NASCAR legend and Hall of Famer Junior Johnson dead age 88

CHARLOTTE, NC - MAY 23: Hall of Fame inductees Richard Petty and Junior Johnson have their portrait made before the Inaugural Induction Ceremony at the NASCAR Hall of Fame on May 23, 2010 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Chris Keane/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Junior Johnson, one of the last of NASCAR’s old school drivers who began his driving career running moonshine, died Friday. He was 88.

Johnson was among the first class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2010.  He won 50 races in NASCAR’s top touring division and was a successful team owner with his drivers earning 132 victories and six championships.

Born in Wilkesboro North Carolina, Johnson learned to drive running moonshine on the backroads of the south and spent a year in prison in Ohio a year after his first full season in NASCAR, 1955.

“The good whiskey runners were kind of cocky about it, like good race drivers,” Johnson told the Associated Press in 1991. “I guess I was pretty cocky.”

President Ronald Reagan pardoned him on Dec. 26, 1986.

“No maybe about it. Best Christmas gift I ever got,” Johnson told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2007.

Among his wins as a driver was the 1960 Daytona 500; he won twice more as a team owner in 1969 and 1977.  His all-out hard driving style gained the attention of drivers in the sport and fans outside the sport. He gained widespread fame outside NASCAR as “The Last American Hero,” after a 1965 essay in Esquire by author Tom Wolfe.

“Junior Johnson truly was the ‘Last American Hero,’” NASCAR Chairman and CEO Jim France said in a statement. “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.”

He’s perhaps best known as a driver because if his use of the “draft” at superspeedways, an aerodynamic trick he used to pass cars that he kept to himself for many years. As a team owner Johnson was known to push the envelope of NASCAR’s rules in order to gain an advantage for his cars.

He drove his last race in 1966.

“Racing has been good to me,” Johnson told the AP in November 1965. “I want to make it clear that I am not quitting because I am too old to drive or am afraid of high-speed racing. I have accomplished about everything I had hoped to as a driver. Now I want to relax and enjoy life, but still be connected with the sport in a supervisory capacity.”

Cale Yarborough, Terry Labonte, Geoffrey Bodine and Bill Elliott were among the drivers who won in Johnson’s cars. His last victory came in September 1994, with Elliott winning the Southern 500 at Darlington over Dale Earnhardt.

Johnson had been in declining health and had recently entered hospice.

“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,” said Winston Kelley, the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s executive director. “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.”

Greg Engle