Junior Johnson – The Last American Hero from Start to Finish
Written by 'Courtney Doss' on December 16, 2021 / Legacy
Junior Johnson and his legacy inspired the creation of Midnight Moon moonshine, and we will always be grateful for his contributions to Piedmont Distillers, NASCAR and the ‘shine world in general.
This December marks the second anniversary of Junior Johnson’s passing. We’d like to take a few moments to honor Junior Johnson’s legendary life and highlight his extraordinary accomplishments.
Junior Johnson’s Beginnings
Though Robert Glenn “Junior” Johnson was born on June 28, 1931, in Ronda, North Carolina, his family history in Appalachia goes back to the Whiskey Rebellion in 1791. His ancestors were some of the first to make moonshine in the region, and 150 years later, the Johnson family continued the tradition.
Like most Americans, Junior’s parents, Robert Glenn Johnson, Sr. and Lora Bella, struggled during the Great Depression and Prohibition provided the opportunity for ‘shine to put food on the table. Junior was often quoted, “We weren’t doing anything wrong, we were just trying to survive and we didn’t have any money to pay the taxes”. So it is no surprise the children joined the illegal family business. This led to Junior’s father and brothers serving time in jail for bootlegging; in fact, Junior’s mother is the only one who steered clear of prison.
At age 14, Junior began running ‘shine, and the family arrests became less frequent. His infamous Bootleg U-turn is legendary, and it kept the police off his trail for years; the upgrades he made to his car only helped him in that endeavor. Junior went so far as to taunt the cops and create diversions that allowed him to complete his runs.
Racing with NASCAR
Junior Johnson’s savvy driving later translated into a passion for car racing. He began racing in NASCAR and immediately became the one to beat. He won 5 times his first season, ranking 6th overall at the end of 1955.
In 1956, after driving all-night long back from a race, his daddy asked him to go fire up the family still. Even though the law could never catch Junior while he was running shine in his car, the revenuers had staked out his daddy’s still and he was simply outnumbered as he tried to make his escape. After serving 11 months of his two-year sentence, Junior was back on the track.
By 1959, he had 11 more wins under his belt and was arguably the best short-track racer the world has ever seen. He continued to dominate the sport and even invented a new racing tactic called drafting, which allowed his slower car to feed off other cars’ slipstreams and then slingshot into the lead on the last lap.
Junior Johnson retired from racing in 1966 with 50 wins. However, Junior’s affiliation with NASCAR didn’t end after he retired from driving. He became a team owner, racking up 132 additional wins for his resume in the next two decades.
The Last American Hero
Junior Johnson’s incredible driving skills, quick wit and winning personality made a big impact on the sport and the country. Not only did President Ronald Reagan pardon Junior Johnson’s arrest in December of 1986, his contributions on and off the track were honored with his induction into the inaugural opening of NASCAR’s Hall of Fame in 2010.
The legendary author, Tom Wolfe, immortalized Junior Johnson as America’s champion in his famous Esquire magazine article titled, “The Last American Hero,”. From his humble beginnings, relatable bootlegging lifestyle, NASCAR stardom and his charisma and overall generosity, Junior Johnson is the epitome of what it means to be an American in the New South.
Junior Johnson and Midnight Moon
Junior Johnson shared his family’s 100% corn moonshine recipe with Midnight Moon (made by Piedmont Distillers, Inc.), and when we gave him a sip of our first batch, Junior declared, “That’s the best damn ‘shine I ever tasted.” So began a wonderful partnership which grew to become more than just a business relationship; it became a family.
Junior Johnson and Joe Michalek, the Founder and President of Piedmont Distillers, Inc., toured the country sharing their Midnight Moon ‘shine. Junior would greet hundreds of fans at each stop along the road with a twinkle in his eye and stay until everyone had a chance to meet him and get their mason jars signed.
Midnight Moon has Junior Johnson to thank for its authenticity and popularity. The name “midnight moon” was inspired by moonshiner’s practice of making shine late at night under the light of the moon. In a way, Junior had come “full-circle” back to his roots. By partnering with the makers of Midnight Moon, Junior was able to sustain and share his family’s moonshine legacy with the world (this time – legally).
Junior Johnson’s Passing
Junior passed on December 20, 2019, but his legacy lives on at the NASCAR Hall of Fame and everyone can get a taste with a sip of Midnight Moon. He lived a rich, full life and gave so much to all that he encountered along the way. Without a doubt, Junior Johnson is the “The Last American Hero”.