With a whimper, not with a roar as from a NASCAR motor’s ignition, did we learn we are losing one of our most famous native sons.
Junior Johnson is the second-most famous native of our Tri-Counties. The 81-year-old Johnson is going to put his big spread down in rural Yadkin County up for auction starting Tuesday after it did not sell, and he’s settling in one of the richest, most exclusive residential sections of Charlotte.
Johnson said his poor health and bad back won’t allow him to keep up his 150-acre farm, 10,000-square-foot mansion and monster garage anymore.
It’s remarkable that the former NASCAR driver and owner and national sports legend stayed here as long as he did.
In this space last week I argued that the late Andy Griffith, our most famous native son, who died July 3, was one of us still even though he left his native Mount Airy after high school and never came back here to live.
Some of you would claim Johnson’s a bigger celebrity than Griffith, and I wouldn’t argue it much.
While you can argue whether Griffith was one of us, there is no argument about Junior Johnson. The good ol’ Wilkes County boy stayed close to the land of his birth and to the spirit of his people despite his decades of dizzying success, fame and fortune in stock-car racing.
If you didn’t know Johnson by sight you likely wouldn’t be able to pick him out from a pack of bib overall-wearing farmers chewing the fat at the stock sale. You’d be shocked to learn that Johnson over there was filthy rich and a celebrity to boot.
Racing’s original Junior, Johnson won 50 NASCAR races over an 11-year career as a driver, then 139 races as a team owner. He entered the NASCAR Hall of Fame in its inaugural class.
All that despite Johnson’s racing origin as a Wilkes County moonshine runner who once got caught and spent 11 months in prison. Years later President Reagan issued a pardon.
Through it all Johnson remained anchored in his native Ingle Hollow at the foot of the Brushy Mountains in southeastern Wilkes. He built a big NASCAR shop complex there beside a country road.
And if you didn’t know better you’d drive by there today and wonder what in the world were all those big, brick buildings doing way out there in the country. And why in the world would someone put a helicopter pad within spitting distance of the road.
These days I drive by the ghostly, empty complex and imagine the beehive of activity that once buzzed there. Johnson got out of racing in 1995.
I never met, never saw Johnson; I’m not into NASCAR. But there is a cute little story told in my family about him.
I’m told that my late uncle one time decided to quit farming and retire. Johnson caught wind of it and came up to look over my uncle’s herd of beef cattle.
After some horse, ur, cow trading, Johnson decided to buy my uncle’s entire herd, lock, stock and barrel. Standing at the pasture fence Johnson pulled out a huge wad of bills from his pocket and paid my uncle cash money on the spot. He said he’d send trucks later.
I can just see my uncle showing that big, wide, crooked grin of his and thinking what a bonanza as Johnson counted out the bills in his hand. Meanwhile, I can picture Johnson wondering why my uncle didn’t dicker the price up a little more.
Just two old Wilkes farmers in their element.
Johnson wasn’t some isolated hayseed nor some unapproachable, celebrity big-shot.
After my old high school started up its football program while I was a student there, and then set out to build a football field, they said Johnson helped by donating one of his beef cattle to raffle off. Decades later I still remember and appreciate that.
I noticed once at the county museum up in Wilkesboro that Johnson generously donated a number of items for its racing-history room, including one of his early race cars. Johnson could’ve gotten good money for that.
In his later years Johnson left Ingle Hollow and built a new place not far away just over the Yadkin County line.
I read with amusement a couple of years ago when a big-city Charlotte sports columnist who came from up North drove up to Johnson’s new place and arrived in time for one of Johnson’s legendary country breakfasts with friends and employees.
Tom Sorensen is not a racing sportswriter; once he was scolded by Danica Patrick for knowing too little about racing.
At Johnson’s place the talented Sorensen described, not much about racing, but rather he focused his lengthy newspaper report on the homey scene of light-hearted banter among Johnson and the rest of the good ol’ boys. Sorensen just as easily could have been describing a bunch of country boys shooting the breeze at a neighborhood café.
I wondered what the yankee Sorensen thought of it all, especially when Johnson drawled “Lord, yeah, I had my doubts” about being elected to the Hall of Fame.
I can’t blame Johnson for moving to Charlotte. He’ll be in the neighborhood with the fancy country club where they play that big golf tournament on TV every spring.
Johnson joked with the Charlotte ‘paper about still wearing his bib overalls down there and planting tomatoes in the yard. It sounds like “The Beverly Hillbillies” all over again.
I just hope Johnson can be happy down there. He’s going to find the atmosphere at the country club different from the atmosphere at Redding’s Country Kitchen.
It’s not going to be like the good ol’ hometown.
And the hometown is not going to be quite the same without Junior Johnson.
Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.