Hall of Fame Induction Most Believeable Chapter in Junior Johnson Story
(Note: This is the third weekly release on the five inaugural inductees into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, in Charlotte, N.C. The induction ceremony is scheduled for May 23. Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Junior Johnson, Bill France Jr. and Bill France Sr. are the inductees. This installment spotlights former driver and owner Junior Johnson. Courtesy of NASCAR)
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (April 28, 2010) – Junior Johnson tales – and there are many – are just too outrageous to actually be true. Right?
The hero of all those stories lives an outlaw life of moonshine bootlegging, gets pinched and lands in prison, gets out and becomes a legendary stock car driver.
A wild story, indeed. Wilder in its validity.
The legend of Junior Johnson is no “legend” at all. It’s all true.
He was a bootlegger. He did build souped-up hot rods that outran the law. (Though he also did get caught once, put in prison for 11 months, and years later was pardoned by President Ronald Reagan). But he turned that suspect gig into one of the most successful driving careers in NASCAR history. And then, upon his retirement, became one of the most successful owners the sport has ever seen.
It’s that driver-owner duality that made Johnson the perfect pick for the inaugural class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Never before – or since – had a competitor enjoyed that much success as a driver, then equal and surpass it as an owner.
As a driver, Johnson racked up 50 victories, which currently ties him for 10th on the all-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series wins list.
And, Johnson is credited with “discovering” the draft – an aerodynamic technique where two cars lockup, one in front of the other, to reduce air drag. As the story goes, Johnson came to Daytona with a sub-par car. Frankly, it was too slow. In practice, Johnson learned that if he tucked his car right behind another, he’d get pulled along the track quicker. The maneuver won him the 1960 Daytona 500.
But his real flare came on the ownership side. It makes sense. He did build all those back-road rocket ships once upon a time.
“Bootleggers had the best cars,” Johnson once said. “There was really no comparison.”
As an owner, Johnson’s drivers – a roster that included Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip – tallied 132 victories and six series championships.
Despite the mass accomplishment, Johnson’s induction into the inaugural class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame was no sure thing.
Going into Induction Day, the consensus opinion had three locks: Bill France Sr., Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.
The other two were definite wild cards.
The first “question mark” was answered rather quickly: Bill France Jr. He was the third name announced, following France Sr. and Petty.
Then Earnhardt’s name and photo flashed across the TV monitors at the Convention Center in Charlotte, N.C. He was the fourth inductee.
Only one remained. There was certainly an “edge of your seat” feel of anticipation for the fifth.
NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France tore open the fifth envelope: Junior Johnson.
Johnson later called that moment the highlight of his life.
"This is a big, big deal to me,” Johnson said. “This is probably the greatest thing that's happened to me, you know. I was really proud of the pardon that Reagan gave me, but this is... You know, I’m almost speechless to even think that you could talk about, 'Well, I just went into the Hall of Fame.' It's so big, and it's so honorable that you just don't know how it feels to be selected as one of the first five people."