Junior Johnson, the legendary driver and car owner from Ronda, North Carolina, ranks eighth on the all time Winston Cup win list, tied with Ned Jarrett at 50 victories apiece. The man who was characterized by author Thomas Wolfe as "the last ...
Junior Johnson, the legendary driver and car owner from Ronda, North Carolina, ranks eighth on the all time Winston Cup win list, tied with Ned Jarrett at 50 victories apiece. The man who was characterized by author Thomas Wolfe as "the last american hero" won 26 of those 50 races in Fords. As a car owner, Johnson fielded entries first for himself and then an impressive list of drivers that included Bobby Isaac, Freddy Lorenzen, Curtis Turner, Bobby Allison, Donnie Allison, Davey Allison, Neil Bonnett, and Winston cup champions Darrell Waltrip and Cale Yarborough. Johnson drove and owned other makes, but the majority of his career he drove and/or owned a Ford.
Johnson, during his driving career won three milestone races for Ford - the 50th, 150th and 200th victories. In this latest installment of the race to 500, Johnson discusses the races, the times and his career.
YOUR FIRST WIN IN A FORD WAS AT NORTH WILKESBORO ON MAY 18, 1958. IRONICALLY IT WAS FORD'S 50TH WIN IN NASCAR'S PREMIERE SERIES. IT WAS ONE OF SIX THAT YEAR FOR YOU. DO YOU REMEMBER THAT RACE?
"I remember that race. I'll give you a little background of why I was in that particular car. I had got caught moonshining in '56. And I went off to prison, and I didn't get out until late 1957. There was a guy; Paul Spalding out of Syracuse, New York, had bought a Ford off from Holman-Moody. Ford was in racing until '57 and they quit. They pulled out, and all the cars were shipped back to Holman-Moody. The one Spalding bought was one of Fireball Roberts' cars. And when I come out of prison I started driving that car for Paul Spalding. That was probably the fifth or sixth race in it (that car). We run it two or three races in late '57, and then we run it all year long in '58.
YOU HAD SIX WINS THAT YEAR. "Yes, and all of them were in that Ford." DO YOU REMEMBER THAT RACE SPECIFICALLY?
"Yes, I was leading the race, and I went off the fourth turn over the embankment. They didn't have guardrails back then. I went outside of the racetrack and all it did was kind of slid over. I turned it around on the outside of the racetrack, just spun it around, and it was real high banked coming back in so I knowed if I didn't come back in real fast I'd get hung up as I come over the bank there. So I just mashed it wide open, and I come back towards the racetrack wide open, and that thing went over the top of it. I was about half a lap ahead when I went over it, and when I come back on the racetrack I was about a half a lap behind. It seemed like Marvin Panch was leading the race at that particular time, and I caught him and passed him and went on and won the race." The Race To 500
THE NEXT WIN OF NOTE AS FAR AS FORD WAS CONCERNED WAS THE 150TH WIN FOR FORD. THAT WAS YOUR VICTORY AT ROANOKE, VIRGINIA ON AUGUST 23, 1964.
"I think, I'm not sure but I think I was driving for Banjo Matthews at that race. And I beat Glen Wood (and Ned Jarrett) at that race. It had to be with Banjo Matthews because I started out '64 driving for Dodge. I was going to run that '63 Chevrolet and NASCAR banned it in 1964. I went with Chrysler and I was supposed to drive a Plymouth because the Plymouth was faster than the Dodge. And Paul Goldsmith and all them boys who had been with Chrysler talked Chrysler into making me drive a Dodge. I run five races for 'em and quit and went to drive for Banjo Matthews in a Ford."
HOW COULD THE DRIVERS HAVE THAT MUCH INFLUENCE?
"Well, Ronnie Householder was running Chrysler basically at that time. He was building all their cars. He was running Paul Goldsmith and you had Richard Petty and Cotton Owens. They made me and Cotton and Ray Fox run a Dodge. David Pearson was driving for Cotton there toward the end. He was driving for Ray. I was driving for Cotton and we wound up switching at Bristol, I believe it was. They kept promising they'd give me a Plymouth and they wouldn't do it. And I'd done all their tests for them. I went to San Angelo, Texas, and in the wintertime it's so cold out there you couldn't even breathe. And I did all the testing on the Plymouth and the Dodge both. And we showed up at Daytona and Ray Nichols brought me a Dodge instead of a Plymouth. I ran it at Daytona. I won with it at Bowman-Gray Stadium. I run one more race with it somewhere and I just quit. Then I went over and started driving for Banjo and that's who I drove for the rest of the year in '64."
CAN YOU MAKE COMPARISONS BETWEEN WHAT IT WAS LIKE THEN WITH WHAT THE SPORT IS TODAY?
"If you come along in the pioneer days of the sport, it was such a laid back sport that everybody was friends and everybody would accommodate each other, give people parts and loan them this and loan them that and so forth. As time went along and the money got bigger and bigger and bigger, everybody started trying to cutthroat each other. And it didn't really get that bad until somewhere in the late 60's and in the mid 70's it started getting real bad. I'd train the guys and get them up to where you'd not have to stay with them all the time, and that's something like 10 years you've got in a guy. Then somebody would come along and hire him away from you just to find out what you're doing. And they can get everything you've worked on for the last five or six years to get to the front. And they can get it overnight by just paying the guy two or three hundred a week more. And they won't let you know nothing about something like that until they come and say I quit and I'm going to work for so and so. And it was always your biggest competitor. I just got tired of it. There were just various things that went along with the whole program that were just too much."
WHEN DID YOU START OWNING YOUR OWN CARS?
"Well, in '65 I owned my own cars sponsored by Holly Farms. There was periods of time in my career that I "owned my own cars, and then I'd drive for somebody else. But when I didn't have a good car to drive a lot of times I'd be in my own car. But I didn't really make racing a career. I had other businesses. I owned a big construction company one time and built highways and roads. I just never did put into racing my whole life. That was part of the reason I could walk away from it any time that I wanted to."
WAS HOLLY FARMS THE FIRST NON AUTOMOTIVE SPONSORSHIP IN THE SERIES?
"I wouldn't think so, but it could have been."
YOU RAISED CHICKENS. WAS THAT HOW YOU GOT THE SPONSORSHIP.
"No, we was friends before they ever went into the chicken business. Fred and Rex Levitt started Holly Farms with some other financial backing with some friends of theirs. But I was friends with them before then."
YOU WERE THE FIRST DRIVER TO RUN A TUBELESS TIRE. YOU WON BRISTOL ON MAY 2, 1965, ON A TUBELESS TIRE.
"The tube was just a thing that holds air. The biggest reason we got rid of the tubes was because when you are running at a place where you build a lot of tire temperature the tube helped build that tire temperature. You could take the tube out of it and run it without the tube and it would be like 50 degrees cooler. That was the secret to the tubeless tire. If a tire went, the tube would go too. There wasn't any difference. The only thing to start with, they couldn't make a tire that would hold air. It would leak down. What we had to do was keep pumping the tires up the first time we ever run them to keep them at the right pressure. And somebody had to stay with that right up until you put them on the car. Once you put them on the car they'd build enough pressure to keep them from going flat. I ran a car so hard on a short track I'd constantly blow a right front tire because of the tire temperature. It would just build up and blister and blow out. For myself, it wasn't no different to run tubeless than one with a tube. A tube didn't have any advantage for me. So I started to run without the tube. It wasn't long before Goodyear made a tire that would not leak and everybody went to them because I was beating their brains out with the tubeless tire."
THE FINAL YEAR YOU DROVE (IN 1965) YOU WON 13 RACES. WHY DID YOU CHOOSE TO RUN A FORD?
"I basically had better luck running a Ford, as a driver, than I did anything else. I drove other makes of cars, but I won more races in a Ford when I was driving for myself then in anything else. I guess I understood them more because my family growed up with Fords. I used to haul moonshine with them and everything else. I understand a lot about a Ford that I don't understand about the other makes of cars."
TOWARD THE END OF 1965 YOU WON YOUR 49TH AND 50TH RACES. YOUR 40TH WIN AT MARTINSVILLE WAS FORD'S 200TH VICTORY. DO YOU REMEMBER THAT RACE?
"It was one of the deals where my car was in first class shape and it was just a dominant car. I think I was two or three laps ahead of the field. (Johnson ended up winning one lap ahead of second place finisher Richard Petty.) That was also the first race where I ever seen radios where the driver and the crew could "communicate with each other. We had radios at that race. The crew kept calling me on the radio and telling me to slow down and take it easy, and stuff like that. But I kept running along just like I was running because my car was so good. I didn't think I was driving it extensive hard, but I guess it looked like it if you were standing watching it. I finally cut the radio off because I was tired of them telling me to slow down and take it easy. And then one of them come out on the racetrack and shucked a sledgehammer at me. That was a pretty unique race. We had the radios and that was a big advantage over everybody."
YOUR FINAL WIN CAME AT NORTH WILKESBORO THE NEXT WEEK. (HE WON THAT EVENT TWO LAPS AHEAD OF THE SECOND AND THIRD PLACE FINISHERS CALE YARBOROUGH AND NED JARRETT.) DO YOU REMEMBER ANYTHING SPECIFIC ABOUT THAT RACE?
"Nothing really. Wilkesboro was sort of my bag. I could just dominate it about any time I went there. And you basically set a car up the same way at Martinsville that you do at Wilkesboro. I come right on to Wilkesboro and dominated it the same as I had at Martinsville. It was basically just the knowledge I had of the two racetracks."
WAS NORTH WILKESBORO YOUR FAVORITE TRACK?
"Yeah, it was my favorite track I think. I always thought a lot of Darlington as a challenging racetrack. I finally won the Rebel race, but I'd had the Southern 500 won two or three times and something would go wrong right down at the end. I lost it two or three times with 10 or 15 laps to go. But I liked the challenge of the Darlington racetrack when it was old before they remodeled it. It was absolutely a masterpiece. Bristol, North Wilkesboro and Martinsville, the old racetracks I growed up on was my favorite racetracks. I liked Daytona because it was high speed. If you're a racer you like to go fast. I liked the more challenging racetracks than the ones that weren't a challenge. Charlotte was a good racetrack. It was a hard challenge back in the early days. I don't know what it is like now. They've changed it two or three times."
YOU WERE AT THE TOP OF YOUR GAME IN 1965. WHY DID YOU QUIT?
"I was. I was on top of the thing and had as much control of anything that went on around a racetrack as you could possibly have. Like I said before, it never was my whole life. I never looked at it as anything I would have to do. When I got out after the last race I run in '65 (According to the records, Johnson ran three more races - Charlotte, Hillsborough and Rockingham, North Carolina. Bobby Isaac was in his car at the final race of the year, the Tidewater 300 at Moyock, North Carolina. Isaac finished second.) I said I've had enough of this. I've got other things I need to do, and just walked away from it. The following year I put Bobby Isaac in my car. That was when Ford quit for a while. I kept building cars and selling them to people like Hoss Ellington. And me and John Holman got together and talked to some of the Ford people. NASCAR wasn't helping them out any. At that particular time, the Plymouths and Dodges were beating us to death because they had the Hemi engine. We got NASCAR to agree to let us step up and get a Ford back to where it was competitive. Freddy Lorenzen drove a car that I built down at "Atlanta, and we sat on the pole that race. I believe we blew a tire there and hit the fence. That helped us get Ford back into it. They stayed until late '69, and then announced again they was going to withdraw from it. I had Leroy Yarbrough in my car and he had dominated. I think we only ran 16, 18 races and I think we won seven super speedway races with him. It was a challenge more for me to work on the cars and try to out figure everybody than it was to drive. I was involved, determined and I would not concede to anybody beating us. But I was also that way when I was driving. I can't stand to run second. That was one of the determinations that cost me a lot of races. I think if I had taken care of the car, hadn't run it so hard it might have finished a lot of them. But I enjoyed running fast and could not go out there and stroke."
DID WINNING YOUR 50TH RACE HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH YOUR DECISION TO QUIT DRIVING?
"No. I didn't even know how many I'd won when I quit. I never did know how many I'd won when I was owning cars. I didn't keep up with the statistics."
YOU LEFT FORD AND OWNED OTHER MAKES FOR A WHILE. THEN YOU RETURNED TO FORD TOWARD THE END OF YOUR CAREER AS A CAR OWNER IN RACING. WHY?
"I never had a good relationship with the Chevrolet people, even when I was winning races for them. I run a Buick, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, all of them, but I never ever had a good relationship with any of the General Motors people except with Buick. But I've always had a good relationship with the Ford personnel. A great bunch of people."