December '18

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14 THE SHOP DECEMBER 2018 Junior Johnson: From Moonshine to Racing Pioneer It featured an experimental Z-33 427-ci engine—something that Paul Prior, Dick Keinath (engineers) and Vince Piggins, product promotion manager of Chevrolet, gave to a select number of NASCAR racers. "It'd have to blow up or something for (anyone else) to win the race," Johnson said about that season. "We sat on the pole several times and we won seven major superspeedway races that year and pretty much dominated the sport until we had problems of some sort. Well, NASCAR pretty much outlawed or banned the 1963 Chevrolet motor, and at some point in time, I signed a contract to drive for Ford Motor Co." In 1964 he saw 15 top-ten finishes in a Ford owned by Banjo Matthews, and with that were 12 top-fives and three wins; then 13 wins in 36 races in 1965. Johnson was quickly becoming one of the highest-profile figures in stock car racing, but at the end of '65 he announced that he was retiring as a driver to con- centrate on building cars and being a car owner. He was 34 years old in 1966 and only ran seven races as a driver in that last season. In a total of 313 starts, Johnson finished in the top-three 91 times but, consistent with his go or blow reputation, he also failed to finish 165 of those events. RACING SLICKS ON A STOCK CAR In 1969, the Talladega superspeedway had a problem during its inaugural 500-mile race. The race cars could not keep their tires on the track at high speeds for more than 15 laps. There was a driver boycott and after- ward Goodyear did some tire tests, using the Junior Johnson Ford Torino car driven by LeeRoy Yarbrough. During this era, NASCAR rules mandated tires with tread, but Johnson instructed the tire reps to throw a set of slicks on his car so they could be tested on the tricky track. They worked much better, and since Johnson knew that France would welcome something that would add to the safety of stock car racing, he sent positive feedback to NASCAR headquarters. Ever since, slick, tread-less tires have been the norm in NASCAR racing. TOBACCO'S BIG BUCKS In late 1971, after reading in the news- paper that R.J. Reynolds Tobacco was no longer going to be able to advertise on television because of new laws, Johnson headed to the company's headquarters A COMPELLING STORY A long and riveting account of all things NASCAR and all things Junior Johnson was featured in the March 1965 issue of Esquire magazine. Written by a young and enthu- siastic journalist, Tom Wolfe, the story came at a perfect time to help promote not only Johnson, but stock car racing in general. It's been reported that Wolfe received $800 for the story but ended up spending twice that amount on all the traveling and expenses incurred for the project. Years later, here's how Wolfe described the experience to NASCAR reporter Mike Hembree: "The story there is bigger than stock car racing itself. That's always the way it struck me. That's the way I wrote it, trying to bring the South into it. What is this courage these drivers have? Where did it come from? Is there some place you can just go get it? As it turned out, you could go to the South to see it. Anybody want to go put your life on the line at the track? I'm not aware of that car excitement being written about in so many words the way I did in that piece. I thought it fit. The way people looked at Junior Johnson as a heroic figure—a lot of people in that area said, 'He's one of us. He's Ingle Hollow.' He's the lost provinces of North Carolina. He's all that. And he's a champion. I mean, what a figure. When I was interviewing him, he was talking about the incredible speeds the cars were getting. I remember him saying he didn't know how much further that could be pushed. I can't imagine Junior being afraid of anything." 1965 saw a big 427-ci Galaxie come as a part of the Ford "Total Performance" effort. Car #27 saw both Junior Johnson and Darel Dieringer share driving duties through- out the year. At the end of 1970 Junior approached tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds regarding spon- sorship for his team. During the meeting and after realizing the company had excessive amounts of funds available because of a new federal law in 1971 that prohibited ciga- rette advertising on television, he brought Bill France, head of NASCAR, together with RJR executives and the Winston Cup was born.

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