Junior Johnson was a fixture...
Junior Johnson was a fixture on pit road for part of fourdecades.
As a six-time Winston Cup championship team owner, no personality in the sport was a bigger thorn in NASCAR's proverbial side than the man Tom Wolfe dubbed The Las American Hero. Now, however, the Wilkes County, North Carolina native is content with his life away from the sport--and he's still speaking his mind. Interview by Michael Paul.
SCR: Tell us what you've been doing over the past 10 years since you sold your race team.
JOHNSON: "When I knew I was going to get out of racing sometime in the near future, I got involved in a lot of other businesses. One of them was real estate, and I had already got involved in the country-ham business a little bit. When I got out of [racing], I got more involved into it. "I've made some investments and stuff that keep me busy in properties and stuff like that, land and stuff. Also have several head of cattle, and I stay busy with that all the time. "It wasn't like I just out of racing and didn't have nothing else to do. I just kind of shifted gears and went a different direction, basically, when I quit."
SCR: What part of the sport do you miss the most? The competition? The day-to-day challenge of fielding a competitive team?
JOHNSON: "I don't think it's either one of the two, competition or the day-to-day maintaining a team. You miss the people you dealt with, the sponsors that you had over the years, that kind of thing more so than you do the day-to-day run of racing. That's the biggest thing I miss.
"Otherwise, I don't have any thoughts of racing down the road or anything like that. I just kind of put it on the backburner and left it there."
SCR: How much do you keep up with what's going on with NASCAR now?
JOHNSON: "A little, but I don't make it a priority. If something is changed and I feel like it is good or bad, I comment which way I think it is. Or if somebody changes from one team to the other or the motor companies switch around, I do comment and basically keep up with what I've been involved in in the past myself. But, don't make it a priority. I just kind of comment and go on."
SCR: Of course, NASCAR recently changed its points system. What do you think about that?
JOHNSON: "I don't see how they're going to better the point system than what they got now. They say they're going try to make the competition more stiffer at the end of the season based on the fact that they have had some guys that went into a kind of stroking mode at the end of the season 'cause they didn't want to lose the championship.
"But who says that won't happen in the last 10 races? Guy goes out and wins two races and gets 300 points ahead, he's gonna be a fool if goes wide open for on up to 10 races. That ain't gonna stop it, I don't think.
"When I was going after a championship, I figured if I won most of the races, I'm gonna win the championship, and I tried to win every race that was out there.
"I just don't think you can fix that. I think they got a good points system. And I'm a firm believer that if it ain't broke, don't mess with it."
SCR: What changes would you make if you were in charge of NASCAR?
JOHNSON: "I wouldn't make any changes, because NASCAR has a good organization. They're well-positioned in the marketplaces.
"I do think the sponsorship for the cars is running away, and if anything hurts it, that's what it's going to be.
"It's just too expensive. It does not that much money to run a race car. Somebody's pocketing a lot of money. Somebody's making it expensive because the more money they get, the more lucrative life they live. I don't oppose that, if they can get the sponsorship to afford it."
SCR: How much money do you think it would cost to run a team?
JOHNSON: "I see the engineering side of it. Somebody told me that the Chevrolet teams at Daytona, especially Rick Hendrick's, had like 10 engineers down there and all that stuff.
"I wouldn't say I was better...
"I wouldn't say I was better than everybody else. I justsay I'd never seen anybody I didn't think I could outrun."
"A car is a tool that you gotta drive it, you gotta fix it to where you can drive it, and that's not changed.
"They're basically running the same chassis they ran when I was in it. I'm a big part of the creation of that chassis stuff. From my experience, I don't see that they've done anything to advance that.
"Aerodynamics is a big factor. They do have some play into that. But the wind tunnel is what does it. We've always been going to the wind tunnel. That's where we've learned everything we've learned. . . .
"If an engineer is what it takes to do that, then it's changed a lot since I left it. We had people who did it who weren't engineers and done very well at it. So I think it's more hard work than anything else.
"I've dealt with engineers my whole career in racing. They can have an influence on it. But if I had to have them to race with, I couldn't race 'em. I had to race a race car and use the people I hired to do the job. Some of that information [from engineers] weren't worth a damn to me."
SCR: Has NASCAR turned its back on tradition in recent years?
JOHNSON: Probably NASCAR hasn't, but I think at times the demand on sponsorship and stuff like that has changed.
"And the teams, the sponsors have put more demand on them. I think NASCAR is pretty basic, down the road, just like it's always been. Put on a good show. Run an organization professionally. Treat everybody fairly. And have a good day at the race track. That's basically been their goal all along."
SCR: Brian France is the new head of NASCAR, and apparently he was behind the points change. What do you read into his decision to do that?
JOHNSON: "Well, I don't think Brian France [made] the decision to change it. It will be Mike Helton's and Jim Hunter's advice that we need to do something in that manner and France is basically taking their advice. I don't think he has a fight in that one way or the other, because knowing his position in the sport, somebody has to tell him all this stuff, and I think that's where's it come from."
SCR: Brian was involved in the sport while you were still racing. What is your impression of him?
JOHNSON: Well, he's very aggressive as far as trying to bring to the plate good sponsors, good people, like NEXTEL taking over Winston's deal. I think he's solely the head of that deal.
"He's bringing a lot of big sponsorships to the sport. That could be what's escalating the sport's dollar value, because once you raise the bar on the sport, you're going to raise the bar on all the companies that get into the sport and run a race team, because they got to step up to the plate and try to keep up. That's what you're seeing right now."
SCR: What type of leader do you think Brian France will be.
JOHNSON: "I think he'll be fine.
No Cup team owners today weld...
No Cup team owners today weld a jack during pit stops--a Johnsontrademark during his heyday.
"I've known him ever since he was a kid. He's grown up in the sport and he should be able to lead it."
SCR: What advice would you offer him?
JOHNSON: "I don't know that I could give him any good advice, because he's in a different category than I am. I would be a competitor of him, you might say, because I'd be going after the same people for sponsorship. I'd be trying to beat the rules.
Commenting on his position would be opposite of mine. I don't think I could give him any advice, to tell you the truth."
SCR: Do you see similarities between Brian and his father, Bill Jr., when he took over for Big Bill.
JOHNSON: "Yeah, I see a lot.
"I'm one of the few people that spoke out and did not think Bill Jr. could follow his father's footsteps--but he did, and he did a better job than his dad did. And I hope that follows through with Brian.
"The sport needs that, and he needs to try to step up and do better than his dad did. It's a popular sport. It's gone farther and farther ahead from where his did has taken it, and he took it from his dad and did the same thing with it.
"If Brian can do the same thing his father has done, it will be the No. 1 sport in the world."
SCR: How well did the France family foster fair competition and the growth of the sport?
JOHNSON: "I think they [did] very well.
Now in the country ham business,...
Now in the country ham business, Johnson cooks some of his product--alongwith his homemade biscuits--each weekday morning for employees andfriends.
"They have not only run the sport, they have promoted and gotten involved in making sure the sport went to the top and stayed there, basically by investing back into the sport their own money.
"They just didn't take the money out and run with it. They put it back into the sport and the race tracks and all the things it took to promote and build the sport bigger and bigger and bigger.
"They also gained a lot of income from what they invested back in it. Most people would have looked at it like, 'Well, if you"re gonna make this much money, why do you want to put the money back into the sport?'
"They felt Bill Jr. probably knew in his mind where he was going to take it to and how far he could take it, or he would not have gone out and built race tracks after his daddy quit. The two superspeedways that his dad had put together were Daytona and Tallagdega, and he ran that for a while.
"Now he's taken over, and he's bought Michigan, Rockingham, California and built two more race tracks.
"They have taken their earnings and put it back into the sport to where it has made it a bigger sport, a higher-level sport, from down to the ground to now it's up in the air about as high at it can go.
"When you look at it from that standpoint, they were the ones who promoted the sport more than anybody else has."
SCR: From having been involved in bringing Winston to the sport, what were your feelings when Winston announced it was getting out as the sponsor of the series.
JOHNSON: "I knew about the time I was quitting that they were getting closer and closer to getting out of the sport. Being involved with them from the start to where they got out, you could tell when things were winding down.
"They stayed long enough, because they got to where they could not get out of it what they were putting into it. That wasn't their fault and it wasn't NASCAR's fault. I think more it was the government's fault.
"The government was leaning on them very hard in courts. People were suing them. You could only take so much, and I don't care how big a company you got, they can wear you down. You start fighting those cases and you don't promote your product. It puts it on a secondary burner and you leave it sitting there until you get time to go back to it. I could see that way before I quit."
SCR: Talk about your involvement in getting Winston on board.
Johnson's organization produced...
Johnson's organization produced several people still involved in thesport. On the far left is Travis Carter, a Cup team owner; CaleYarborough is on the far right; next to him is Tim Brewer, a long-timecrew chief; and next to Brewer is Jeff Hammond of the FOX televisionnetwork.
JOHNSON: "Well, it's sort of an accident that I was involved in it.
"I went to Winston--[their ads] had just been taken off TV--and they were highly advertised on TV. I knew they were putting a lot of money into that to promote their cigarettes.
"I said, 'Well, they got a lot of advertising money and they can't do anything with it because the government has shut them out.'
"So I went to them for a sponsorship. And in the process, another fellow, George Bloom, was working for Hanes, which was involved in racing. He knew the people at Reynolds and I had him get me an appointment and go with me and try to help me get a sponsorship.
"We got into a meeting with them and I told them what I needed as a sponsorship for my car. It was like $850,000 then.
"One of them made the comment, 'Oh, Lord, we got millions of dollars. We got to do something with it.'
"And, you know, you rattle off what you think and sometimes it hurts you. I said, 'Well, if you got that kind of money you want to spend, you need to sponsor the whole circuit.'
"And they said, 'Well, how do we go about doing that?'
"And I still thought I was going to get a sponsorship out of it. I didn't think I was going to lose my sponsorship from them. They were a prime sponsor for a race car.
"When he said that, I said, 'I'll get you connected with Bill [France] Sr. and you can go from there.'
"And they said, 'We'll give you a phone number for him to call, and we'll work it out someway.'
"So I called Bill France and gave him the phone number and told him it was a possibility he could get them to sponsor the whole NASCAR circuit.
"He couldn't believe that somebody was talking like that, because it was pretty hard to get a lot of people involved in racing back then--because they thought it was a redneck ruckus everytime you went out to the race track.
"They got together and kept talking about it, and the following year they were the sponsor of NASCAR--and I lost the sponsorship. I had to go hunting for me a sponsorship.
"But, it worked out for the best. It was the best thing, I think, that happened to NASCAR."
SCR: Who eventually sponsored you?
JOHNSON: "I believe Holly Farms (which is now Tyson) went back to sponsoring me."
SCR: What is the most significant contribution of RJR during Winston's involvement?
JOHNSON: "I think the biggest contribution is they taught them how to sell their product.
"They promoted their sport and taught them how to market it. They did that through the activities of what they were doing.
Johnson, far right, stands...
Johnson, far right, stands next to Darrell Waltrip, a three-timechampionship driver with Johnson. Next to Waltrip is Neil Bonnett, theother driver in Johnson's two-car team. Warner Hodgdon, far left, wasco-owner of Johnson's team at the time.
"They'd go to NASCAR and say, 'We think you ought to do this.'
"They'd get involved and push it. They brought on board a lot of big sponsors. Got them involved in some way or another. They moved the championship [banquet] to New York. They supported the points fund.
"They really taught NASCAR how to market their product."
SCR: What do you feel is your biggest contribution to the sport?
JOHNSON: "I think a lot of the safety factors in the sport came through me.
"When I got into the sport, most people were building cars with lightweight roll bars, all kinds of stuff that was dangerous.
"That was something I didn't do. I promoted the safer car. I built chassis stuff. And, you know, the first time people see it, they copy.
"I think a lot of things I brought to the sport was a lot of safety factors that make it was it is today. Suspension stuff, roll bars, the way you build a race car, the full-floating rear end--I was the first that ever had one of them.
"A lot of things. The wheels. I was a big part of the fuel cell they have [today]. When Fireball Roberts got burnt, me and Banjo Matthews and Holman-Moody went to war on getting a fuel cell that wouldn't bust and burn somebody up.
"A lot of that stuff came through me."
SCR: What are you most proud of from your driving career?
JOHNSON: "Winning the Daytona 500 [in 1960] would probably be the top.
"I think I was involved in people learning a lot more about the car: they had to fix them to drive them. A lot of times people thought I was crazy because of the way I drove. But my car was fixed to drive that way.
"A lot of technology that went into the handling characteristics of the cars and the way you set them up and stuff like that came through me. A lot of that came through Banjo Matthews."
SCR: What are you most proud of from your career as an owner?
JOHNSON: "The championships you win have to be the tops of that.
"But winning Daytona and Talladega and all those races, it's pretty hard to have something that you think that you think has topped all that stuff. But we also had four drivers that were the Driver of the Year in our career as car owner.
"We set the standard for several motor companies that didn't think they could win races. And we took their product and turned it into a winner: Like Buick, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, at times a Chevrolet, at times a Ford.
"It was a big thing at our company that we did not let people tell us it could not be done, because we'd proven them to be wrong 99 percent of the time."
SCR: Name the top-five drivers all-time in NASCAR:
JOHNSON: "That would be very hard for me to do.
"I think I had probably three of them--but your naming people that you think and leaving out people you shouldn't leave out.
"I'd rather not comment on that, to tell you the honest truth, because I don't like to separate myself from a lot of those drivers--the ones I drove against and the ones I had drive my cars.
"I've always said I thought A.J. Foyt was the best all-around driver that I had ever seen. A lot of the drivers that came from other places came in here and proved to be great drivers here.
Johnson, shown here talking...
Johnson, shown here talking to team owner Ray Fox, won 50 races as adriver.
"But we just had so many good drivers, I'd hate to comment on one or the other.
"You take Buck Baker, Herb Thomas, Fireball Roberts, Marvin Panch.
"Curtis Turner, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Bill Elliott, Bobby Allison.
"You cannot leave one of them out and say that the other one was better than he was, because you have a day and a time when nobody can beat you. And that's in your prime. And when that's over with, you look back and say, 'Well, so-and-so might have been a better driver than he was in his prime.
"Richard Petty has won more races than anybody else, but if I had to classify Richard as being the best race driver in NASCAR, I couldn't say that. Because I know some who were as good as he was.
"Equipment made a big difference in drivers, too. Who knows? The best driver might have had the worst equipment. Never did show up.
"We've been fortunate. We've had a bunch of great race drivers in this sport. And I think that's what made it. It, and all the combination of things--you look back over and you can just grab 15 or 20 items that help promote and make the sport what it is. And drivers were one of them."
SCR: Where would you rank yourself all-time?
JOHNSON: "I've never seen a race driver I didn't think I could beat. I didn't drive against some of them, so I don't know if I could have beaten them or not.
"Sports Illustrated classified me No. 1 in the last 50 years. I don't know if I was or not. I just know I didn't run into anybody I couldn't outrun.
"My equipment, I know, wasn't as good as the rest of them, because it was at a time when I didn't work on the cars. Somebody else worked on them. I just drove them.
"I think that if I had been in my equipment, the way I was putting it underneath Cale [Yarborough] and Darrell [Waltrip] and Bill Elliott and Bobby Allison and those guys, I think I would have been a pretty tough guy to beat.
"I wouldn't say I was better than everybody else. I just say I'd never seen anybody I didn't think I could outrun. I'm always sure I could."
Johnson says he rarely reflects...
Johnson says he rarely reflects on his career in racing.
SCR: Name the top drivers, in order, who drove for you.
JOHNSON: "Well, you take LeeRoy Yarbrough. And everybody leaves him out of the equation of driving for me and put Cale and Darrell and Bobby Allison ahead of him.
"But I think Lee Roy was as good as every one of them.
"I'm not naming them one-two-three-four-five, I just going to name the top-five drivers who drove for me. It'd be LeeRoy, Cale, Darrell, Bobby Allison and--Terry Labonte was a great race driver. That would be my top five."
SCR: You've been rumored often over the years to be involved in an attempt to buy North Wilkesboro Speedway from Bob Bahre and Bruton Smith. Any truth to those rumors?
JOHNSON: "I have talked to Bob and them about the possibility of buying it.
"I think Bob would sell it if he knew it wasn't going to be somebody buying it to sell it to Bruton.
"But Bob thinks everybody trying to buy it is trying to buy it for Bruton Smith. And he won't sell it until Bruton sells his first."
"I'm not a guy that lives...
"I'm not a guy that lives and dies racing. I'm a guy thatenjoyed it and had a good time at it and moved on."
SCR: How have you been involved in those efforts?
JOHNSON: "I have talked to them about it, but that's about as far as it's went."
SCR: What would you do with the track if you were the owner?
JOHNSON: "I would run a test track at first. That's what I would set it up for, because all the Cup teams now in the winter, and through the summer, too, build new cars and they want to take them somewhere and shake them down and run them. They only got a few tests, and when they use those tests up, it's over with.
"So, you could run probably every day of the year at North Wilkesboro it wasn't raining or snowing. I think it would be a great place for a driver's school. It'd also be a great place Modifieds, ASA. I think you could keep it busy. Car shows. All kinds of stuff."
SCR: For at least a decade, your team ruled the sport, with three championships with Cale Yarborough (during 1976-78) and three with Darrell Waltrip (during '81-82 and '85) in a 10-season span. Do you ever think back on those days?
JOHNSON: "No, I don't. And I'll tell you why.
"It's an everyday job when you're doing it. And you're not doing it for the glory. You're doing it for financial [security] and to make a living at it and get ahead in life. The championships and stuff that come with it are the icing on the cake.
"I don't boast that I've won six championships with Darrell and Cale or 139 races as a car owner or 50 as a driver. It's part of my career, but that's all it is. I'm very, very satisfied with the way my life is right now.
SCR: But that does give you a source of pride, right?
JOHNSON: "Well, somewhat, but not something that I dwell on.
"I'm not a guy that lives and dies racing. I'm a guy that enjoyed it and had a good time at it and moved on.
SCR: Do your children have an appreciation of what you meant to NASCAR?
JOHNSON: "Not yet. They might down the road.
The boy is beginning to pick up on it a little bit. I've taken him to three races at Bristol and one at Charlotte, and he doesn't seem to pick up on it as though this is the greatest thing that has ever come along. My dad raced and so on and so forth.
"But he might as he gets older pick it up. I don't think he will, but he might."
SCR: Would you help or encourage your son or daughter if he or she wanted to race?
JOHNSON: "I'm going to support my kids and help them in any walk of life that they choose."
SCR: Is your son or daughter involved in racing go-carts or anything like that?
JOHNSON: "No, sir." (laughs)
SCR: Have you taken them to one?
JOHNSON: No, I haven't (laughs). I'm not encouraging it." (laughs)
SCR: Was Junior Johnson a better driver or a better team owner.
JOHNSON: "That's a 50-50 deal.
"I gave it a 100 percent at both places, and I can't say I was better at either one of them.
"I know I did give 100 percent driving and I gave 100 percent car ownership. You can't give but 18 to 20 hours a day, and I gave it to both."
SCR: Describe an average day for you now.
JOHNSON: "It starts about 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning and lasts until about 9 or 10 o'clock at night.
"In the daytime, I'll be doing something on the farm or I'll have to run off to one of the businesses I'm involved in. Buy and trade land. I'm busy in something all the time all day long. Just enjoying life.
"My kids are in school. They get out of school and I try to finish up and be ready to do something with them in the evening. I want to put as much effort in my kids' life as I can and help them in their school.
"We usually go abroad when they get out of school [in the summer]. I want them to know a lot about the world, the people. Get involved in international travel and know how other people live and opportunities and things of that nature."
SCR: What are some of the places you've visited abroad?
JOHNSON: "In the last five years we've been involved with General Motors with the Goodwood Festival of Speed in England. It's a four-day event, and we go early and go somewhere like Italy, France, Scotland, Ireland. We're debating right now maybe going to Australia and then coming back in to England.
"We want them to know a lot about the other countries by the time they get into college and make plans in their life to choose what they want to do."
SCR: What is the Goodwood Festival?
JOHNSON: "It's sort of a showmanship of all the transportation vehicles that have ever been built in the world.
"There'll be cars there 100 years old and cars there brand new. Ford and General Motors and Mercedes and all of them are involved in it. Chrysler.
"You see every kind of vehicle that's been built. It's a festival of speed. They got a course you can run them on and people see the cars run on the course. It's not a race track, but some of them do run pretty fast.
"It's a display of special cars. I say it draws 300,000 to 400,000 over four, five days."
SCR: Are any of your cars represented?
JOHNSON: "I've had the '63 Chevrolet [that won seven races] over there. Also had [over there] the car that Darrell [Waltrip] won his third championship.
"We're gonna try to get Richard Childress to take two of the No. 3 cars over this year.
"They're beginning over there to learn a lot about NASCAR racing. You see a lot of people who are big fans of NASCAR over there. We went to Naples, Italy, and ran into a lot of people who knew a lot about NASCAR there."
SCR: We heard that Pontiac had an offer of $15 million a year on the table for you to return to the sport, but then Pontiac got out altogether. Any truth to that?
"They, at one time, were looking at running two cars similar to what Chrysler ran. But there was no offer to me.
"I wouldn't get back into racing. Money is one thing in life. But other things are more valuable to me now than money. That's my kids, my wife, my family. It's something I put a value on more than making money, because I got a way of making money now."
SCR: Have you had any offers lately?
JOHNSON: "Not lately. I had a lot when I first quit, but not lately."
SCR: Do you still feel you could make it in this sport as a team owner?
JOHNSON: "I don't know if I could or not.
"If I didn't have success, I'd probably kill somebody (laughs). I was pretty rough on my guys, anyway."
SCR: Talk about the challenges you face in your current business interests.
JOHNSON: "It's not been a challenge. It's been a safe, sound investment with some people that I've known and grew up with."
SCR: Do you miss the cheering?
"I'm a person that looks forward. I don't look backward. I didn't do that as a driver and I've never done that in any walk of my life.
"I retired very young, 34, as a driver. I never looked back at that, and when I quit the car-owner side I didn't look back, either.
"It's time for me to quit and move on with my life, and I made that decision and stuck with it.
"And I haven't regretted it.
"It ain't like, 'Boy, I wish I hadn't done this, I hadn't done that.' Because I ain't looking in that direction."