top of page

NASCAR’s ‘Last American Hero' was an Appalachian hero first

Junior Johnson speaks to journeyman crew chief Jake Elder at Bristol International Raceway on March 29, 1981.
Junior Johnson, left, speaks to journeyman crew chief Jake Elder on March 29, 1981, at Bristol International Raceway after winning as team owner with Darrell Waltrip behind the wheel of his No. 11 Mountain Dew Buick | Photo by Kent Benfield

By Kent Benfield


Bowman Gray Stadium, a quarter-mile, flat and paved racetrack and football field in my hometown of Winston-Salem, was the site of my first NASCAR race in 1962. Rex White, from the Brushy Mountain town of Taylorsville, won the feature race. In the mid-1960s, I was fortunate to see such notable drivers as Richard Petty, David Pearson, Bobby Allison, Buddy Baker, Ned Jarrett, and the old moonshiner, Junior Johnson. I was a Petty fan, but I fondly remember Johnson’s yellow No. 26 Holly Farms Poultry Ford.

As a crew member for a short-track racing team co-sponsored by Johnson in

2007, I was privileged to experience firsthand his humbleness, humor, and a few fascinating stories. Johnson had worked with Piedmont Distillers in Madison, to develop “Midnight Moon,” a legal and taxable whiskey made from the Johnson family recipe. Our race team, Tucker Racing, was also based in Madison, and we proudly displayed Piedmont Distillers’ spiced brand Catdaddy on our car.

Johnson’s legacy and life story is so fascinating because it is also the quintessential story of NASCAR — from bootlegging beginnings in Appalachia to certain stereotypes that have surrounded the sport. After well-known New York writer Tom Wolfe told Johnson’s story in 1965 on the pages of Esquire magazine, his national profile, and that of NASCAR, began to rise. The story would boost Wolfe’s journalism career as well.

"Moonshine," a painting by motorsports artist Garry Hill, was used on the cover of the Fall 2005 edition of Now & Then magazine. The painting depicts racing legend Junior Johnson in his 1940 Ford moonshine hauler being pursued by law enforcement.

Organized stock car racing began as a way for moonshine “runners” to determine who could drive the fastest, and provided a chance to earn some legal money. From Wilkes County, Johnson was one of the earliest standout drivers. His family had profited for years from moonshining, the practice of making illegal liquor in homemade stills and delivering the product to buyers. The revenuers never caught him on the backroads, but he was arrested at the family still in 1956 and later convicted of moonshining. Serving a portion of a two-year term in the Chillicothe, Ohio, Federal Penitentiary gave Johnson time to think. He was just becoming recognized in racing circles as a good driver and mechanic, having honed his skills at dirt tracks in North Wilkesboro and Hickory. He would consider prison a wake-up call and use the time to reassess the direction of his life.

Poverty levels in the 1950s were extremely high in parts of Western North Carolina, East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and upstate South Carolina. Coal mining and farming were on the decline as viable ways to earn a living, yet new opportunities had started to emerge outside the region. The growth of the automobile industry and a new highway system were making it possible to go to Northeastern and Midwestern cities, where car and other manufacturing industries were growing and providing good jobs. Yet many of the mountain residents chose to stay right where they were. Nationally published stories continued to be a mix of truth and sensationalized descriptions of Appalachian culture that often portrayed the people of the region negatively. Some writers romanticized mountain residents, describing them as a nostalgic sentimental throwback — folk who embraced their music, traditions, and farming techniques. One of those traditions was moonshining. It was frowned upon by many locals and outsiders. But some who decried the practice in the daylight were customers by moonlight.

Throughout the Appalachian region, outside investors saw opportunities for financial gain, either by extracting valuable resources or by capitalizing on the mountain-dweller mystique. Many locals were taken advantage of, which added to an air of distrust toward corporate entities and others coming into the region.

During the 1950s, stock car racing was considered a rural and working-class activity with a primarily Southeastern regional following. Most local tracks were dirt and quarter-, half-, or three-eighth-mile ovals. Longer, paved tracks were built to attract more fans. While NASCAR is headquartered in Daytona Beach, Florida, home to one of the largest of the superspeedways, its heart and soul has always been the Charlotte/Spartanburg/Asheville region. During those early years, the sport’s rural reputation led many to view its mechanics as simple-minded and greasy — similar to the way the characters Gomer and Goober were portrayed on The Andy Griffith Show during the 1960s.

The national media largely ignored stock car events, covering a race weekend only if there was a serious crash or fatality. A few tracks were converted from dirt to asphalt, such as the one in Martinsville, Virginia, as well as tracks in North Wilkesboro and Hickory. Paved tracks in the region included the half-mile Bristol International Speedway in Tennessee, and Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina — both of which were constructed in 1960. While regional share was seeing a steady increase, the needle for national attraction was moving more slowly.

Kent Benfield works as a crew member of the No. 7 Late Model of Joseph Tucker | Photo contributed by Kent Benfield

Colorful characters, some with nicknames, abounded in southern stock car racing. Johnson was successful enough to have the luxury of a crew chief from time to time. One who had great chemistry with him was Edwin “Banjo” Matthews of Arden in Buncombe County. His nickname was due to his thick, round eyeglasses, which made one think of a banjo. Initially a driver, Banjo became known as a master race car builder. The Asheville area had two speedways — Asheville-Weaverville Speedway, where North Buncombe High School stands today, and Asheville Speedway, which was located just west of the city by the French Broad River. Residents of the Asheville/Buncombe County area were well represented among stock car racing teams, with both mastermind mechanics and drivers — such as Jack Ingram, Bob Pressley, and Roy Trantham — dominating by applying their “mountain ingenuity” to the sport.

Another driver turned crew chief and car builder was Everett “Cotton” Owens, of Spartanburg, South Carolina. He was given his nickname by the local track promoter at Piedmont Interstate Fairgrounds, Joe Littlejohn. As a youngster, Owens’ tow-head blond hair stood out like a cotton ball when he was spotted watching races from a tree outside the track.

Cars round the dirt track at Asheville-Weaverville Speedway during an early 1950s race. | Photo courtesy Don Hunter Stock Car Racing Collection, Appalachian State University.

Any of these local racing characters might have risen to hero status, but that title was destined for Junior Johnson. His full legal name is Robert Glenn Johnson Jr., but he was always called Junior. He was well known in the South for his good-old-boy reputation, commanding presence, calm demeanor, slow speech, and moonshining past. He gained respect also for his mechanical skills and driving abilities. In the Spring of 1964, Wolfe, the New York City writer and journalist, traveled South with his style of New Journalism for an interview with Johnson during race weekend at North Wilkesboro. The assignment had come from an Esquire editor who was familiar with NASCAR and knew there was a story in Wilkes County worthy of national attention. Wolfe got way more than he bargained for. He was able to spend time with Johnson and his future wife, Flossie, on an off day as they were going about normal life in Wilkes County. Locals encountered along the way told story after story about Johnson, offering glimpses of the endearing and legendary status that he had already attained in the area. It was clear that he was still one of them, but he had made it!

Published in March 1965, the article’s headline was an eye-catcher: “The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. Yes!” Wolfe vividly describes what he saw during the 400-lap event — from the pre-race, for which a few of the big-time drivers had landed at the Wilkesboro Airport in their private planes, to the rowdy fans.

Fireball Roberts’ Ford spins out on the first turn at the North Wilkesboro Speedway, spinning, spinning, the spin seems almost like slow motion — and then it smashes into the wooden guardrail. It lies up there with the frame bent. Roberts is all right. There is a new layer of asphalt on the track, it is like glass, the cars keep spinning off the first turn. Ned Jarrett spins, smashes through the wood.

Some fans pulled for other drivers, and Johnson seemed to ignore the nasty name-calling. Had that experience occurred before his time in prison, Johnson told Wolfe, he might have gone after the hecklers.

Wolfe observed that the speeds of stock cars were faster at the time than those of Indy or Grand Prix cars. He wrote that drivers in other racing series did not have the raw nerve that stock car racing drivers seemed to have. He also wrote that “the prize money in Southern stock car racing is far greater.” The race ended up with a Midwestern transplant, Fred Lorenzen, winning in his Lafayette Ford Inc. Ford, while Johnson managed a 4th-place finish in his Dodge. Johnson would later switch to Ford and win many races in 1965. Wolfe also pointed to the presence of Detroit automakers in stock car racing, and how the “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” self-advertising concept was alive and well.

Wolfes’ article served to solidify Johnson’s legendary status. He mentioned that Johnson had passed a field of mostly Pontiacs in 1960 to win the Daytona 500 — discovering the practice of “drafting” in the process. His Chevy had been much slower during practice, but he found that if he could stay tightly behind a faster car, he could maintain the same speed and use less fuel. Great timing would allow him to pull out and around to capture the lead and the checkered flag. The same technique is used in NASCAR to this day.

Johnson succeeded as an owner as well and enjoyed a long reputation for ingenuity in creating fast cars. Some rivals called it cheating, but Johnson maintained that he was just taking advantage of what was not in the rulebook.

Along with holding Johnson up as a modern sports figure worthy of a national following, Wolfe’s article offered positive and respectful descriptions of the homes and inhabitants of Wilkes County. He did that while also reporting how some of the locals had advised him that an earlier writer for another national publication had branded Wilkes County the capital of bootlegging and moonshining. The reputation had stuck, and it created certain stereotypical and inaccurate assumptions about the people of Wilkes County. Wolfe encountered concern among locals about how they might be portrayed in his article. He took note of the sensibilities and folded them into his own narrative about the area.

And one thing these men are tired of is Wilkes County's reputation as a center of moonshining. The U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax agents sit over there in Wilkesboro, right next to North Wilkesboro, year in and year out, and they have been there since God knows when, like an Institution in the land, and every day that they are there, it is like a sign saying, Moonshine County. And even that is not so  bad — it has nothing to do with it being immoral and only a little to do with it being illegal. The real thing is, it is — raw and hillbilly. And one thing thriving modern Industry is not is hillbilly. And one thing the burghers of North Wilkesboro are not about to be is hillbilly. They have split-level homes that would knock your eyes out.

The 1960s witnessed the up-and-coming development of companies such as Lowe’s Home Improvement and Holly Farms Poultry (later Perdue Farms). The burgeoning industry of NASCAR was on the precipice of more than just regional status as well.

One can assume that Esquire’s bold headline for Wolfe’s exposé was never a working title. Johnson later acknowledged that he did not have much time to spend directly with Wolfe, but that the article was “pretty doggone good and accurate.” The article appeared during a period in which American media were “rediscovering” and reinterpreting Appalachia for a national audience. Some such depictions were more accurate than others, which perpetuated negative stereotypes. Collectively, this rising awareness about needs in the region helped lead to the formation of the Appalachian Regional Commission in 1965.

Wolfe’s writing was indeed a direct and timely influence on the perceptions that other Americans had of those in the Southeast. It was about one man, but one who represented a large demographic within the Southern region. Johnson was a man of few words and did not agree to interviews lightly at the time of Wolfe’s visit to Wilkes County. Wolfe and Johnson remained friends and reunited at Wolfe’s New York apartment in 2015 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the article that had been so transformative for Johnson and Wolfe — and for Esquire, which in 2008 ranked the article among the seven greatest stories in the history of the magazine. Both men died at age 88 a few years after the reunion — Wolfe in 2018, Johnson in 2019.

Esquire wrote about the 2015 reunion, and the TV program “NASCAR Beyond the Wheel” recorded it as part of a short film given the same title as Wolfe’s 1965 article. “He done more for me than anybody,” Johnson said while visiting with Wolfe. “He done more for NASCAR than anybody.”

Aside from writing an epic story about stock car racing, Wolfe accurately described its biggest star as a diligent and hardworking, smart and creative, independent and soft-spoken Appalachian hero. Many others in the region also fit that description. Wolfe managed to shine a light on those positive qualities and dispel some negative perceptions.

Kent Benfield is a Service Engineer for Volvo/Mack Global Trucks Technology in Greensboro, North Carolina, with a passion for stock car racing. He has worked with various NASCAR teams over the years and is currently a member of the Lee Jeffreys No. 75 Modified team, which races mainly at Bowman Gray Stadium. He lives in Greensboro with his wife, Vera. They have two adult daughters.


bottom of page