There's an amusing side to Junior Johnson, who's well known for his witty, self-deprecating sense of humor.
Don't let that fool you. The drivers who have spent time in Johnson's cars will tell you that there is no one more tenacious or committed to winning than the bootlegger-turned-racer from North Carolina's Wilkes County.
Johnson is the living embodiment of NASCAR racing's ascension from a tightly contained regional sport for hardcore fans to a mainstream national and international phenomenon. During his 14-year career as a driver, he won 50 Cup races, a number that doubtless would have been higher, were it not for Johnson's propensity to destroy his equipment.
"Junior was one of the most aggressive drivers the sport ever has seen, and he probably blew up and had more DNFs while leading races than anyone in its history," said Jimmy Spencer, who notched his only two Cup victories while driving for Johnson in 1994.
"He defined 'checkers or wreckers.' But I think he learned from those mistakes and was able to pass those lessons on to drivers like me. You can't contend for the win if you're not around at the end. No one battles for the win from the back of a tow truck."
The lessons Johnson learned in the racecar became food for thought for a succession of drivers who left deep imprints on the sport. The list reads like a Who's Who of racing—and not just stock cars.
Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, LeeRoy Yarbrough, Neil Bonnett, Geoff Bodine, Terry Labonte, Bill Elliott, Sterling Marlin and Spencer were among those who ran for Johnson full time. The list of drivers who took at least one ride in a Johnson car includes NASCAR stars Bobby Isaac, Curtis Turner and David Pearson, as well as open-wheel legends A.J. Foyt, Gordon Johncock and Lloyd Ruby.
Yarborough and Waltrip each won three championships with Johnson, who had the well-deserved reputation for stretching NASCAR's rules to the limit—and sometimes breaking them.
"Junior was an innovator, and he would take the rule book and he would find out all the things it said you couldn't do, and he'd figure out all the things that you could do," Waltrip said.
Johnson's backwoods roots aside, it was through his instigation that NASCAR landed the title sponsorship deal that would ensure NASCAR's explosive growth for three decades. Johnson opened the dialogue between NASCAR and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, and that ultimately led to Winston's title sponsorship of the Cup series from 1971 through 2003.
Initially, Johnson used his mechanical aptitude to modify cars that could outrun revenue agents bent on shutting down his moonshine business. When Johnson began racing cars, that skill set translated to the racetrack.
Johnson will be inducted into NASCAR's Hall of Fame on Sunday. One of his old moonshine stills preceded him as an exhibit in the Hall and was on display on opening day, May 11.
As it should have been.
The Johnson file
* 50 Cup wins as a driver
* 132 Cup wins as an owner
* 6 Cup championships as an owner
* Legendary innovator; discovered practice of drafting
* Brought R.J. Reynolds Tobacco into NASCAR