Robert Glenn “Junior” Johnson, a 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. “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.”
A native of 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 Waltrip, 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 is also credited with bringing the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company to NASCAR, which then led to Winston sponsoring its premier series from 1971-2003.
Johnson is survived by wife Lisa, daughter Meredith and son Robert Glenn Johnson III.
“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.”