still lives here, in the North Carolina mountains, but everything’s different. He travels to Europe often and says he’s done with racing. When he drives by the old race track, he drives his Mercedes. It’s different, he’s different, racin’ is now racing, and chains bind the gates at North Wilkesboro. Only the weeds line up to get in.
"The legend of Junior Johnson! In this legend, here is a country boy, Junior Johnson, who learns to drive by running whiskey for his father, Johnson, Senior, one of the biggest copper-still operators of all times ..."
| Tom Wolfe, "The Last American Hero."
At the Minneapolis airport — and a luxury strip mall near you! — a NASCAR store squeezes between the high-end clothing and jewelry stores. Inside the NASCAR store, colors, lights, the growl of car engines, televisions blare, T-shirts, sweatshirts, shiny jackets, key chains, poker chips, halter tops with spaghetti straps and model cars. Corporate America is here, Target, Cingular, Goodwrench, Tylenol, DuPont, Miller, Home Depot, Sunoco, Lowe’s, Snap On, Dewalt and mostly Budweiser, especially Budweiser, the King of Beers.
This is the new NASCAR, sponsored by Nextel, a multibillion-dollar business, an all-American blend of speed, technology, patriotism, danger and M&Ms. In 1965, the writer Tom Wolfe came to North Wilkesboro, and he wore a gray and green suit, a vest, a bowtie. "Damn boy, don’t you know nothing?" Junior Johnson said to him, because it was 95 degrees in the shade. A friendship struck. Together they imagined racin’ as the wild new thing — risky and wild and crass. Racin’ was more fun than common punctuation allowed! Tom Wolfe used 86 exclamation points!
Racing now, well that’s what it misses! Exclamation points! This is the very topic of discussion in the North Carolina mountains, in Junior Johnson’s garage, where some good old boys gather for their weekly breakfast. There are seven different kinds of meat on the table, all different shades of bacon and sausage, and the good old boys chase the meat down with coffee strong enough to get you 60 miles to the gallon.
"So I go up to the people and say I want to fire Brett Bodine." This is Junior Johnson talking about the days when he owned a team and Bodine was his driver. Junior wears blue overalls and a crew cut, and he sits on a flowered-print chair with a matching chaise lounge. Good old boys lounge around him in love seats, couches and an old porch swing that dangles by chains. All around them are enough nuts and bolts and tires and shells to build you a race car, but none of them is in that game now.
"So they say to me, ‘You can’t fire Brent Bodine,’" Junior says. "I say: ‘Why not? That son of a gun can’t drive.’ They say: ‘That don’t matter none. He’s the best public-relations guy we ever had.’
"So I tell them, ‘I don’t want some damn PR guy. I want a driver.’ "
The good old boys break up! Everything is in that story! Drivers used to be drivers! They came from nothing! From moonshine! Bootlegging! Farms! Nowhere! They drove like devils because they had to go fast, it was coded in their DNA. There were no helmets, little money, some of their friends died. Still, they drove hard. They had to!
"I might have known five or six drivers my whole life who hit the wall — I’m talking about really hitting the wall — and could still keep their foot down," Johnson is saying. He’s talking now about Jeff Gordon, the omnipresent good guy in NASCAR. Believe it or not, Gordon is Junior’s favorite driver. "That son of a gun can drive anything with four wheels on it," Junior says, a compliment that, in this garage, compares to being knighted. But even Gordon, Johnson says, changed after he hit the wall.
"They can’t help it now," Junior says. "Too much money to lose. Finish fifth and you cash a fat check. Ain’t the incentive to go after it. Don’t get me wrong: Money’s good for the drivers. Good for the sport. People say it’s gone Hollywood. I think that’s good. They make a lot of money in Hollywood. But there just ain’t the incentive to go for it.
"I’ll tell you what burns me, is when these guys today talk about how they’re so much better than we used to be. They couldn’t have done what we done."
"Linda, with her red show girl’s suit on, gets up on the seat, which is up between the wings, like a saddle, high enough so her long honeydew legs stretch down, and a new car pulls her — Miss Firebird! — slowly once around the track just before the race. It is more of a ceremony by now than the national anthem. Miss Firebird sails slowly in front of the stands, and the good old boys let out some real curdle Rebel yells, ‘Yaaaghhooo! Let me at that car!’"
| Wolfe, "The Last American Hero."
Linda Vaughn — Miss Firebird! Miss Hurst! Miss Atlanta International Raceway! — lives in Southern California now, if you care to know. Her voice still drips pure Georgia. The Good Lord has granted that she keep her honeydew legs, and she still models next to cars, and on her answering machine message, Linda Vaughn sings, "God bless America and the American automobile!"
Of course, it’s been many years since Linda Vaughn rode around a NASCAR race. Time doesn’t stop even for Miss Firebird. New kids drive now — and the key word is "kids" because to Junior it looks as if half these drivers got their licenses last week. Junior thinks some of them are good drivers, but he doesn’t like the way they whine about this guy cutting off that guy or whatever. "Sounds like kids on a playground to me," Junior says. "It’s all, ‘I want that sucker!’ ‘No, it’s mine!’ ‘Mine!’ "
Of course, men in Junior Johnson’s day didn’t care much for getting cut off either, but they didn’t yell about it much. They threw wrenches at each other and slammed offending drivers into the wall. Junior says he never put a driver into the wall, never, except twice. Once he put Lee Petty into the wall because he kept slamming into the back of Junior’s car. The other time, he crashed Lee’s son Richard, the King.
"He spun me out," Junior says.
"Did he do it on purpose?"
"Don’t know," Junior says. "Either he done it deliberate or he done it because he couldn’t drive. Either way, I didn’t like it. So I put him in the wall. Never did have trouble with him after that. We stayed friends. No hard feelings."
They were hard men, and they made up the rules as they went along. Junior Johnson made up most of them. He had a lousy car at Daytona in 1961, but he discovered that when he settled his car in behind another, he would go faster. He won that race by drafting, though nobody knew what to call it then. Later Junior was the first to use a radio to communicate with the pit crew, and, on the same day, he became the first to break the radio because he didn’t like what they were telling him.
Fun? No, it wasn’t always fun. "It was hard work, getting the car ready every week — I had two people working with me; today they’ve got 150," Junior says. And it was sweat and danger out their on the track with all those other good old boys charging into the turns for the few hundred bucks prize money. Of course, it was fun sometimes. Junior doesn’t keep much from his racin’ days, but he does keep a sign that memorializes his 1963 Chevrolet. Junior went it alone that year — Chevrolet had pulled out of racin’ — and in those he will tell you that having no money was even worse than it is now. Back then, when you bought 15 tires, 10 of them were square.
Still, Junior and his Chevy beat ’em all when his car didn’t bust up. He and Ray Fox fixed that car with their bare hands, with handmade parts — "Now they call it ‘engineering,’" he says, spitting out the last word. "Back then, we just called it ‘common sense.’"
Junior won seven times, set all kinds of qualifying records, but more amazing, he led 16 other races but had a tire blow or a battery cable snap. You couldn’t beat Junior Johnson, you could only stay out there and hope his homemade Chevy overheated or wore out its brakes. Never been another year quite like it.
He says: "They used to tell me, ‘You drive 100 percent, and a car can’t handle 100 percent. Well, there wasn’t nothing I could do about it. I couldn’t drive no other way."
"And it was a business, like any other business, just like a milk route — but this funny thing was happening. In those wild times, with the money flush and good old boys from all over the county running the white liquor down the road ninety miles an hour and more than that if you try to crowd them a little bit — well, the funny thing was, it got to be competitive in an almost aesthetic, a pure sporting way."
| Wolfe, "The Last American Hero."
After they retired, federal agents used to drop by Junior Johnson’s garage for some breakfast meat and coffee, and the agents reminisced about the days when they drove the dirt roads in the Brushy Mountains and tried to catch Junior with cases of moonshine in his trunk. "You used to keep us up nights, Junior," the agents would say. Junior would say: "Why was you losing sleep? There wasn’t no way you was going to catch me."
They never did catch him in a car. The feds did catch Junior later, but that was at his daddy’s house, where he was firing up the moonshine still — that’s what you did to make sure it didn’t smoke and let everyone within five miles know what you were doing. Junior says he was out of the whiskey business, but Robert Johnson Sr. asked him to fire up the still, and Junior never said no to his daddy. "I don’t regret it," he says.
It was the first and only time Junior Johnson was arrested. The judge knew the Johnsons well — he personally sent Johnson Sr. away two or three times — and he sentenced Junior to two years at the federal penitentiary in Chillicothe, Ohio.
"It wasn’t good or bad or indifferent," he says. "It just was. But when I got out, I said: ‘That’s it. I ain’t answering to nobody from now on."
Junior quit driving when he was 34, the year after he won 13 races. "I get bored pretty easy," he says. "I’d win a race and think, ‘I already did that.’ So I quit." Instead, he became an owner, he got his own drivers — 32 of them in all — and they won 119 races through the years. Junior figures he fought with all 32 of those drivers at one time or another.
He especially fought with Darrell Waltrip. There was a mule fighting a mule! There was this time in 1982, Junior says, when Waltrip wanted to set up his own car. Junior kept telling Waltrip he didn’t know squat about cars, but Waltrip was as stubborn as any old moonshiner, and he wanted to set up the car. Junior let him do it for a race in Atlanta. Two laps into the race, Waltrip got on the radio and said the car felt too loose — meaning that when he turned left, the rear of the car wanted to keep on going right.
"I’m bringing her in," Waltrip said. Johnson grabbed the radio.
"Like hell you are," Junior said. "You bring that car into the pits, I’m going to break the windshield with a hammer and strangle you."
So Waltrip stayed out there, and you know what? He drove his car sideways, and he won the race under the caution flag. "He was one dumb son of a gun," Junior says. "But he sure could drive a race car."
Everybody figured Junior would stay in racing until he drew his last breath. Then, in 1995, Junior walked away again. He wasn’t even 65. He says he doesn’t regret it for a minute. He farms. He has young kids. He travels all over ... he loves the Island of Capri. He says people there drive like maniacs.
"Some people, racing is their whole life," he said. "I don’t mind that. It’s their life. But it wasn’t my life. It’s not my life now. I did what I wanted to do in racing, and that was it. I’ve never been one to look back, except once."
That one time he looked back, you might guess, had to do with prison. When Junior was locked up he wrote a letter to the judge who sentenced him. He wrote that someday he would urinate on the judge’s grave. Many years later, the judge died.
"Did you do it?"
"Of course I did," Junior Johnson says. "I wasn’t going to let the man make a liar out of me as well as a jailbird."
"And now, today, the big money starts descending on this little place, the North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, Speedway, a five-eighths-of-a-mile stock-car track with a Coca Cola sign by the highway where the road in starts."
| Wolfe, "The Last American Hero."
When Junior Johnson was young, he wanted to be a pitcher. He could throw hard against the barn, and he was left-handed, too. Then, a tractor turned over on him, wrecked his arm, Junior started making moonshine runs for his daddy, and he started racin’ when a couple of good old boys stopped by the house and told him about a dirt-track race in North Wilkesboro.
The racetrack still stands off Route 421, but nobody races. The paint is chipped on the "Violators will be prosecuted," sign, the pavement’s cracked, weeds everywhere. There are folks around these parts who believe racin’ will return to North Wilkesboro someday. Junior Johnson just isn’t one of those folks. He says people have forgotten.
"I see ’em running away from their history, and that ticks me off a little," Junior says. "This sport has a lot of bootleggers, moonshiners, roughnecks, that’s part of the history. I see ’em running away from that, trying to polish it up, but you can’t ever polish up this sport too much. Of course, that’s just the thought of an old moonshiner."
Junior walks to door of his garage, and looks out toward the sun, his farm and the road behind it, Route 421, Junior Johnson Highway it’s now called. And he says that he’s had enough looking back for one day. He says the times may change, crew chiefs might become engineers, country race tracks might move to the city, drivers might drive 200 mph to sell Little Debbie snack cakes, but the main thing doesn’t change. You gotta charge hard into the turns or you’re gonna get passed. Junior!