Robert Glenn Johnson Jr., better known as Junior Johnson, has died at the age of 88.
A member of the 2010 inaugural NASCAR Hall of Fame class, Johnson was lovingly considered a racing hero and legend. Throughout his career – 313 races – in NASCAR’s top division, Johnson won 50 races, including the Daytona 500 as both a driver (1960) and twice as a team owner (’69, ’77).
“Junior Johnson truly was the ‘Last American Hero,’” said NASCAR Chairman and CEO Jim France. “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.”
A native of North Wilkesboro, N.C., the roots of Johnson’s career were indeed born in the woods as a bootlegger. The legend goes that Johnson was so good at hauling moonshine he was never caught – in the act. In 1956 he was convicted of moonshining when authorities staked out the Johnson family still. President Ronald Reagan pardoned Johnson in December of ‘86.
Johnson made his NASCAR national series debut at Darlington Raceway in 1953 and then ran four more races the following year. While Johnson never won a championship, nor did he ever run a full season, his 50 career wins are the most of any driver without a title.
By the 1955 season, Johnson was a NASCAR winner, scoring his first victory at Hickory Speedway. Johnson’s final start came at the age of 35 in the ’66 race at Rockingham, where he finished fifth.
Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough, Bill Elliott, and Terry Labonte all drove for Johnson. From 1976-’78 Yarborough and Johnson became the first team to win three straight NASCAR championships, a feat later matched and surpassed by Jimmie Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports.
Waltrip also won three championships driving for Johnson (1981, ’82, and ’85). Johnson’s final win in NASCAR came where he made his first start, Darlington, with Elliott winning the 1994 Southern 500.
Johnson has 132 wins as a car owner and six championships.
Johnson’s legacy goes beyond his presence in the garage. He connected R.J. Reynolds with NASCAR, which led to the birth of the sport’s first entitlement sponsor, the Winston Cup Series.
In recent years, Johnson had been legally selling moonshine, Midnight Moon, inspired by the Johnson family moonshine recipe.
Johnson was named one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers in 1998.
The following is a statement from NASCAR Hall of Fame Executive Director Winston Kelley on the passing of Junior Johnson:
“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. There are not sufficient words to adequately describe the impact that Junior Johnson had on NASCAR and the motorsports world. People are measured in many ways. Some are measured by what they do in their respective profession; others by what they do for their respective profession. In Junior’s case, what he did both in NASCAR and for NASCAR are equally incalculable. That is among the many reasons that Junior was one of the five inaugural inductees into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2010.
He had a stellar driving career, scoring 50 wins at NASCAR’s highest level and then seamlessly transitioned to a powerhouse car owner, notching six championships and 123 wins for numerous fellow NASCAR Hall of Famers. He was also an innovator behind the wheel, discovering the impact of the draft at Daytona International Speedway and in more ways than anyone can count — and in many ways others never knew — as an owner, mechanic and engine builder.
Junior was also the catalyst behind RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company’s 33-year sponsorship of NASCAR’s premier series that was clearly a game changing moment in the sport’s history. In addition, hundreds of people came through Ingle Hollow, NC, in what became known as “Junior Johnson University” — many of whom continuing on to Hall of Fame and otherwise stellar careers. He continued to be an ambassador for NASCAR throughout his life and was a huge part of the development of the NASCAR Hall of Fame and numerous activities since we opened in 2010. Quite literally, Junior impacted every aspect of NASCAR in a manner that only an elite few have done.
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. “