Track no longer home Junior Johnson: Life for 66-year-old auto racing legend now centers on his wife and two young children.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

HAMPTONVILLE, N.C. -- Junior Johnson sits on his cherry red couch, his wife, Lisa, beside him and their two small children climbing all over him. Johnson, 66, wears a beatific smile.

The stock cars and racetracks are behind him. These days, his job description is as follows: loving husband, doting father and master of a country chateau.

"This is when you should have children," Johnson says. "Most people work all their lives and can't spend as much time as they want with their kids. Then, when they're at the age to retire, the kids are grown and gone. Me, I spend all my time with them and enjoy every moment."

He retired from Winston Cup racing in 1995. Johnson won 50 races as a driver from 1953 to 1966, then became an equally successful owner, with 129 victories. Those are just numbers, though. Johnson was -- in the words of author Tom Wolfe -- "The Last American Hero."

But Johnson hasn't been to a NASCAR race since retiring.

"I was at the point in my life where I had given everything to racing and had come to the time when I needed to devote myself to Lisa and our two kids," he says. "Racing is a mind-boggling, twisting type of sport that keeps you so confined. You're either in it or out of it. And it's a pleasure to be out of it."

Yes, out of racing -- and into the bathtub. Each evening, the four Johnsons take to a large, white whirlpool tub for their nightly bath.

"It's one of the great family pleasures of our day," says Lisa, 31. "But I don't know how much longer we'll all fit, as the children get older."

The children are Robert Glenn Johnson III, age 4, and Meredith, who turned 2 last month. Meredith's big birthday party included about two dozen neighborhood children and a cake that her daddy encouraged her to pick up and eat with her fingers.

Mansion on a hill

They live in a 10,000-square-foot home on a hill overlooking a valley with a view all the way to the Blue Ridge Mountains. Used to be you could drive up and gawk at Johnson's Carolina castle. But so many fans did that, the Johnsons installed a gate to protect their children from the traffic.

To get to Johnson's home, a long stone's throw from Route 421, which runs between Winston-Salem and North Wilkesboro, you drive up a long, asphalt driveway between black board fences until you get to a tall, black-grilled gate fitted out with an intercom.

The house sits in the middle of 200 acres that are roamed by about 200 beef cattle, a breed called Santa Gertrudis. Between 700 and 800 more cattle graze on nearly 500 acres the Johnsons own in the nearby Brushy Mountains.

The house has muraled ceilings, painted with blue skies and soft, white clouds. There is Mexican limestone from Acapulco covering 2,200 feet of uncarpeted floor, marbled stone fireplaces and banisters, a room for young Robert with its walls painted to mimic those of a rustic log cabin, a large, carpeted room containing nothing but a triple-decker row of plastic storage bins stuffed with children's toys.

And there are crystal and gold chandeliers in the entry hall and the bathroom foyer. The master bathroom is a palace all by itself, with its walk-down, freestanding shower and that family tub.

It's a funny place to find Junior Johnson.

If truth be known, Johnson is surprised still that he made it into retirement. In fact, he's surprised he made it beyond his moonshine-running days.

"You look out there at Route 421," he says, waving toward the highway. "Going 60 miles an hour on that road now is dangerous. And we were going 120 mph on it 40 years ago, every night. There wasn't as much traffic, but just surviving it you had to be good to not wreck and kill yourself. And it was an everyday thing. Kind of like a cocked gun every night you went out."

Birth of 'bootleg turn'

Johnson grew up in Ingle Hollow, the son of a copper-still moonshine maker. He became a legend while delivering his daddy's whiskey to speakeasies and neighborhood bars during the 1950s.

"Junior Johnson is like Robin Hood or Jesse James or Little David. Junior Johnson is the last of those sports stars who is not just an ace at the game itself," wrote Tom Wolfe, "but a hero a whole people or class of people can identify with. Junior Johnson a modern hero, all involved with car culture and car symbolism in the South. A wild new thing."

Johnson was 33 years old when Wolfe wrote about him in 1963. In those days, his own stock-car racing career was earning him more than $100,000 a year, but he was still famous for his moonshine running, for outwitting the local police with his invention of the "bootleg turn," in which he'd throw the car into second gear, turn the wheel and step on the gas, forcing the car into a 180-degree spin, after which he'd roar back past his pursuers.

Johnson saw Wolfe recently in Asheville, and he laughs at the memory.

"I still kid him," Johnson says. "He had just written a deal on Liz Taylor in New York before he came here. I tease him about going from the penthouse to the outhouse. I think, when he wrote that story about me, he didn't think I was going to last very long."

He's lasted long enough for many twists in a fascinating life. From moonshine runner to stock-car racer to inmate at Chillicothe State Prison. He served 18 months after being caught carrying wood at his daddy's still in 1956. When he got out, he went back to racing.

Advancing the sport

In 1986, when Johnson had earned the distinction of being the most successful team owner in Winston Cup history at that point with six championship titles (three each with Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip), President Reagan made him even happier by issuing a pardon for the moonshine conviction. It's framed and hanging on the wall of his den.

By then, Johnson was firmly established as a trendsetter. He used the technologies he learned for souping up moonshine-running cars to create more power in his race cars at the start. And he developed racing techniques as he advanced in his sport.

It was Johnson who perfected the "power slide" of dirt-track racing, in which a driver would turn the wheel to the left nearly 75 feet from the turn, put the pedal to the metal and use the slide to slow down entering the curve and then pick the speed back up coming out on the other side.

And it was Johnson, who was trying to make a Chevrolet run as fast as the then-superior Pontiacs in the 1960 Daytona 500, who discovered the art of drafting, of tucking the nose of a car right up near the rear bumper of a faster car and thereby being pulled along in the "draft" behind it.

During a practice session, Johnson fell in close behind a Pontiac and discovered his Chevrolet would keep pace.

"In the draft, I could run as fast as Cotton Owens and Fireball Roberts," Johnson says. "At the start of the race, I went to the front and started running behind the Pontiacs. I caught rides like that all day. In the end, it came down to Bobby Johns and me."

Johns' back window blew out, and Johnson went on to win the race.

Changing his priorities

But those days are long gone. Even the 1970s and 1980s seem like the dark ages now. The sport is spreading cross country, to Texas and Arizona and California. Stock car racing is outgrowing its roots.

"It's lost that old Southern spirit, for sure," Johnson says, a touch of sadness in his voice. "You can say it's lost its soul. And it's kind of unfair. North Wilkesboro has dropped by the wayside. But progress has to come. To have places like California and Texas on the schedule, you're going to lose some of the lesser racetracks.

"It's making a lot of money now. And I think it's still a very young sport. It's going to go a long way before it peaks out."

But it will go the rest of the way without Johnson. In fact, racing is so far from his mind that when he is asked about his favorite memories, it is not that Daytona 500 that comes first to his mind.

"When Robert was born," Johnson says instantly. "That's my very best. I was there, holding Lisa's hand. She was having a C-section and the doctor had this little curtain across her waist, like. And the doctor says, 'Hey, Junior, you want to see your son?' And I thought he had him out and was holding him. But when I looked, all I saw was Robert's little head sticking out of Lisa's stomach. And then he was out and born and crying. It was a real emotional moment."

Robert and Meredith are the first children for both Johnson and Lisa, who have been married five years.

"I'm glad because that first-time experience you want to share with the most important gift in your life," Lisa says. "It's just a pleasure."

Johnson has known Lisa, a Bette Midler look-alike, all her life. She grew up not more than a half-mile from his home in Ronda and became a registered nurse in the cardiology department at Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem.

"We were always friends, but at some point it became more," Johnson says. "When I left home, we started dating, and well it was quite a challenge to reverse my life. I had to go through a lot of criticism. But this is what I wanted, and it's worth it."

He didn't get down on one knee to propose. They are shy when asked about this moment. But Lisa says he took her hand and simply said: "I want to spend the rest of my life with you."

People were quick to say why they thought she was after Junior and why he was after her. Junior was rich, and Lisa young and pretty.

"But we were just in love," she says. "It was pretty simple."

It cost him friends and family, as he ended his nearly 30-year marriage to his first wife. His three sisters, the only other family he has left, haven't spoken to him since.

"Most everyone thinks they know what's best for you," Johnson says. "But I wasn't living my life to make everyone else happy."

Now, there is little doubt that Johnson has found happiness. His children tumble, giggling from one parent's lap to another. And laughter echoes through the house of the Last American Hero.

Pub Date: 8/04/97

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
61°