Junior Johnson, a legend in the world of stock-car racing, has died at age 88. Johnson began his driving career as a North Carolina moonshine runner and went on to win 50 races, including the 1960 Daytona 500. Johnson was in the first class of NASCAR Hall of Fame inductees and became known as the Last American Hero after he was profiled in an Esquire magazine story by Tom Wolfe in 1965, which later appeared in his book The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. Wolfe and Johnson reunited a half-century after the story was first published, and this story below, first published by Road & Track in 2016 along with one in Esquire, was the result.
In 1965, journalist Tom Wolfe was deployed to South Carolina to illustrate for his sophisticated New York overlords what this whole “stock car racing thing was.” Wolfe, being a sharp-dressed Man of the People, sought out Junior Johnson, the 1960 Daytona 500 champion and the winningest stock-car driver at the time. NASCAR was still a regional affair, a burgeoning motorsport confined to below the Mason-Dixon line, where no New Yorkers seemed to dare venture, especially not East Village writers in white suits.
Today, it’s mind-boggling to think how such things were at one time so hyper-regional—the plot to Smokey and the Bandit, after all, was about thirsty Georgians brazenly heisting that rarefied elixir, Colorado-brewed Coors beer, which today flows like a golden river at every Buffalo Wild Wings from here to Waxahachie.
But with no little hyperbole, the resulting profile—originally titled “Great Balls of Fire”—was published in the March 1965 issue of Esquire Magazine, then immortalized in Wolfe’s collection The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (now under its familiar and easily excited title: “The Last American Hero Is Junior Johnson. Yes!“) It remains today a defining piece of New Journalism, a veritable sacred text for its practitioners since, part of the Bible that the prophet Wolfe bestowed upon us. (Hey, it’s not like the man invented hyperbole and exaggeration.) It made both people famous. It earned Junior Johnson the enviable nickname of “The Last American Hero,” and a biopic with the same title starring Jeff Bridges. For the magazine’s genteel readers, Johnson certainly painted a picture of the good ol’ Southern boy. “He is a coon hunter, a rich man, an ex-whiskey runner, a good old boy who hard-charges stock cars 175 mph. Mother dog! He is the lead-footed chicken farmer from Ronda, the true vision of the New South.”
(As an aside: one letter to the editor, published in June of 1965, lambasts Wolfe thus: “I think Mr. Wolfe should be ashamed of himself for describing Southern preachers thus: ‘They are greedy dogs. Yeah! They ride around in big cars. Unnh-hunh! And chase women. Yeah! And drink liquor. Unnh-hunh! And smoke cigars. Oh yes ! And they are greedy dogs. Yeah! Unnh-hunh! Oh yes! Amen!'”)
In October 2015, 50 years after the article was published, Johnson revisited Wolfe at his East Village apartment. The two were participating in a documentary for FOX Sports. The two pile onto couches, surrounded by books, production crew jockeying for room behind them. Wolfe remembered how he dressed down for the trip to North Carolina, something casual, like a green tweed suit with a Borsalino hat. Johnson turned to Esquire writer Mark Warren. “He done more for me than anybody,” he said. “He done more for NASCAR than anybody.”
Wolfe put NASCAR on the map, writes Warren. If we are to believe our fathers, and believe that the Sixties really were as transformative as the nostalgia says it is, then Johnson transformed NASCAR—by, among other things, pioneering the art of drafting—and Wolfe transformed NASCAR. Hard to believe that today, but things always expand somewhere. Says Warren, some cultural anthropology laid the way for that. “His ‘statusphere’ obsession—’How do we look?’ he says. ‘How do we sound to other people?’—turned him into an anthropologist once he was in Junior Johnson country, getting to the heart of a culture that made the biggest traffic jams in the world to go see stock cars race around a track.”