‘Last American Hero,’ NASCAR Hall of Famer Junior Johnson, dies at 88

Daniel McFadin

Robert Glenn “Junior” Johnson, who won 50 NASCAR Cup Series races as a driver and 132 as an owner and was part of the inaugural class inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2010, has died at 88.

Johnson had reportedly been in declining health and had entered hospice care earlier this week, according to NASCAR.com.

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

A native of North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, Johnson – whose origins were in bootlegging moonshine –  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 was immortalized as the “Last American Hero” in an Esquire magazine feature written by Tom 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.

It was Johnson who helped connect the RJ Reynolds tobacco company with NASCAR, which led to Winston sponsoring its premier series from 1971-2003.

In 1986, Johnson received a full presidential pardon from President Ronald Reagan for his 1956 federal conviction for moonshining.

“It is with great sadness that we share the passing of Junior Johnson on behalf of the Johnson family. First and foremost, everyone at the NASCAR Hall of Fame offers our most sincere condolences to Lisa, Robert, Meredith and the entire family,” NASCAR Hall of Fame Executive Director Winston Kelley said in a statement. “We have lost one of NASCAR’s true pioneers, innovators, competitors and an incredible mechanical and business mind.  And personally, I have lost one of my dearest friends. While we will miss Junior mightily, his legacy and memory will forever be remembered, preserved, celebrated and cherished at the NASCAR Hall of Fame and in the hearts and minds of race fans around the world.  Please join us in remembering and celebrating Robert Glenn Johnson Jr. ”

NASCAR issued the following statement from its CEO and Chairman, Jim France:

“Junior Johnson truly was the ‘Last American Hero.’ From his early days running moonshine through the end of his life, Junior wholly embodied the NASCAR spirit. 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 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.”

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Johnson was considered one of the greatest innovators in NASCAR history. Perhaps the most famous innovation he was credited with was “discovering” drafting and the the benefits associated with it, leading to his sole Daytona 500 win as a driver in 1960 (he also won the Great American Race as a team owner two other times, in 1969 and 1977). In several interviews over the years, Johnson said he discovered drafting by reportedly being able to “see” air moving between his car and the one in front of him, and how the air flow would help “pull” his car closer, being able to “push” the car ahead of him — and bringing along his own car as well — faster and quicker, and also leading to allow Johnson’s car to slingshot around and ahead, oftentimes leading to a win.

Like many drivers of his era, including fellow NASCAR Hall of Famer David Pearson, Johnson primarily ran partial schedules during his 14 seasons of racing in what was then known as the NASCAR Grand National Series. But even running part-time did not hinder him, including 13 wins in 36 starts in 1965. That was also his final regular season as a driver, with his last win coming later that same year at what was considered his home racetrack, North Wilkesboro Speedway.

It was also because of his primarily part-time status that Johnson never competed in enough races in any single season to come close to win a Grand National championship as a driver — with his highest finish in any season being sixth (in both 1955 and 1961).

Johnson was just 35 years old when he hung up his steering wheel for the final time, going on to even greater success as a team owner. Even though he received numerous offers to get back behind the wheel, he passed on all of them, preferring to call his own shots as leader of his own team. Or, as he put it numerous times, “in a supervisory capacity.”

Johnson was most known for his No. 11 race car as both a driver and owner. As a driver, he also drove for several owners in cars sporting numbers including 26, 27, 3 and 55. As an owner, his teams sported 26, 27 and 98, but it was No. 11 that became so associated with him as an owner, primarily from 1974 through his final season leading his team in 1994.

He would sell all the equipment and assets of his organization upon the completion of the 1995 season to Brett Bodine, but for nearly another quarter-century, Johnson would remain a popular ambassador for NASCAR and the sport of stock car racing, the NASCAR Hall of Fame, as well as remained a fan favorite until Friday’s passing.

He called his induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in its first year of operation the greatest day of his life.

News of Johnson’s death drew quick response on social media:






















 

Contributing: Jerry Bonkowski

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