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PROFILE: Driving a heritage

Robert Glenn Johnson, Jr. was born June 28, 1931 in Wilkes County, N.C. Many know this country boy as Junior Johnson, the son of Lara Belle Money and Robert Glenn Johnson, Sr.

Growing up on a farm, his family distilled part of their corn harvest to make whiskey. But, soon the family started distilling their corn as a means of survival, as the corn was worth more distilled than it was as grain.

Yet, the taxes were so high the Johnsons couldn’t afford to pay them and make a living. So, they decided not to pay the taxes — making them moonshiners.

Johnson family moonshine was deemed the best. Junior would tend to the stills and began bootlegging moonshine at age 14.

He consistently outran and outwitted local police and federal agents in chases and was never caught while running shine. Johnson quickly became a moonshining and bootlegging legend and is credited with inventing the now-famous “bootleg turn,” in which the bootlegger escapes the revenuers by cutting the wheel sharply to the left, dropping into a lower gear and putting the pedal to the floor. This slides the car into a 180-degree turn — making the bootlegger long gone before the law turned around.

Johnson was also known to use police lights and sirens to fool revenuers who set-up roadblocks. Thinking he was a fellow officer, upon hearing his approach, the police quickly removed the roadblocks and allowed Johnson to drive right-on-through.

In 1955, Johnson decided to give up delivering moonshine for the more lucrative — and legal —career of NASCAR driving, easily translating his moonshiner driving skills to the highly-pitched racing tracks.

In his first full season, he won five races and finished sixth in the 1955 NASCAR Grand National points standings. If NASCAR had a “Rookie of the Year” back then, Johnson surely would have won it.

In 1956, federal tax agents found Johnson working at his father’s moonshine still in Wilkes County and arrested him. Many local residents believed the raid was done in revenge for the agent’s inability to catch Johnson delivering moonshine on local highways.

He was convicted of moonshining and sent to federal prison in Chillicothe where he served 11 months of a two-year sentence. On Dec. 26, 1986, President Ronald Reagan granted Johnson a presidential pardon. Johnson called the pardon, “one of the greatest things in my life.”

On the track

Johnson returned to the NASCAR scene in 1958, picking up where he left off, winning six races. In 1959, he won five more NASCAR Grand National races. By this time, he was regarded as one of the best short-track racers in the sport.

His first superspeedway win came at the 1960 Daytona 500. Johnson and his crew chief Ray Fox were practicing for the race, trying to figure out how to increase their speed, which was 22 miles per hour slower than the top cars in the race.

During a test run, a faster car passed Johnson. He noticed when he moved behind the faster car, his own speed increased due to the faster car’s slipstream. Johnson was then able to stay close behind the faster car until the final lap of the test run, when he used the slipstream effect to slingshot past the other car.

By using this technique, Johnson went onto win the race, despite the fact his car was slower than others in the field. Johnson’s technique was quickly adopted by other drivers, and his practice of “drafting” became a common tactic in NASCAR races.

In 1963, he had a two-lap lead in the World 600 at Charlotte before a spectator threw a bottle onto the track and caused Johnson to crash. He suffered only minor injuries.

He retired in 1966. In his career, he claimed 50 victories as a driver, 11 of the wins at major speedway races. He was a master of dirt track racing.

“The two best drivers I’ve ever competed against on dirt are Junior Johnson and Dick Hutcherson,” said two-time NASCAR champion Ned Jarrett.

As a NASCAR team owner, he worked with legendary drivers including Darel Dieringer; LeeRoy and Cale Yarbrough; Darrell Waltrip; Neil Bonnett; Terry Labonte; Geoffrey Bodine; Sterling Marlin; Jimmy Spencer, and Bill Elliott.

In all, his drivers won 139 races, third only to Petty Enterprises and Hendrick Motorsports. And, his drivers won six Winston Cup Championships — three with Yarborough (1976-1978), and Waltrip (1981-82, 1985).

Until Jimmy Johnson’s 2009 Sprint Cup Championship, Johnson/Yarborough was the only team in NASCAR history to achieve three consecutive Championships.

Up to speed

Nowadays, Johnson lives with his family in Wilkes County, N.C., where he stays busy working on his farm and cooking breakfast every morning for the family and anyone else who happens by.

In addition, Johnson is helping his son, Robert begin his own racing career — proving quite successful to date. Seems racing really does run in the blood.

An entrepreneur at heart, Johnson is involved in several businesses. He is part-owner of Piedmont Distillers, as well as two foods companies — Suncrest Farms, which produces Junior Johnson Brand country ham, pork rinds and bacon, and Yadkin Valley Foods, which turns out Junior Johnson Brand sweet tea, lemonade and breakfast sandwiches.

Johnson is actively involved in each of these companies.

Top of the barrel

Johnson was:

Inducted in the inaugural class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame this year. Fellow inductees were Bill France Sr., Bill France Jr., Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty.

Inducted in the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1991.

Joined North Carolina greats Michael Jordan, Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty by having a stretch of highway named in his honor in 2004. The 8.5-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 421 from the Yadkin and Wilkes county line, all the way to the Windy Gap exit is named the “Junior Johnson Highway.”

The subject of “The Last American Hero” movie. From 1964-65, writer Tom Wolfe researched and wrote an article about Johnson, published in March 1965 in Esquire Magazine, reprinted in Wolfe’s 1965 “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby”, and, in turn, reprinted in the 1999 “The Best American Sports Writing of the Century”, edited by David Halberstam.

The article, originally entitled “Great Balls of Fire,” turned Johnson into a national celebrity and led to fame beyond the circle of NASCAR fans. In turn, the article was made into a 1973 movie based on Johnson’s career as a driver and moonshiner.

The movie was titled “The Last American Hero,” a.k.a. “Hard Driver.” Jeff Bridges starred as the somewhat-fictionalized version of Johnson, while Johnson himself served as technical advisor for the film. Critically acclaimed, it featured the Jim Croce hit song, “I Got A Name.”

— Some historical information courtesy of Sarah LeRoy, Piedmont Distilleries VP of Marketing.

The Catdaddy

In 2005, Piedmont Distillers introduced its first legal moonshine, Catdaddy Carolina Moonshine, distilled in the heart of North Carolina by the only legal spirits distillery in the state, embracing the artistry, folklore and craft of its illegal cousins.

Its name is entrenched in history. Legend has it only the best moonshine earned the right to be called “The Catdaddy.”

Every batch is born in an authentic copper still, crafted in small batches and made from American corn. It’s 80 proof and triple distilled to deliver an ultra-smooth drinking experience.

Catdaddy’s one-of-a-kind flavor comes from a secret recipe using ingredients not found in any other spirit.

Joe Michalek, founder and president of Piedmont Distillers, won’t tell you what’s in it, but will say the taste is a little sweet with a hint of spice. Michalek said, “It’s fun to watch someone try Catdaddy for the first time. The response is usually the same. First they’ll say, ‘Wow, that’s good,’ then, ‘It’s really smooth’ and finally, ‘What is that taste?’

“The taste is familiar, but people can’t put their finger on it. All they know is that they like it,” he touted.

Catdaddy can be sipped straight or mixed to create a number of cocktails. Its most popular cocktails include the Kitty Cosmo, Catdaddy & Cola or Catdaddy & Irish Cream.

It’s often used by leading mixologists who seek to make new cocktail creations for patrons.

Catdaddy is used by some the best eateries to create culinary treats such as French onion soup, crme brulee, caramel sauce, and marinade for ribs and chicken.

Catdaddy Carolina Moonshine is available in liquor stores, bars and restaurants in 16 states, including Kentucky and West Virginia.

Piedmont Distillers is a small operation with just seven employees. The office and manufacturing facility are located in Madison, N.C. (population 2000) in the town’s former train station built in 1915.

“Madison is exactly what you might imagine. A small Southern town filled with kind folks, many of whom have lived here their entire lives,” Michalek said. “As the only legal distillery in North Carolina, we are proud to manufacture our spirits in a town with a history as rich as the moonshine we produce.”

Junior Johnson sells moonshine again — the legal sort

In May 2007, Piedmont Distillers and NASCAR legend Junior Johnson joined forces to introduce Junior Johnson’s Midnight Moon. Johnson is a part owner of Piedmont Distillers.

Midnight Moon is made from American corn, 80 proof and triple-distilled to deliver an ultra-smooth, clean-tasting spirit, often preferred over the world’s best vodkas.

Midnight Moon can be sipped straight or can also be easily mixed with lemonade; tonic; cranberry juice; tea, or orange juice.

“I am really proud to own part of this company,” Johnson said. “I’ve done a lot of things in my life and my history in the moonshine business is no secret. Back in the old days, we learned to drive cars fast because we’d go to jail if we didn’t.

“Now, I own part of a legal moonshine company that makes the best shine ever. I’m no longer using pot stills down by the creek. We triple distill the family recipe in a copper column still. It’s smoother than vodka and better than whiskey. It’s the shine I always wanted to make.”

Like many of other early stock car racers, Johnson grew-up tending to the family’s whiskey business, helped his father work the stills during the day and ran ‘shine at night.

Johnson’s incredible driving skills enabled him to stay two steps ahead of the revenuers. But he was eventually arrested while helping at the family still and served 11 months of a 2-year prison sentence. He later received a presidential pardon from Ronald Reagan for his 1956 moonshining conviction.

“Having Junior as a partner in Piedmont Distillers has been great,” Michalek said. “He’s the real deal. Not only is he an expert in making moonshine, but he’s a true American legend. The public’s response to Junior and his Midnight Moon has been awesome — people love it and keep coming back for more.”

Junior used the racing and car building knowledge he acquired while bootlegging to become one of the most successful drivers and owners in racing history. As a NASCAR driver, Johnson won 50 races and 49 poles and is tied with Ned Jarrett for 10th place on the all-time victory list.

After retiring from driving, he became a legendary team owner, with his drivers winning 139 races and six series championships.

Cale Yarborough won three straight titles for Johnson in 1976, ’77 and ’78. Darrell Waltrip won the other three championships in 1981, ’82 and ’85.

Prior to their broadcasting careers, both Jeff Hammond of FOX Sports and Tim Brewer of ESPN won multiple championships as crew chiefs for Johnson. He is ranked as the 3rd most successful owner in NASCAR history.

Johnson was even the subject of Tom Wolfe’s famous essay for Esquire Magazine in 1965 titled, “The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. Yes!”

Junior Johnson’s Midnight Moon is available in liquor stores, bars and restaurants in 19 states, including Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia.

— Information courtesy of Sarah LeRoy, Piedmont Distilleries VP of Marketing.