Junior Johnson, a stock-car racing giant whose career spanned the sport’s history from its moonshining roots to its modern era as a fierce, hard-nosed driver and an innovative mechanic and team owner, has died. He was 88.
Johnson’s passing was confirmed by the NASCAR Hall of Fame. He had been in declining health and entered hospice care earlier this week.
Johnson was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in its inaugural Class of 2010. He won 50 races in NASCAR’s top division — the most of any driver without a championship — and added 132 victories and six championships as a successful team owner for many legends of the sport. Johnson won the second running of the Daytona 500 in 1960, then added two more triumphs in the Great American Race as a car owner in 1969 and ’77.
His all-out style — honed from years of hauling illegal liquor at breakneck speeds through the North Carolina foothills — took a toll on his competitors and his own equipment, earning him a reputation as the hardest of the hard chargers. Johnson was also known as the Wilkes County Wildman and heralded as “The Last American Hero,” after a brilliant 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.”
Born Robert Glenn Johnson Jr. in 1931, he became known simply as “Junior” as the fourth of seven children. His North Carolina home was the small community of Ronda, not far from Ingle Hollow, just a short drive from the North Wilkesboro Speedway, one of NASCAR’s charter tracks.