A half-century before Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, long before billion-dollar TV deals or a NASCAR Hall of Fame could be imagined, a mountain-twanged stock car driver preparing to race was trailed by a New York dandy who favored white linen suits.
The driver was Junior Johnson, a former bootlegger who had turned his law-dodging driving skill to the track. His companion was Tom Wolfe, a writer who was becoming known for a new form of journalism that combined deep reporting with a literary writing style. The scene was North Wilkesboro Speedway, a racing sanctum in North Carolina's foothills whose roots traced to NASCAR's first season in 1949.
Their collaboration, if you want to call it that, resulted in a cover article in Esquire magazine in 1965 that introduced NASCAR to a national audience.
"The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. Yes!" was a long, giddy flatulence of adjectives and observations of "good old boys," one of the terms Wolfe popularized, wild crashes and race-day chatter. Somehow Wolfe, who couldn't have looked more out of place if he'd worn a tutu, got it right.
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"He just came in and blew everybody who had ever written about racing, including me, right off the face of the Earth," said longtime racing promoter Humpy Wheeler. "Wearing that white suit at the racetrack, he was the last guy that you would think could come in here and peel back the layers of this sport so fast and with such clarity."
The legend of Junior Johnson! In this legend, here is a country boy, Junior Johnson, who learns to drive by running whiskey for his father, Johnson, Senior, one of the biggest copper-still operators of all time, up in Ingle Hollow, near North Wilkesboro, in northwestern North Carolina, and grows up to be a famous stock car racing driver, rich, grossing $100,000 in 1963, for example, respected, solid, idolized in his hometown and throughout the rural South. There is all this about how good old boys would wake up in the middle of the night in the apple shacks and hear a supercharged Oldsmobile engine roaring over Brushy Mountain and say, "Listen at him — there he goes!" although that part is doubtful, since some nights there were so many good old boys taking off down the road in supercharged automobiles out of Wilkes County, and running loads to Charlotte, Salisbury, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, High Point, or wherever, it would be pretty hard to pick out one. It was Junior Johnson specifically, however, who was famous for the "bootleg turn" or "about-face," in which, if the Alcohol Tax agents had a roadblock up for you or were too close behind, you threw the car up into second gear, cocked the wheel, stepped on the accelerator and made the car's rear end skid around in a complete 180-degree arc, a complete about-face, and tore on back up the road exactly the way you came from. God! The Alcohol Tax agents used to burn over Junior Johnson.
Wheeler and others who know NASCAR's history count the Esquire piece as a milestone for the sport, which at the time was hoping to break out of the South and enter the national mainstream. It shortly did, gaining TV coverage and corporate sponsorships. An epic last-lap brawl among three drivers in the 1979 Daytona 500, televised nationally, also riveted new viewers.
While the article itself didn't sell race tickets, Wheeler said, "the effect it had was the gathering momentum that we began to see in the sport in the early 1960s, when we were beginning to have sellout crowds and were published in major papers. This was really a (booster) rocket for that sport."
Wolfe's birth in Virginia helped him translate Southern culture for readers, said Steve Wilson, owner of SpeedwayDigest.com and co-owner of Save the Speedway, an effort to reopen the now-closed North Wilkesboro track.
"It kind of broke the mold and showed it was not just a bunch of moonshiners running around dirt tracks," Wilson said. "These were people with skills, and people from all walks of life were coming to these races, from businessmen to mechanics in the garage."
Johnson, who now lives in Charlotte, went on to win 50 races and was a highly successful team owner who is admired for his common-sense smarts and humility.
Wolfe, whose article became the basis of a fictionalized movie, died at 88 on May 14 after a storied career that included writing the books "The Right Stuff" and "The Bonfire of the Vanities." (White suits worn year-round became Wolfe's trademark early on, but he later recalled that he'd worn a green tweed suit and Borsalino hat in a failed effort to blend in at North Wilkesboro.)
North Wilkesboro Speedway closed in 1996 after major races moved to new tracks and now stands empty and overgrown.
NASCAR itself is in a well-documented decline. A record low number of viewers watched its most prestigious race, the Daytona 500, in February. Concord-based Speedway Motorsports, which owns eight racetracks nationwide including Charlotte Motor Speedway, saw its total revenue fall 7.4 percent last year. News reports say NASCAR's majority owners, the France family, are exploring a sale of their stake.
'He just laid it out'
Johnson, who had won the 1960 Daytona 500, was hardly a nobody when Wolfe came calling. When popular driver Edward Glenn "Fireball" Roberts died after a crash at the 1964 World 600, "Junior became the spokesman that everyone looked to," said longtime engine builder and crew chief Waddell Wilson, who built engines for Johnson.
Wilson and others also credit Johnson with one of NASCAR's next big steps. While transitioning from driver to team owner in the mid-1960s, Johnson had developed a relationship with Winston-Salem tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds. In 1971 Reynolds signed on as sponsor of NASCAR's top-tier Winston Cup series, funneling cash and a national brand into a relationship that lasted 33 years.
"He was one of those guys that had that charisma around him that everyone looked up to," Wilson said. "He was a colorful character and when he saw how big Winston could be for NASCAR he didn’t want to keep it all for himself … you have to credit Junior Johnson for that."
Wolfe, in focusing his article on a former bootlegger who had done prison time and a former dirt track in racing's blue-collar heartland, depicted the rough edges of the sport that official NASCAR didn't like to talk about. But those inside the sport, and their fans, held racing's roots dear.
"All of us were proud of where we had come from, and we knew better than to try to fancify the sport — that didn't come until later — and make it something it wasn’t," Wheeler said. "It was the fiddle, not the violin, and we knew it. He just laid it out like it really was, the essence of the sport and what it's really about."
Tom Higgins, the Observer's longtime NASCAR writer, says Johnson took no offense at Wolfe's depiction of him.
Years later, Higgins was in Southern Pines to cover a race when he looked up from his breakfast at the Holiday Inn to see the famous writer across the room. He introduced himself and told Wolfe that Johnson was at the track but would be back at the hotel that evening. Wolfe, in town for a wedding, was flying out afterward and couldn't stay.
"Good gracious, that's the strangest duck I ever met," Johnson said when told of the encounter, Higgins recounted. "He came to Wilkes County and it was 95 degrees and he was wearing that white suit. He never was interested in talking to me much, but he wanted to talk to some people in Wilkes County and he really picked some doozies. He was in for some culture shock when he went into Pardue's Grocery."
Wolfe took both the sport and its fans seriously, said longtime sports marketer Max Muhleman, who covered NASCAR in the 1950s and 1960s for the Charlotte News and other media.
What he found interesting turned out to also interest readers, even Wolfe's chic fellow New Yorkers. The impact advanced national recognition of the sport, by Muhleman's estimation, a decade faster than would have occurred otherwise.
"It had an enormous effect on the sophisticated sports and cultural side of America that probably didn’t recognize NASCAR as at any higher level than professional wrestling," Muhleman said. "He was so true to the culture and not being cynical. Here’s a culture you’ve never heard about and its hero is the last American hero, and that was Junior."
Reunion in New York
In 2005 Wolfe attended his first NASCAR race since 1965, at Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee. He was amazed to find 160,000 spectators.
"To me it was always really fascinating because it is truly the 100 percent American sport," Wolfe told the Kingsport Times-News. "And also I grew up in the South in Richmond and I just knew that this was something big. It was so different.
"It was technological. Junior had a Dodge skin (car body) and what was under there — God knows what it was. I hadn't seen anything like that and I just wrote what appealed to me. This was the South nobody knew about."
So he wrote about grits and radio preachers, Dodges vs. Fords, coon dogs, speedway beauty queens, power slides, the pull of the open road in a car-crazy era and Johnson "riding through nighttime like a demon" as he outran revenue officers through the hills of Wilkes County — all captured on a five-eighths-mile oval of asphalt.
For all his flourishes and meanderings, Wolfe set it down as solemnly and inoffensively as an anthropologist and plainly enough for a city slicker to grasp. He wrote of a race's start:
To the driver, it is like being inside a car going down the West Side Highway in New York City at rush hour, only with everybody going literally three to four times as fast, at speeds a man who has gone eighty-five miles an hour down a highway cannot conceive of, and with every other driver an enemy who is willing to cut inside of you, around you or in front of you, or ricochet off your side in the battle to get into a curve first.
Fifty years after the article appeared, in 2015, Johnson visited Wolfe in his apartment on New York's Upper East Side. The men, both then 84, joked about "drafting" on each other as NASCAR racers do, hugging a leader's rear bumper only to slingshot ahead to win.
"He done more for me than anybody," Johnson said. "He done more for NASCAR than anybody."