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, hardcore following, mostly in the Southeast, but was not quite accepted by mainstream America. However, in the '80s that began to change.
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 money."
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 nonetheless.
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."