It was the summer of 1947, and as Junior Johnson recollects, "I
was 16, barefooted, plowing a mule and planting corn for my
father when my older brother L.P. drove up to the field and said
they were going to have a race over at the new North Wilkesboro
Speedway. He wanted me to drive his liquor car, a '40 Ford. All
the cars racing at North Wilkesboro then were liquor cars." The
Johnson boys had been running moonshine for years, but, says
Junior, "I guess L.P. figured I had a little more nerve than the
rest of them."
The rest is the stuff of racing lore. Junior, who had hauled his
father's homemade whiskey through the foothills of the Blue
Ridge Mountains in North Carolina, joined the traveling stock
car show that included the likes of Fireball Roberts, Curtis
Turner and Little Joe Weatherly, hellions all. They played as
wild as they drove, and they didn't care who knew it.
And out of those beginnings NASCAR grew, largely on the strength
of that country bad-boy image. By 1965 Johnson, as the sport's
quintessential representative, was lionized as The Last American
Hero by Tom Wolfe in an Esquire magazine story that has been
celebrated ever since. For years NASCAR captivated a faithful,
hard-core following, mostly in the Southeast, but was not quite
accepted by mainstream America. However, in the '80s that began
Which brings us to the troubles last week in Junior Johnson
country. Little North Wilkesboro Speedway, NASCAR's
longest-running track, is surely done for. The Winston Cup
Series soon will abandon its Ebbets Field. Two terribly rich
guys who bought the 40,000-seat speedway last year seem to care
little for its deep traditions or maverick spirit; they appear
to be interested only in stripping the place of its premium
Winston Cup race dates, in April and September, and moving them
to bigger tracks in larger cities. With the end of the First
Union 400, which was run at North Wilkesboro on Sunday, died
another little piece of NASCAR's once-endearing outlaw soul.
"The sport has lost what got it here," says Johnson. "It got
here on the strength of the people who had the willpower and
honesty that America is made out of. Now, it's running solely on
There is no bitterness in him, just the cool observations of a
man who won 50 races as a driver and 139 more as a car owner
before selling his race team at the end of last season. The
sport was very good to Johnson, who retired to a mansion on a
farm barely three miles from his old home and 12 miles from the
track he made famous. But he laments what has happened to NASCAR
The early drivers' mischief "wasn't the kind of thing any big
sponsor would live with today," says Johnson. "Now a driver must
be able to speak well in public and meet corporate people and
all that stuff. That took out the guys who would get out of
their cars and beat the snot out of each other and then the next
day be friends. The fans enjoyed that, because it was real life."
They didn't come more real than the late Tiny Lund, a driver the
size of a modern-day NFL tackle. He used to tell a story about
the night he took on the Petty clan--Lee, the father; his son
Richard, the driver; and a few other of their kinfolk--in a pit
brawl. Tiny was holding his own against three or four of the men
until one of the Petty women knocked him cold with a purse that
he later reckoned contained either a bottle of whiskey or a gun.
Racegoers no longer see the drivers so uninhibited. In fact,
they hardly see them at all. "It used to be that you could come
here in the pits and see the drivers, and they'd sign
autographs," said longtime fan Ricky Wyatt of North Wilkesboro,
after Sunday's race. "Now, you can't get near them. They run
off. Richard Petty used to stand here and sign forever. Now they
pack up and go."
Annual Winston Cup attendance has nearly tripled over the past
five years, to 5.4 million in 1995, and this season's TV ratings
are the highest in the history of the sport. But inside the
garages "it isn't fun at all anymore," says Johnny Hayes, who
retired last August as vice president for motor sports for U.S.
Tobacco, a major NASCAR sponsor. "It's all business now. Now you
have to make an appointment to say good morning to somebody."
Ironically enough, it was Johnson who opened the floodgates to
the corporate dollars. When cigarette companies stopped
advertising on television in 1969, "I knew they had to advertise
somewhere," Johnson says. "I went to the folks at R.J. Reynolds
[headquartered in nearby Winston-Salem] and asked them to
sponsor my race team. In those days I was only looking for two
or three hundred thousand dollars. They said, 'Lordamercy, we're
lookin' to spend millions.' I said, 'Then you ought to sponsor
the entire NASCAR series.'" And thus the Winston Cup series for
the most powerful stock cars was born, and behind it came a
deluge of diverse sponsors.
And that meant changes on the track as well as off. "They've
legislated a lot of the color out of the races," says Johnson.
"If you cause an accident, bump somebody or spin him out, they
put you in the penalty box. [Officials can order a driver to
park in the pits for a number of laps.] How do they
differentiate between rough driving and an accident? How in the
hell can you determine such a thing?"
Dale Earnhardt, before he mended his hard-charging ways,
especially suffered the heavy hand of NASCAR's traffic cops.
Says Earnhardt's team owner, Richard Childress, "The greats in
the history of this sport would roll over in their graves if
they ever heard of a penalty box. What fills the grandstands is
good close racing, rubbing fenders, stuff like that."
The fans roundly agree. "I don't think they should have a
penalty box at all," says Terry Blankenship of Hendersonville,
N.C. "They're here to race, not just sit there."
"But I can see NASCAR's position," says Childress. "We want this
sport to grow to a higher level, so we can't have crews fighting
on the pit road. That just won't get it today."
As for the likelihood of leaving North Wilkesboro behind, "It's
just progress," says Terry Labonte, who won Sunday's race. "I
look at the record books and see some places they used to race
in the old days, and I can't believe they used to race at those
tracks. Years from now another generation of drivers will say,
'I can't believe they used to race at North Wilkesboro.'"
The decision to sell the old speedway was a tough one for the
family of the late Enoch Staley, who built the track in 1947 and
passed on half interest in it to his widow when he died last
year. "Our family shed a lot of tears over the decision," says
Staley's son, Mike, who remains as president of the track. "It
was one we didn't want to make."
Bruton Smith, who is building the new Texas Motor Speedway in
Dallas, paid $6 million to buy half of the North Wilkesboro
Speedway from another local family last July, with the reported
intention of moving the track's two dates to Dallas. The Staleys
saw that and decided in December to accept $8 million from Bob
Bahre, owner of New Hampshire International Speedway. "Because
of economics and the uncertainty of the changing times, we felt
it was what we had to do," says Mike.
And now the folks in North Wilkesboro wait for the official news
of when the Winston Cup series will depart for good. "As people
learned the track had been sold, the whole area went into
mourning," says Harold Call, the owner of the local Harold's
Restaurant out on Highway 115.
Wilkes County has long been a hard-times place. Before racing
began generating income, the main source of revenue was
bootlegging. The biggest whiskey raid in local history happened
at the home of Junior's daddy, Robert Glenn Johnson Sr., in
1935, when Junior was four years old. "Our whole upstairs was
full of whiskey," he recalls. The revenuers who shut the
moonshine industry down never caught Junior on the road, but
they caught him tending his daddy's still in '56, and he did
nearly a year in federal prison.
More recently the most prized source of money for the county has
been the big-time racing at its outdated speedway. Some 15 years
back, after Winston-Salem sportswriter Mike Mulhern wrote that
the place was dilapidated, a band of offended locals chased him
down the front-stretch grandstands, threatening to kill him. And
they might have, had not Junior Johnson intervened, backed down
Mulhern's attackers single-handedly, and stuffed him into a car
that whisked him away to safety.
"They should preserve this place, like a Civil War battlefield,"
says Hayes. "This is one of the places where you'll come back
some day and tell your grandchildren what all happened here.
This is a magic place."
COLOR PHOTO: GEORGE TIEDEMANN Labonte's Chevy may have been the last car to win a major race at the track Johnson made famous. [Terry Labonte racing at North Wilkesboro Speedway]B/W PHOTO: DAYTONA RACING ARCHIVES NASCAR was more rough-and-tumble in the '50s, when Johnson (top) flipped No. 55 at Daytona. [Junior Johnson]
B/WPHOTO: DMP ARCHIVES [See caption above--Junior Johnson flipping car]COLOR PHOTO: PETE SOUZA Nowadays marketing is king in NASCAR, and the sport's prehistoric age has been all but forgotten. [Stock cars covered with painted advertisements]