Like many drivers of his era, Robert Glenn Johnson wasn’t much on formal education, essentially possessing an 8th grade education. It really didn’t matter then. If you knew how to work the land, maximizing it resources for food, and maybe an adult beverage- you knew all you needed to know.
When it came to the distribution of homemade liquor, “Junior” possessed a rare talent for outrunning federal revenue agents, bent on collecting tax money on said alcohol. You see, though Junior may not have tackled weighty subjects like physics, he did possess a keen sense of how to wheel a car around the back roads of North Carolina, to avoid any hastily arranged meetings with the tax man. Judging by performance, young Johnson was pretty slick with his feet to the floor and his hands on the wheel.
Many of you know the story of how NASCAR came to be born, and how Junior Johnson, a charter member of NASCAR’s Hall Of Fame was a central figure in it. He didn’t run with the same fervor or regularity of pioneers like Herb Thomas or Tim Flock, but when he ran, he made it count- Johnson amassed 5 wins in 33 starts in 1955. While a hard-working man, Johnson was not as focused on racing as some of his peers. “I was involved in racing, but I wasn’t committed to it. It’s kind of like having ham and eggs for breakfast,” Johnson once told a sportswriter. “The chicken is involved, but that pig, he’s committed.”
Johnson was eventually busted in a raid and served prison time for his part in the moonshine trade. Success in the late 50’s demonstrated the Carolina country boy still knew how to haul the mail.
50 years to the day prior to this Sunday’s race, Junior Johnson made a discovery that has since forever changed racing on superspeedways. The resourceful wheelman figured out quickly that his ‘59 Chevy was considerably slower than the Pontiacs of drivers such as Bobby Johns or Fireball Roberts. He just didn’t have the horses to run with the best that day, until he found way to run with the big dogs.
Early in the running of the 1960 Daytona 500, Johnson had come out of the pits from a pit stop, when Cotton Owens whizzed right by him. After Owens has passed, Junior tried to duck in behind him, when suddenly, Johnson discovered he was all over the back of the much faster Owens.
Without the power to pass, he contented himself to ride on Owens’ back. At one point in the race, Johnson was back out running by himself, and he was back to running behind again. He got behind Jack Smith, the fastest car of the day, and- lo and behold- Junior was running tucked right behind, but he wasn’t nearly at full speed!
As was not uncommon, the mechanical casualties started piling up. Johnson still had Bobby Johns and Jack Smith to contend with. Apparently, they caught on to what Johnson was doing and attempted to whirl by Johnson, who was leading at that point. One little problem: as Smith was leading Johns by Junior, his back window popped out, and he spun out. Johnson said that as he passed by on the next lap Johns was still trying to right the ship.
Johnson had “discovered” the draft. By letting a lead car punch a hole in the air, Johnson could “suck up” behind that car and get extra RPM’s with less pedal. Johnson told Fox later he had “hitched a ride” to Victory Lane.
The draft was one of numerous contributions made to NASCAR by NASCAR’s most regular of regular guys. Besides linking the sport with major corporate sponsorships, Johnson won 50 races as a driver and six championships as an owner. Johnson was also a major player in linking Dale Earnhardt with Richard Childress- one of NASCAR’s most storied pairings.
It is right that Junior Johnson be included in the Hall of Fame’s first class. Think about what the sport might be today without him. How fitting it is Johnson serve as this weekend’s Grand Marshal.
Junior Johnson- Breakfast Baron
Have you seen the TV special where Junior Johnson is cooking up breakfast for his crew out on his farm? You don’t have to have the dirt under your fingernails to know that the first meal of the day is serious business on the farm, as well as in Johnson’s native South.
Junior Johnson has parlayed his love of country cooking into a business venture some of you may not be aware of. I had only recently become aware- thanks to a Rowdy.com video- that Johnson was selling his own brand of foods. When the folks he worked with offered me a chance to try some of their product, they didn’t have to twist my arm.
Working the morning shift at a radio station, I’ve sampled more than my lion’s share of “heat and eat.” Some of what I’ve tried is o.k., some if it should carry the warning: “Not fit for human consumption.”
Given that experience, I only raised my expectations because I know Johnson doesn’t do anything half way. They sent me out a box of breakfast rolls (a kind of biscuit version of “pigs in a blanket”), country ham biscuits and sweet potato biscuits.
When the package arrived, my wife (a breakfast aficionado) quickly persuaded me to heat up a little bit of the spoils for lunch. I can tell you this honestly, because I’m not being paid a dime to say it- I was quite pleasantly surprised. Now I haven’t yet tried the sweet potato biscuits, but the country ham biscuits were pretty good, and the breakfast rolls were to die for! Just the sausage itself was first rate.
While nothing beats homemade, Junior Johnson’s got something going with his line of breakfast foods. If you’re like me, and you need to cobble something quick for breakfast, Junior Johnson’s foods fill the bill quite nicely.
Thanks for letting me give it a try. It’s another classic case of the “last American hero” finding another way to excel.