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Robert Glen Johnson, Jr. (better known as Junior Johnson) was born June 28, 1931 in Wilkes County, North Carolina.
He grew up tending to the family farm and moonshine stills during the great depression. His family didn’t make moonshine in order to make a “quick buck”, they did so in order to survive. Junior’s dad was known for making the best ‘shine, so you could say making ‘shine is in Junior’s blood.
At the age of 14, Junior began delivering the family moonshine. He quickly became a moonshining and bootlegging legend by outrunning and outsmarting the local police and federal agents. Junior was never caught while running ‘shine.
He invented the now-famous “bootleg turn”, in which the bootlegger escapes the revenuers by cutting the wheel sharply to the left, dropping into a lower gear and putting the pedal to the floor. This slides the car into a 180 degree turn— which resulted in a high-stakes game of chicken between Junior and the revenuers. Junior never lost.
In 1955, Johnson decided to give up moonshining and began racing fulltime in the NASCAR series. In his first full season, he won five races and finished sixth in the 1955 NASCAR Grand National points standings.
In 1956, after winning a race in Pennsylvania and driving all night long to get back home, Junior’s dad and brother had overslept and asked him to go fire up a still. Eighteen Federal tax agents had staked-out the still and while Junior tried to escape, there were just too many of them. Junior was convicted of moonshining and was sent to the federal prison in Chillicothe, Ohio. He served 11 months of a two-year sentence.
Johnson returned to the NASCAR scene in 1958 and picked up where he left off, winning six races. In 1959, he won five more NASCAR Grand National races; by this time he was regarded as one of the best short-track racers in the sport.
His first win at a “superspeedway” came at the Daytona 500 in 1960. Junior’s car was 22 miles per hour slower than the top cars in the race. During the race he noticed that when he moved behind faster cars, his own speed increased due to the faster car’s slipstream. He won the 1960 Daytona 500 by “drafting”, which is now a dominant force at all NASCAR superspeedway races.
Junior retired from driving in 1966 with a total of 50 race victories.
After retiring from driving, Junior started his own race team and built one of the most successful teams in the history of the sport. He worked with some of the legendary drivers in NASCAR history, including Darel Dieringer, LeeRoy Yarbrough, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Neil Bonnett, Terry Labonte, Geoffrey Bodine, Sterling Marlin, Jimmy Spencer, and Bill Elliott. In all, his drivers won 139 races and six Winston Cup NASCAR Championships—three with Yarborough (1976-1978) and Waltrip (1981-82, 1985).
In 1965, writer Tom Wolfe wrote the famous article for Esquire magazine about Johnson titled, The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. Yes! The article turned Junior into a national celebrity, well beyond the circle of NASCAR fans.
On December 26, 1986, President Ronald Reagan granted Johnson a presidential pardon for his 1956 moonshining conviction. Johnson called the pardon “one of the greatest things in my life.”
Junior shared his family recipe with Piedmont Distillers in 2007 and introduced Junior Johnson’s Midnight Moon moonshine.
In 2010, Junior was part of the first group of five to be inducted into the brand new NASCAR Hall of Fame. The other inductees included NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., his son, Bill France Jr., Richard Petty & Dale Earnhardt.