Junior Johnson, ‘The Last American Hero,’ dies at 88

Robert Glenn “Junior” Johnson, the moonshine runner turned NASCAR driver described as “The Last American Hero” by author Tom Wolfe in a 1965 article for Esquire, died Friday. He was 88.

NASCAR announced the death of Johnson, the winner of 50 races as a driver and 132 as an owner. He was a member of the inaugural class inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2010.

“From his early days running moonshine through the end of his life, Junior wholly embodied the NASCAR spirit,” NASCAR Chairman Jim France said in a statement. “He was an inaugural NASCAR Hall of Famer, a nod to an extraordinary career as both a driver and team owner. Between his on-track accomplishments and his introduction of (sponsor) Winston to the sport, few have contributed to the success of NASCAR as Junior has.

“The entire NASCAR family is saddened by the loss of a true giant of our sport, and we offer our deepest condolences to Junior’s family and friends during this difficult time.”

From North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, Johnson was named one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers in 1998 after a 14-year career that ended in 1966 and included a win in the 1960 Daytona 500. He honed his driving skills running moonshine through the North Carolina hills, a crime for which he received a federal conviction in 1956 and a full presidential pardon in 1986 from President Ronald Reagan.

His was first immortalized by Wolfe in 1965 and later in a 1973 movie adaptation starring Jeff Bridges.

As a car owner for drivers that included Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough, Bill Elliott and Terry Labonte, Johnson claimed six Cup championships. His last race win as an owner was the 1994 Southern 500 with Elliott.

Waltrip said he grew up only dreaming of one day meeting Johnson, but surpassed that by getting to drive for his hero.

“He became my boss and made me a champion, I loved that man, God Bless Jr and his family. You were the greatest!” Waltrip said on Twitter.

Johnson also is credited with bringing the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company to NASCAR, which then led to Winston sponsoring its premier series from 1971-2003.

“The Last American Hero is gone and so leaves a huge dent in NASCAR racing. Junior Johnson was one of American sports’ great characters and one of the best racer and car owners ever. His mountain man drawl and tricks were legendary,” former race promoter Humpy Wheeler said. “He’ll go down as one of racing’s great ticket sellers.”

Johnson is credited with discovering drafting — using the slipstream of the car in front of you on the track to keep up or slingshot past. Using that manoeuvr, he won the 1960 Daytona 500, outrunning several cars that were about 10 mph faster.

As a young man, Johnson built a reputation as a moonshiner who could outrun the law on the mountain roads like no one else. He’s credited with inventing the Bootleg Turn, a manoeuvr that spins the car into a quick 180-degree turn and sends it speeding off in the opposite direction.

Johnson began driving at age 8, long before he had a license.

“I didn’t need one anyway,” he often said with a laugh. “They weren’t going to catch me.”

At 24, Johnson turned that talent to racing and became a superstar in NASCAR in the 1950s and 1960s. He walked away from the sport in 1996 to concentrate on his other businesses, including a line of fried pork skins and country ham.

“I had done just about everything in racing that I wanted to do,” Johnson said in an interview with The Associated Press before driving the pace car for the start of the 2008 Daytona 500, the 50th running of that event. “I do miss being in the garage sometimes, but I just wasn’t excited about going racing anymore.”

Johnson was never caught on the roads during his moonshining days, but he was arrested by federal authorities in 1956 when he was caught working at his father’s still. He was sentenced to 20 months but was released after 11 months in federal prison in Chillicothe, Ohio.

Although a lifelong Democrat, Johnson was pardoned by Reagan. In his later years, Johnson often said that the pardon in December 1986 was “the greatest thing in my life.”

Johnson is survived by wife Lisa, daughter Meredith and son Robert Glenn Johnson III.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Health Minister Tyler Shandro and Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the chief medical officer of health, receive flu shot. Photo via Government of Alberta
COVID cases climb in central zone, Red Deer

The total number of active COVID-19 cases in the province reached 3,138… Continue reading

Many rural municipalities were concerned about a proposed reduction to their industrial revenues, but Alberta’s municipal affairs minister has come up with an alternative solution. (Photo contributed)
Energy industry support won’t injure municipalities

Creating new wells or pipelines would result in a three year ‘tax holiday’

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole and Premier Jason Kenney participated in a livestream on Oct. 17, 2020. (File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)
UCP members pass resolution at AGM calling for privately funded health care option

EDMONTON — Members of Alberta’s governing United Conservative Party have narrowly endorsed… Continue reading

“We weren’t sure what to expect with just doing the 50/50. We have been positively surprised with sales so far,” says Craig Fleming, co-chair of the Red Deer Kinsmen Club’s raffle. (Photo by SUSAN ZIELINSKI/Advocate staff)
Non-profits put their money on 50/50 draws

COVID impacts fundraising events

Student taking a math test. (Pixabay photo)
David Marsden: Students need more testing, not less

Testing has been central to Alberta’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s… Continue reading

Gillian Robertson celebrates her win over Sarah Frota during UFC 240, in Edmonton, Saturday, July 27, 2019. Robertson used her superior grappling skills to dominate Brazil's Poliano Botelho en route to a unanimous decision win Saturday night on a UFC Fight Night card. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Canadian Gillian (The Savage) Robertson dominates in UFC decision win in Abu Dhabi

Canadian Gillian (The Savage) Robertson dominates in UFC decision win in Abu Dhabi

Forge FC head coach Bobby Smyrniotis, right, hugs captain Kyle Bekker following their victory in the Canadian Premier League soccer final against Cavalry FC in Calgary, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019. A month after winning the Island Games in Charlottetown, Hamilton-based Forge FC is back on the move. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
CPL champion Forge FC off to El Salvador for CONCACAF League preliminary-round match

CPL champion Forge FC off to El Salvador for CONCACAF League preliminary-round match

Course workers prepare the landing area at the ski jump venue in Whistler Olympic Park in Whistler, B.C. Friday, Feb. 5, 2010. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Next generation of Canadian ski talent sets sights on Whistler, B.C., in 2023

Next generation of Canadian ski talent sets sights on Whistler, B.C., in 2023

Mighty Heart is held by groom Siobhan Brown in his stall at trainer Josie Carroll's stable at Woodbine Racetrack, in Toronto, Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020. The one eyed horse, will run in the $400,000 Breeders' Stakes on October 24, attempting to become Canada's first horse to win the Triple Crown since Wando in 2003. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
Rain could present big challenge in Mighty Heart’s quest to capture Triple Crown

Rain could present big challenge in Mighty Heart’s quest to capture Triple Crown

Veteran sniper Evgenii Dadonov excited to join Senators: ‘It’s a perfect fit’

Veteran sniper Evgenii Dadonov excited to join Senators: ‘It’s a perfect fit’

Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Ronald Jones II (27) gets pushed out of bund by Green Bay Packers free safety Darnell Savage (26) during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark LoMoglio)
Packers seek to bounce back after embarrassing defeat

Packers seek to bounce back after embarrassing defeat

World junior hockey championship opens on Christmas Day for first time since 2005

World junior hockey championship opens on Christmas Day for first time since 2005

Most Read