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From moonshine runner to NASCAR legend to museum speaker

Junior Johnson peers from his car after winning the pole position for the Dixie 400 Stock car race at the Atlanta International Raceway June 3, 1964. Johnson qualified for the $56,000 race with a four-lap speed of 145.906 miles per hour.
Junior Johnson peers from his car after winning the pole position for the Dixie 400 Stock car race at the Atlanta International Raceway June 3, 1964. Johnson qualified for the $56,000 race with a four-lap speed of 145.906 miles per hour. AP

When Junior Johnson first hauled moonshine, he carried it barreling around a dead-man’s curve in a ’40 Ford coupe with a souped-up engine and the seats pulled out, with the headlamps of a lawman’s car shining in the rear-view mirror.

On Friday, at age 85, the legendary NASCAR driver will tote the same whiskey into the N.C. Museum of History, offering visitors a throat-burning but completely legal sip – no revenuers in pursuit.

This appearance marks, of course, a ridiculously high arc in North Carolina history: The same hooch that Johnson toted by moonlight, skirting government agents, driving so fast down red clay roads that he gave birth to a sport, is now being celebrated in a building owned by the state government. You wonder what Johnson’s dad might say.

“He would be proud of it because it’s his recipe,” said Johnson of his Midnight Moon brand, now sold in stores and not out of a trunk. “My dad was a very good moonshine maker. He made it different from everyone else. Most of the people, they used sugar. He used corn for his.”

Hearing Johnson speak Friday offers a chance to meet a driver from the 1950s and ’60s who thrived on dirt rather than asphalt, raced cars with big-bore engines and no roll bars – a star when NASCAR still operated in true-fan towns such as Rockingham and North Wilkesboro. Made famous by Tom Wolfe and Esquire magazine in 1965, Johnson remained a chicken farmer with a trio of coon hounds even while a wealthy man.

His art behind the wheel began on the liquor runs in his native Wilkes County, where the moonshiners owned faster cars than the lawmen and honed their technique driving wide-open around mountain roads in the dark. “Running scared from North Wilkesboro to Charlotte made racing on a track in broad daylight a cakewalk for Johnson,” wrote the N&O in 1973. “Reflexes honed to a keen edge.”

According to legend, Johnson ran his first race at age 16 when his brother called him out of a corn field, where he stood barefoot leading a mule, and invited him to join the field made up entirely of bootleggers. And once he switched to driving legally full-time, he kept inventing ways to win – most notably drafting, by which he would pull in behind a faster driver and ride in his slipstream.

I don’t think racing is quite as creative a thing than it was back in the days when we was running on what we knew about the liquor business. ... Right now, it’s controlled pretty tight. Most cars are the same speed, and the one that hits the combination that day wins.

Junior Johnson, NASCAR legend

Finished with driving in 1966, and out of racing as an owner for the past 20 years, he offered this assessment of the sport he helped create:

“I don’t think racing is quite as creative a thing than it was back in the days when we was running on what we knew about the liquor business. We’d think we was smarter than everybody else. The smart one is the one that won the races. Right now, it’s controlled pretty tight. Most cars are the same speed, and the one that hits the combination that day wins.”

To me, moonshine deserves a place in the state museum beside the pirate canon, the Civil War flag and the Wright Brothers plane replica. Even served legally, with all taxes paid, it qualifies as our official state spirit.

“It’s actually a very small sample,” said Cassandra Bennett, museum educator. “Just enough to get a taste of what it is. Moonshine sample cups are smaller than a thimble.”

Unless you manage to sneak more than one.

If you go

▪ Junior Johnson will appear at the N.C. Museum of History on Friday at the “First Fridays at the Museum” event, which is free. It take place from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. and includes two films. Johnson will answer questions at about 6:45 p.m. Register at ncmuseumofhistory.org by clicking events and then First Friday.

▪ Johnson is a member of the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame, which has exhibits on the third floor of the museum.

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