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Junior Johnson: Moonshine and NASCAR Legend

By Kerry Burns, Digital Marketing Manager for the North Carolina Museum of History

Plaque (circa 1979) and helmet (circa 1982) belonging to Junior Johnson. 

Image: Plaque (circa 1979) and helmet (circa 1965) belonging to Junior Johnson. 

Bootlegging moonshine was essentially a hereditary trait for Junior Johnson, a Wilkesboro, North Carolina native. The middle child of seven, Robert Glenn Johnson, Jr. was immersed in the business and lifestyle as early as 4-years-old, when federal agents raided his home and removed hundreds of gallons of illegal moonshine in 1935.

His father, Robert Glenn Johnson, Sr., was often in prison throughout Junior’s childhood, incarcerated for the same trade that would propel Junior to become one of the most iconic NASCAR drivers in the history of the sport.

Due to the illegal nature of the trade, moonshine was created during the night to avoid anyone detecting smoke rising from the stills where the distillers operated. Thus, the name “moonshine” came into being.

Johnson always had a fascination with automobiles, displaying a unique and natural talent for handling them at high speed, which he further finessed to outgun law enforcement while running ‘shine. Johnson is credited with inventing the “Bootleg Turn,” an adrenaline-inducing move in which the driver would slam on his breaks, turn the car 180 degrees and put the pedal to the metal in the opposite direction!

To evade unwanted attention, his cars would maintain a normal exterior, while the interior was fitted with high-powered engines, as well as heavy-duty springs and shocks.

By 1955, Johnson wanted to apply his spectacular driving skills to a different line of work, beginning his career as a NASCAR driver. Despite winning five races in his first full season, Johnson maintained his prior career, and was arrested for having an illegal still, serving 11 months in prison from 1956-1957. He was later pardoned on December 26, 1986 by President Ronald Reagan, restoring his right to vote.

Image: Junior Johnson. Credit: NASCAR.

In his 14-year career, he won 50 races and placed in the “top ten” 148 times before retiring in 1966. In 1992, Johnson was inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame, and later inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2010. In 2007, Johnson became a part owner of Piedmont Distillers, a distillery in Madison, North Carolina. They partnered together to create "Midnight Moon," a legal version of the famous family recipe.

On December 20, 2019, Junior Johnson passed away at the age of 88.