Originally created 07/18/02

Breaking the mold



WILKESBORO, N.C. - By the time Junior Johnson was 9 years old and driving the North Carolina backgrounds with loads of moonshine, he was playing by his own rules. Little changed in the next 62 years.

Revered, loved and despised - often at the same time - as one of the most determined stock car drivers of all time, Johnson, 71, now spends his days working crops, tending to cattle and playing with his children on his 300-acre rural farm.

Trophies from his 50 NASCAR victories fill one room, but the atmosphere is consumed by loud television shows and the playful banter of children who are too young to appreciate the impact their father had on the sport.

Someday those children, Robert Glenn III, 9, and Meredith Susanne, 7, will do the math and realize their father was 62 years old when he had his first child.

They will hear of three arrests, one conviction, a prison sentence and a presidential pardon for running white lightning.

They will know of winning races like the Daytona 500 and the Rebel 300 as a driver, and of six Winston Cup Series championships as a car owner.

"(My son) is picking up on it a little bit, but he don't really know anything about (my racing career)," the father said. "I just kind of let him pick up what he wants to and not feed him too much about what I've done.

"Besides, he's a Jeff Gordon fan, not my fan."

Richard Petty once said Johnson was the toughest, most-stubborn driver he ever knew. He raced from revenuers and the rest of the racing fraternity with a checkers-or-wreckers mentality. And when the racing game got old, when the high-octane battle became too littered by corporate politics, he sold his tools and went home to play daddy.

"I don't think that you can live in the past," Johnson said. "Quite honestly, I don't look back. I keep going forward, regardless of what I'm doing. I've always lived that kind of life. I'm very happy with my life right now."

Johnson has never apologized for his past. He ran moonshine because it was the family's business. He rubbed fenders on the race track because that was his business. No excuses, no regrets for either job.

Johnson perfectly fit the mold of racing's early stereotype. He was a country boy who learned to drive by out-running the law with jugs of white whiskey bouncing around in the trunk.

He spent 11 months and three days of a two-year prison sentence in an Ohio jail for moonshine, and when he got out in 1957, he returned to the only things he knew - racing and running from the law.

A year later, he won six of 27 races on the NASCAR circuit and got arrested again. This time, racing came to his rescue by convincing a jury he was too busy racing to be involved in running liquor. One speedway owner even produced all 27 NASCAR rundowns to show Johnson was at the race track, not in the woods turning fermented corn into whiskey.

What the jury didn't know was it was easy to race during the day and run liquor at night. They bought his defense and found him not guilty.

With the rest of his family either in jail, on probation or paying fines, Johnson eventually got out of the family business. When racing became is only obsession, he did it with unparalleled passion. He won 50 of only 313 starts for one of the best winning ratios in the sport's history. With a victory in 16 percent of his starts, only Jeff Gordon (18.8 percent) and Petty (17 percent) have better averages among drivers with more than 200 career starts.

Johnson quit as a driver in 1966 to become a car owner. Cale Yarborough won a record three-consecutive championships for him starting in 1976, then Darrell Waltrip won three more titles (1981, '82 and '85) to tie Johnson with Petty Enterprises and Richard Childress Racing for the most championships by a car owner.

The championship in 1985 was just the beginning of good fortune. On Dec. 26, Ronald Reagan gave Johnson a full presidential pardon for his bootlegging conviction.

Waltrip decided to jump over to Hendrick Motorsports in 1987. He later said he probably would have won more races - and championships - if he had stayed.

Johnson flirted with another championship in 1992 when Bill Elliott came 10 points - two finishing positions - short of Alan Kulwicki.

From 1967 until he walked away from the sport in 1995, his drivers won 140 races and nearly $23 million in prize money.

When market shares and long term contracts became as important as horsepower and racing savvy, Johnson, as he's done with everything else, left on his own terms.

Too tired to chase sponsors and play games, Johnson sold everything to Brett Bodine before the 1996 season. He's only made a handful of appearances at races since.

"No, I can't say that I do miss this," he said. "(The sport) about ground me in the ground before I quit."

Johnson now is content with raking hay and watching Disney videos, and it appears he's decided against any future joyrides.

"I've had tons of offers (to return), but I left them laying on the table and I'm going to keep them laying on the table," he said. "I'm happy with my life. I've had a tough life, but now I'm finally getting where it's pretty good."

And still by his own rules.