Driven round the bend

Driven round the bend

The Last American Hero is an affectionate, whimsical and admiring snapshot of an independent American South. Jefferson Chase reports

Whisky & Culture | 21 Jul 2006 | Issue 57 | By Jefferson Chase

  • Share to:
Like many readers, I suspect, I greatly enjoyed Jim Leggett’s cover story on moonshining, NASCAR racing and the American South in issue 52. So I was intrigued when I stumbled across an article by Tom Wolfe, originally published in Esquire in March 1965, on the same topic.The Last American Hero is a profile of Junior Johnson, a convicted bootlegger and legendary 1960s stock-car driver who discovered the now-standard technique of drafting, i.e. using a lead car to create a vacuum and increase speed.I got that last bit of info from one of many Johnson fan websites. Actually I was never much interested in a sport that seemed to me to appeal primarily to the proudly half-literate and the would-be deaf.Wolfe’s essay, though, changed my mind somewhat.Driving a stock car does not require much handling ability, at least not as compared to Grand Prix racing, because the tracks are simple banked ovals and there is almost no shifting of gears. So qualifying becomes a test of raw nerve – of how fast a man is willing to take a curve. Many of the top drivers in competition are willing to calculate their risks only against the risks the other drivers are taking. Junior takes the pure risk as no other driver has ever taken it.Or in other words, if you want to compete in a sport where winners have to be willing to start skidding as they go into curves and, if need be, ram adversaries into the wall, you need the right stuff.There’s none of the sarcasm here that the Southern-born Wolfe employs when he writes about stockbrokers or socialites. He’s clearly besotted with his subject’s history of nocturnal chases between the good old boys and the law.God-almighty, that sound in the middle of the night, groaning, roaring, humming through the hollows, through the clay gulches – yes! And all over the rural South, hell, all over the South, the legends of wild-driving, whiskey running got started. And it wasn’t just the plain excitement of it. It was something deeper, the symbolism. It brought into a modern focus the whole business, one and a half centuries old, of the country people’s rebellion against the Federals… Wolfe is often credited together with the late, great Hunter S. Thompson with having invented something called New Journalism. In reality, Wolfe is the exact opposite of the good doctor. Rather than imposing himself on the story, he blends in chameleon-like with his subject, soaking up atmosphere and diction until you hardly notice his presence at all.What Wolfe ultimately admires most is the spirit of the game, in which no one is supposed to get hurt. To this end, he relates an anecdote: The police saw two men jump out of their car and dive in the water, so they opened fire and they shot one good old boy in the backside. As they pulled him out he kept saying: “What did you have to shoot me for?” It wasn’t pain, it wasn’t anguish, it wasn’t anger. It was consternation. The bastards had broken the code.Aromantic vision of the American South, to be sure, but an appealing one.Reading over these words from more than 40 years ago, I couldn’t help but mourn a bit the loss of world Wolfe depicts.The sensible cars of today have none of the absurd charm of a Pontiac Catalina, the back-roads code of honour has been replaced by testimonial drone of a thousand highway-side mega-churches, and a convicted moonshiner wouldn’t have a chance in cracking the upper ranks of the family-friendly motor-sports industry.Wolfe seems to have suspected back in 1965 that the sell-out of the South’s rebel spirit was nigh, when he called Junior Johnson the last American hero.The Last American Hero is part of Wolfe’s The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.
Magazine Archive

From the archive

Select an issue

Subscribe Now

Subscriptions for
Whisky Magazine are available
in print, digital or as a
complete package

The Benefits

8 print editions a year

Enjoy the convenience of home delivery

Full access to every digital edition via desktop, iOS or Android device

Latest Issue Subscribe Now

The Whisky Encyclopedia - Coming Soon 2024

Discover the world of whisky with our comprehensive encyclopedia
Featuring companies, distilleries, brands, glossaries, and cocktails

Join The Community

Sign up to the Whisky Magazine
newsletter letter and get access to the latest
in all things whisky

paragraph publishing ltd.   Copyright © 2024 all rights reserved.   Website by Acora One

Consent Preferences