Adapted from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, September 19, 2011
THOSE DANGEROUS, DEVIOUS MIDNIGHT RIDES BACK WHEN IT ALL BEGAN ARE STILL VIVID IN HIS mind, alive as ever, as if it were just minutes ago that he was running moonshine through the Carolina darkness, lead-footing it away from the flashing red lights of the revenuers. The original JJ—Junior Johnson, 80 years old and still the most iconic figure in NASCAR—is the last remaining link between racing's outlaw past (he began hauling 'shine at 14) and its corporate present. Johnson is old-school NASCAR personified, gritty and hard, and on this summer day he steers his 2002 black Chevy pickup through the green hills and hollows outside of Wilkesboro, N.C., where American stock car racing was born with the moonshine runners in the 1940s.
As he scans the dirt roads of his youth, the memories of how things once were come flooding back. "Bootlegging cars was the start of race cars," says Johnson, who won 50 Cup races and was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in the inaugural class of 2010. "We souped them up to outrun the law, and that's where they got the idea to start racing. We'd find a strip of road and race our moonshine cars. I retired from driving in NASCAR when I was just 35 because, honestly, the speed and the danger I experienced running moonshine and racing on those country roads was greater than the speed and the danger I dealt with on the racetrack."
Yet Johnson, who in 1955 personally convinced Jim Lowe, the owner of Lowe's, to enter the sport and sponsor his car, admits he would have stayed in the racing game longer if the rewards were as high for him as they are in Sprint Cup today. To hear Johnson tell it—and, in fact, to hear everyone in the Cup garage tell it—the field is as wide open as it has been in two decades, with a dozen drivers who are legitimate title contenders, including Kasey Kahne, who's now with Hendrick Motorsports, and up-and-comer Brad Keselowski. What do Johnson and other racing giants think of NASCAR today and the current crop of drivers? To find out SI spent time with Johnson, Richard Petty and Bobby Allison, soliciting their opinions on the quality of the racing and what can be done to make the driver more important to racing success than the car. What they said could hold a key to revving up the sport.
WEARING HIS TRADEMARK COWBOY HAT AND COWBOY boots, Richard Petty is sitting in a director's chair outside the number 43 hauler at Atlanta Motor Speedway, signing one autograph after another in his careful, delicate script. Between 1958 and '92, Petty, now 74, won a record 200 Cup races, including one at North Wilkesboro Speedway in '72. That day he and Bobby Allison banged against each other so violently and frequently over the closing laps on the .625-of-a-mile oval that their cockpits filled with smoke and their mouths with bits of hot rubber. Though Allison shoved Petty's Plymouth into the guardrail on the penultimate lap, causing sparks to fly, Petty beat Allison to the checkered flag. When people talk about wanting NASCAR to return to its hard-charging, hard-racing roots, they're speaking of returning to afternoons like that one in '72.
"You don't see action on the track anymore like what Bobby and I did back on that day," says Petty. "You simply can't do that now because once you bump a guy out of the way and get past him, the guy you moved usually can't get back to you. That's why track position now is so important, which means pit stops and qualifying are critical if you're going to win the championship."
Because today's cars vary so little in shape from manufacturer to manufacturer and are so aerodynamically sensitive, steering around and passing another driver is much harder to do than it was in Petty's day, which is why a steady grind-it-out guy such as former champ Matt Kenseth will again be in the title hunt and could have an advantage over harder-charging types such as Kyle Busch or Keselowski.
YOU WANT TO KNOW HOW TO MAKE THE RACING 100 TIMES better than it is right now in NASCAR?" asks Bobby Allison, 74, as he leans back on a love seat in the living room of his house in Mooresville, N.C. "It's simple: Take off the front splitter on the cars and let a lot of air go underneath. Then let's go and see who can drive the thing and who can't when it's much harder to control. This will also make the cars look a little bit more like the cars in our driveways, which I think fans want. I know I do."