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NASCAR Legend And Bootlegger Junior Johnson Dies At 88

NOEL KING, HOST:

An icon of the racetrack has died. Junior Johnson was a NASCAR pioneer and also a legendary bootlegger. From member station WUNC, here's Jeff Tiberri.

JEFF TIBERRI, BYLINE: For years, Junior Johnson lived a double life. Under the moonlit sky, he worked in the family business, evading authorities while making illegal deliveries of moonshine. On the weekends, he was beloved by the fans of NASCAR, winning dozens of races in the 1950s and '60s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: And your winner ladies and gentlemen, Junior Johnson. Fred Lorenzen is second. Junior Johnson did it today in Atlanta, Ga. And a mighty happy guy he'll be, as he pulls around.

TIBERRI: From Daytona International Speedway to the Carolina mountains, his driving was legendary. Johnson drove a souped-up Ford with a tractor engine. He regularly outran police, sometimes using what he coined the bootleg turn to escape.

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JUNIOR JOHNSON: Well, what you did was you dropped the speed real down and real slow. And then when you dropped the right-side wheels off on the grass, you'd cut it real quick and slam the breaks on them, and the thing would just spin around.

TIBERRI: The tales of his powerful Ford roaring through the mountains late at night, eluding the law, are almost mythical. Johnson once came across a couple of local sheriffs who had crashed.

Biographer Tom Higgins.

TOM HIGGINS: They had liquor on their breath and lipstick on the collars. They'd been somewhere they shouldn't have been. The sheriff said, Junior, if you'll get my back to the courthouse and save my skin, I'll never chase you again, and I'll see that my deputies don't ever chase you again.

TIBERRI: Ultimately, Junior rearranged the crates of moonshine and gave the officers a ride. The sheriff kept his word and left him alone. Robert Glenn Johnson, Junior was born June 28, 1931, in the North Carolina town of Ronda. His father made moonshine during Prohibition and had dozens of stills throughout the countryside. Junior was driving at 11, bootlegging at 14. He was never caught while driving loads of liquor. However, federal agents, known as revenuers, staked out a family still and arrested him in 1955. Junior went to federal prison.

HIGGINS: In a place like that, you got to get along and treat people right or they'll - when you go to bed, it's not - they'll cut the lights off, they'll cave in on you, and you're lucky if you survive.

TIBERRI: He did and then settled into a prolific career. He won 50 races as a driver, more than 100 as an owner and was part of NASCAR's first Hall of Fame class. Thirty years after his conviction, President Reagan pardoned him for having an illegal still. And in 2007, North Carolina made sales of his Midnight Moon legal. Junior Johnson was 88.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Tiberri in Winston-Salem, N.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.