Shining example: Junior Johnson, NASCAR and John Q Law

Shining example: Junior Johnson, NASCAR and John Q Law

Scott Longman looks behind a modern American hero to find he casts a more interesting shadow than most

Production | 16 Jun 2002 | Issue 23 | By Scott Longman

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I’m looking at the mason jar with a little apprehension. There’s a thin layer of primordial sediment at the bottom that carries a sense it could give rise to complex nucleic acids at any moment, and the inside of the metal lid looks like its been on the receiving end of an oxidation-reduction fight. But the most daunting issue is the scent, which emanates from the jar’s open top in a way that makes me glance around for ignition sources.My host is blithely unconcerned about the state of the whiskey, but agrees to pour the liquid explosive through a coffee filter. As I remember that it’s not uncommon to find this stuff in the 140-160 proof range, he comments that he doesn’t really know about this batch because he didn’t make it and the guy who did isn’t exactly available for comment, as is often the case with bandit hooch. Filtering done, we pour, then toast, and after a moment’s grave reflection, knock back the shot.Moonshine whiskey comes in a plain glass mason jar the way Fat Man and Little Boy came in plain sheetmetal shells. The shot plunges 30,000 feet down my esophagus and detonates, mushroom cloud billowing through my innards. The whiskey is molten U-235 in full fission, with a sweet caramel finish. For a moment, I blink and gasp. Then the cognitive aftershock catches up to me: Hey. That was good. With that thought I have an epiphany as to what would drive generations of moonshiners to risk everything, running the backwoods with lights off and cars full to get this stuff to market.On its face, the colossus of NASCAR racing wouldn’t seem to be related to Appalachian white lightning. After all, NASCAR, the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing, is a gargantuan – and now solidly mainstream – sport. The uninitiated are routinely shocked to discover just how pervasive it is. In the US, where baseball, basketball and (American) football reign, NASCAR produced a staggering 17 of the top 20 sports events attendance records last year. Or another way to look at it: a major NASCAR event draws more people than the entire populations of Minneapolis, Minnesota, or Manchester, England. That popularity translates directly into dollars: last year, it generated $2billion in revenue. That, as they say, is big business.Given NASCAR’s position as a pillar of accepted society, there is delicious irony in the sport’s illicit origins. Although in part veiled behind the mist attendant to any decent criminal enterprise, there’s irrefutable evidence that a large number of early NASCAR drivers learned and honed their racetrack skills in homebuilt hotrods outrunning Federal revenue agents. While today a good honest car chase is a pretty rare event, for much of the history of moonshining, it was just a cost of doing business. Like a 16th century Portuguese spice merchant’s product, a moonshiner’s was valueless sitting on the dock, but worth fortunes in his intended market. All he had to do was defeat a mobile, armed, aggressive foe whose raison d’être was to ruin his life. The moonshiner, however, couldn’t rely on broadsides with grapeshot. Instead, he had one significant option: speed. In an era before sophisticated radio communications and police Sikorskys, a fast car made the difference between netting a stack of cash tax-free and netting a room without a view rent-free. Thus evolved the tactics, the drivers and the cars.The aphorism asks “what is the plural of ‘anecdote’?” The answer: “data.” So it is with moonshine-running tactics. While there is no definitive reference source on how to drive like a bootlegger, there are a lot of stories. Looking to the fat part of the raconteur curve, there were three major ways to run whiskey. The first was to drive benignly unless or until pulled over, and then launch down the highway like a Titan II. That might seem like a reasonable way to conduct yourself, but it neglects two key facts. First, a half-ton of whiskey weighs down a suspension. In the relevant geographic area, the Feds evolved a
protocol of automatically pulling over any car that looked to be riding low. Many moonshiners countered by developing extra heavy-duty suspension setups, which minimized sag, but that gambit was only partially successful, because the Feds in some sparsely-traveled areas pulled over almost anything anyway. Thus the moonshiner stood a good chance of having lights on his bumper no matter what he did, and tactic number one failed because it allowed them to get close.From that reality, the second tactic evolved. What it lacked in subtlety, it made up for in ease of application: the
moonshiner went flat out from the moment he started the car. To work, it required a genuinely scary-fast car, but with one, it worked pretty well. The reason it worked is that radio coordination and roadblocking were in their comparative infancy, and the Feds’ cars simply lacked that kind of speed. It could take a Fed parked on the shoulder the better part of four miles to reach top speed, which would then still be 30 or 40 miles an hour slower than his prey. There are documented cases of moonshine vehicles capable of running 140 mph, and likely apocryphal ones claiming180. But sometimes the Feds got staffed and organized, and that led to tactic number three: driving fast on dirt roads. And skill in that tactic translated directly to success in NASCAR. Robert Glen ‘Junior’ Johnson may be the most colourful ex-bootleggerturned-NASCAR-superstar to make good use of tactic number three. Circa 1965, Junior was as recognizable as modern celebrities like Bill Elliott or Jeff Gordon. He got there, however, only after serving a two-year stretch at federal taxpayer expense. But they never grabbed him on the road: his luck ran out when the badges staked out his father’s distilling operation. They didn’t get him on the road because Junior could drive. Junior grew up in Wilkes County, North Carolina. His family contributed to the economy in two ways: agriculture and whiskey, and Junior did both. His first car came at the age of 14, and he immediately started learning how to drive on dirt. One day two years later, while plowing barefoot behind a mule, his brother pulled up and told him that there would be a race, and that mostly other moonshiners were running in it, and that mostly moonshine families would be the spectators. Junior grabbed his shoes and his keys and the rest is history. Junior was not atypical. He is quoted as saying “all your good dirt track drivers ran moonshine.” Early stock car luminaries like Curtis Turner prove Junior right.But knowing the dirt backroads and how to drive on them sometimes wasn’t enough. One night, the Wilkes County Feds did their homework, gathered a posse and coordinated roadblocks in one area. Then they chased Junior into it, and waited to see which exit road he’d try. Before they got that far, a squad car came barreling out of the darkness, engine redlined, lights oscillating and siren screaming. The Feds barely had time to clear their roadblock from the squad’s path. It blew by in a cyclone of dust and high-octane exhaust, and as its shockwave hit them, so did the realization that they’d been snookered: it was Junior, plus lights and siren, half-a-car length ahead of the long arm of the law. Junior went on to personify NASCAR.He won the series’ premier race, the Daytona 500, in 1960. Coupled with his bootleggery, that feat made him a folk hero. In 1963, he won seven races, and in 1965, he swept the series with a stunning 13 wins. Esquire magazine ran an article calling him the Last American Hero.As NASCAR blossomed with drivers like Junior, legendary hardware emerged. In an ironic example of the law of unintended consequences running headlong into the cyclical yin and yang nature of the universe, NASCAR inadvertently fostered the creation of what many believe to be the best bootleg engine in history.Just like the whiskey itself, moonshiners’ cars were explosively powerful. They had to be: in addition to having to outrun the law, they had to do so while carrying nearly a thousand pounds of extralegal ethyl alcohol. Isaac Newton is said to have liked a shot or two, but that didn’t mean he was cutting these guys any slack. F = ma applied in full force, which meant moonshiners’ motors had to be far ahead of the horsepower curve to stay even with the Feds. And to blow them into the weeds, the moonshiners needed true mechanical mayhem. And they had it. At mid-century, the ’40 Ford was popular because it lent itself to hotrodding and could handle large payloads. But as good as the flathead V-8 engine was, it couldn’t compete with overhead valve V-8s emerging in the 1950s, and the new engines rapidly supplanted it. The new engines evolved like mammals after the meteor, and by 1964, they’d produced a wooly mammoth: the Chrysler 426 Hemi. That engine was successful in racing beyond anyone’s most fevered dreams. It swept the 1964 Daytona 500 with places one to four, and utterly dominated the series. Even 37 years later, it forms the basis for many professional drag racecars. The irony is, Chrysler did not build it with the intent of selling it. On the contrary, Chrysler built it for racing in NASCAR, and released it to street only because NASCAR insisted, in an effort to discourage wild and expensive race-only R&D programs. To everyone’s surprise, Chrysler did it anyway and those who knew what the Hemi was snapped it up, especially moonshiners. There is a fair amount of anecdotal evidence that the Hemi was as successful in bootlegging as it was in racing. Celebrated runner Willie Clay Call is on record as saying “They was the best.” With life imitating sport imitating life, bootleggers gave rise to NASCAR, which prompted Chrysler to build the Hemi, which the bootleggers then employed to run whiskey. And if you’ve ever had the pleasure of sipping from a North Carolina mason jar, you’d agree: to good effect. To buy Junior Johnson: Brave in Life by Tom Higgins and Steve Waid (with an introduction by Cale Yarborough) visit There are a limited number of signed, numbered hardcover editions available, plus regular softcover editions.A new kind of advert?
In the early 1970s, Plymouth ran an advertising campaign based around the exploits of bootleggers and moonshiners. It’s a great example of how mythology was incorporated into the big business of NASCAR – and particularly how men like Junior Johnson, despite (or perhaps because of) breaking the law were regarded as perhaps the ultimate American heroes – heroes to the common man in middle America, part of a breed of daredevils that knew no fear.
The advert was worded as follows:
Announcing a New Kind of RunnerDown in Thunder Road country, in the land of the goodolboy and goodolcar, they speaklongingly of the goodoldays and ol’ Curtis and ol’ Junior and the ol’ J-hook and so on.Some folks would even have you believe the era is still alive.They say it’s come back with an olboy name of Lightning Billy, a young feller who runs hisbusiness with computers and slide rules, and how he’s the greatest runner of ’em all, and how, on warm nights when the moon is right, you can see Lightning Billy’s business coupe, with an enormous wing and a long, pointed snout and great fiery eyes, moaning like a banshee as it sheds the Feds in the hills.Anyway, that’s how legend has it. We’re not so sure about Lightning Billy, but we do know the car.It’s the new limited-edition Road Runner Superbird, and it marks Plymouth’s official re-entry into NASCAR Grand National racing. (Perhaps you remember our exploits in NASCAR: in 1967 we won 31 out of 49 races.)We’re back, and we’re glad. It underscores the fact we’ve got the most comprehensive high-performance program in the industry. It’s called the Rapid Transit System, and in it you’ll find everything from hot setups like the Road Runner, ’Cuda, Duster 340 and Sport Fury GT, to factory tuning manuals and trick parts, all the way to TransAm racers, Super Stockers and AA/Fuel dragsters. There’s something for every kind of enthusiast. So the next time you see a winged Plymouth with a long, pointed snout and a moan like a banshee – and you’re not at the Daytona 500 – don’t think you’re seeing things.Shucks, it might just be ol’ Billy on his way home after a hard night’s work.The Rapid Transit System. Plymouth Makes It.The fate of Bootlegging As late as 1970, bootlegging was a mainstay of the Appalachian economy. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms’ records show that, in that single year, a whopping 1,956,170 gallons of mash were seized, along with 5,228 stills. But those overdrive numbers have dropped like they hit a bridge abutment: in the half-decade span from 1990 to 1995, the Feds grabbed only 200 gallons of mash and a measly two stills. The cause for the drop is probably a well-aged blend of several factors, mostly based in economics. First, legal, state-controlled sales came to many previously dry counties. Second, the price of sugar, a critical element of whiskey making, rose disproportionately over time. Third, the Federal excise tax remained relatively flat for decades, which made legal alcohol relatively less expensive. Fourth, legitimate businesses grew into many of the counties that had lacked job opportunity. Fifth, technology has proven the aphorism that “you can’t outrun Motorola.
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