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Feature Writing
Third place

Mike Hembree, NASCAR Scene

The Driver And The Dandy

It was an unlikely intersection of urban finery and Southern backwaters culture, that first meeting between Tom Wolfe and Junior Johnson.

Johnson was the center of the NASCAR universe, a barefoot farm-boy-turned-racer who drove so hard into dirt-track turns fans thought he couldn’t possibly come out the other side. Wolfe was the epitome of the New York City man-about-town and writer on the rise, a relatively young but seasoned journalist who was building a reputation as among the best at his craft.

Across the spectrum of society, it would be difficult to pick two men of the 1960s who were more different.

In the blazing hot spring of 1964 in the Appalachian Mountains foothills of western North Carolina, Junior Johnson stepped into the country store – then Anderson’s Store, later the Pit ‘n’ Go – on Somers Road in Ingle Hollow to buy a soft drink. Or a Coke, as it would have been called there, whatever the brand. No sodas. No pops. Gimme a Coke. Wolfe was there waiting, having stopped in, walking past the raccoon skins – prizes of local hunters – hanging on display at the door, in search of Johnson.

No one knew it then, but NASCAR was about to make a giant step into the Other World, the wider America outside its little closet of recognition.

Tom Wolfe, meet Junior Johnson.

Johnson was wearing a bright green and white short-sleeve shirt and white pants, appropriate attire for a humid spring day in a non-air-conditioned world. Wolfe, on assignment from Esquire magazine to tell the story of Johnson and this relatively unknown but increasingly interesting thing called stock car racing, had showed up in a green tweed suit, a blue button-down Oxford shirt, a black knit tie, suede shoes and a brown Italian-made Borsalino hat with beaver trim.

“Oh, my God. Talk about not fitting in,” Wolfe remembers. “I thought it was mountain country, so I probably should dress down. But it was so hot. I wasn’t dressed properly. Junior politely indicated as much after a couple of days of following him around everywhere.”

Wolfe would return to Ingle Hollow and North Wilkesboro several times during that year, talking to residents, racers, Johnson and his closeknit group of Wilkes County disciples. He attended a race at North Wilkesboro Speedway. He did weeks of research into the phenomenon of stock car racing, its birth and growth, its ties to car manufacturers in Detroit and the unique culture it was developing in pockets of a nation enamored by the Yankees and Cardinals and baseball, still unofficially the national pastime.

The result, months and months and miles and miles later, in the March 1965 issue of Esquire, was “The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. Yes!” Wolfe’s lengthy article and accompanying photos stretched for page after page in a featured position in what was then – and, for many, remains – one of the country’s most important magazines.

It was a landmark moment and a jolt of unsolicited publicity for NASCAR. Still more than a decade from being discovered – and promoted – by television, stock car racing, a scruffy, unkempt sport looking – no, begging – for national cache, got what would be considered prime exposure in Esquire. A very literate, upper-scale magazine, Esquire typically concentrated on men’s fashion, politics, social issues and off-the-wall feature stories.

Johnson and the hardscrabble world of NASCAR certainly qualified as off the wall. Wolfe gave the sport a seat at front row center, a bright and shining visit to a big cocktail party. Across America, Esquire readers opened their magazines to see Johnson’s round face, framed by his race car and goggles, stretched across a double-page photo spread. For most, Johnson certainly wouldn’t be described as the Last American Hero. He was a largely unknown quantity in the world at large, and NASCAR was barely on the national radar. Three years later, it finally would make the cover of Sports Illustrated, which put driver Curtis Turner in its spotlighted position and proclaimed him “King of the Wild Road”. But Esquire’s pedigree was richer still, and to have Wolfe probe one’s psyche was high praise, indeed.

Wolfe did much more than give NASCAR a national platform in new territory. He used the occasion to write one of the greatest stories in the history of sports journalism;  many think it is one of the finest magazine articles ever published. In October 2003, on its 70th anniversary, Esquire picked the five best stories to ever appear between the magazine’s covers, and “Last American Hero” was in the group.

Wolfe’s story not only explained and illuminated the overlapping -– and, to many, mysterious – worlds of high speed and short tracks and wild drivers and the unlikely commerce they produced but also helped to create a permanent spot for Johnson in the fabric of the South.

Wolfe, then 33 (he and Johnson were born three months apart in 1931), got the Esquire assignment while working full-time as a writer for the New York Herald Tribune newspaper. The streets of Manhattan were his beat Monday through Friday, but he traveled around the country on weekends pursuing feature material for Esquire and other magazines.

A native of Richmond and holder of a doctoral degree in American Studies from Yale, Wolfe was on his way to becoming famous when he and Johnson crossed paths. Other highly praised magazine articles and books would follow as Wolfe established himself as the top gun in what became known as the New Journalism, a bold and innovative way to approach writing about news and other current events. Wolfe’s writing and that of others in the ill-defined movement sparkled with new energy and danced along the line between fiction and non-fiction, sometimes bringing the writer into the story, often taking new liberties with sacred journalistic practices.

Wolfe took the new form of reporting and stretched its parameters, tossing in all manner of bells and whistles, using unusual words and phrases and punctuation for impact – sort of like suddenly shouting in a church sanctuary. His final product sometimes looked like someone had held the pages in front of a machine gun. Dots. Dashes. Ellipses. Exclamation marks. Rampant punctuation. Odd markings north, south, east and west. He used words and phrases like “whhhoooooooooooooooooooooosh!” and “h-i-t-s t-h-a-t b-a-l-l” and “Ba-ram-ba-ram-ba-ram-ba-ram”.
Stock car racing, with its noise, color, clutter and grime, was a perfect canvas for Wolfe’s pen, and it would have been difficult to find a better centerpiece than Johnson, a cult hero to thousands as the good old boy who drove like a man possessed on the suffocating bullrings and sprawling superspeedways of the South.

Wolfe opened the story by describing the atmosphere surrounding North Wilkesboro Speedway on race morning in April 1964. Caught in the traffic jam on the two-lane roads winding into the speedway, Wolfe was struck by the range of color presented by the lines of Chevrolets, Fords and Plymouths snaking into the parking lots: “Cars, miles of cars, in every direction, millions of cars, pastel cars, aqua green, aqua blue, aqua beige, aqua buff, aqua dawn, aqua dusk, aqua aqua, aqua Malacca, Malacc lacquer, Cloud lavender, Assassin pink, Rake-a-check raspberry, Nude Strand coral, Honest Thrill orange, and Baby Fawn Lust cream-colored cars are all going to the stock-car races, and that old mothering North Carolina sun keeps exploding off the windshields. Mother dog!”

What follows is a riveting, colorful tale of Johnson’s exploits both in racing and in moonshine hauling and of the inroads the world of stock car racing was making into what people in the North Wilkesboro infield might call the “car bidness”.

Wolfe wrote: “What Detroit discovered was that thousands of good old boys in the South were starting to form allegiances to brands of automobiles, according to which were hottest on the stock-car circuits, the way they used to have them for the hometown baseball team. The South was one of the hottest car-buying areas in the country. Cars like Hudsons, Oldsmobiles and Lincolns, not the cheapest automobiles by any means, were selling in disproportionate numbers in the South, and a lot of young good old boys were buying them. In 1955, Pontiac started easing into stock-car racing, and suddenly the big surge was on. Everybody jumped into the sport to grab for themselves The Speed Image.”

And then there is the microscopic examination of Johnson, then and now a figure of legend in the hills of Wilkes County.

“Like most up-hollow people,” Wolfe wrote, “Junior is reserved. His face seldom shows an emotion. He has three basic looks: amiable, amiable and a little shy, and dead serious. To a lot of people, apparently, Junior’s dead-serious look seems menacing. There are no cowards left in stock-car racing, but a couple of drivers tell me that one of the things that can shake you up is to look into your rearview mirror going around a curve and see Junior Johnson’s car on your tail trying to ‘root you out of the groove,’ and then get a glimpse of Junior’s dead-serious look.”

Today, at 73, Robert Glenn Johnson Jr. is much the same. Out of racing for almost a decade and living comfortably in wealth as a member of northwestern North Carolina’s landed gentry, Johnson eases along through the day, his drawl as slow as an IV drip. Dressed in overalls and work boots, he meets the morning in his workshop, down the hill from his massive home in Hamptonville, N.C., a county over from Wilkes. The shop is sort of Junior Johnson Central every morning. Farmhands, Johnson hangers-on and others gather to eat breakfast and settle the larger problems of the world before embarking on the day.

Here Junior is just Junior. Though wildly rich and still ringing cash registers through a variety of businesses, Johnson retains the persona of the good old boy from Ingle Hollow, a man who could be old-shoe comfortable with or without his millions (but he’ll keep them, thanks). He is much the man that Wolfe met 40 years ago, still more at home with his coon-hunting buddies and wandering among his 800 head of cattle than in the worlds of high finance and higher social strata.

He remembers meeting Wolfe in the Somers Road country store across the road from Johnson’s racing shop.

“I had stopped in there and got a drink,” Johnson says. “I was leaning up against the bar, and he walked in. Had on a green wool suit. Sweating like a horse. It was so hot you couldn’t hardly stand it, and him in there with that suit on. You could have thrown a bucket of water on him, and he wouldn’t have been any wetter. Everybody in there had something to say about it. ‘Who is that damn son of a bitch who has a suit like that on this time of the year?’ ”

The moment is captured in Douglas Kirkland’s photograph in Esquire. Kirkland, who also was living in New York City,  accompanied Wolfe to Wilkes County for the weekend and went home with about 600 Nikon images of Johnson and the North Wilkesboro racing community. Over the years, Kirkland would build a reputation as a top-of-the-line photographer working with such celebrities as Marilyn Monroe, John Travolta, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Sophia Loren.

“I was from a small town in Canada,” Kirkland says. “I probably was more ‘North Carolina people’ than Tom. Tom was really a dandy. I was probably wearing jeans and a T-shirt. Tom had a fedora and a tie and was more the oddity than I was.”

It was Kirkland’s first brush with the world of stock car racing.

“I went in with an openness and tried to understand it with new eyes,” he says. “Sometimes it’s valuable to have an expert come in who has covered races of this type and knows it well. Other times it’s beneficial to bring in somebody with the eye of an expert but the eye of an innocent. It seemed to work. My intention was to get striking images.”

Although Kirkland said the film from the Wilkes County trip is lost, he remembered the photographs from the Esquire spread.

“I remember Junior drinking the pop,” he says. “That was a sign of the image. He was a real man. He wasn’t drinking distilled martinis or anything. He grabbed a pop. I saw how he was respected and yet he was not egotistical. He knew what he wanted to do. He was a winner, and that was of great importance, but he didn’t act like the people should bow to him.”

At the speedway, Kirkland remembered being impressed by the “pressures of the moment. There was a sense of electricity in the air. Obviously, the game was to win. A professional like Junior didn’t take it lightly.”

It was not the best of times for Johnson. Two years away from retiring as a driver, he was in a dispute with Chrysler about the cars he was being given to race and soon would move on to Ford. In the race at North Wilkesboro, he finished fourth in a Dodge prepared by Ray Fox. Fred Lorenzen won.

When Wolfe showed up and explained himself, Johnson wanted to be helpful – to a point.

“He came to me and said, ‘Tell me about this and that’ and was wanting to get all about my racing and the whiskey business and all that stuff,” Johnson says. “He told me what his story was about. I said, ‘I’m not going to give you a story on me because that will be my story, not yours. I can take all the bad out. You go out and talk to people in Wilkes County to get your story.’ And that’s what he did.”

Wolfe compiled quite a collection of notes in several visits to Wilkes County. And Johnson wound up being more helpful than first impressions might have indicated. Wolfe had breakfast with Johnson and his mother and Johnson’s fiance (Flossie). They also dined at a restaurant in North Wilkesboro. Johnson took Wolfe to the site where his new house was being built. Asked how much of the surrounding land belonged to him, Johnson came up with one of the quotes that remains in Wolfe’s memory to this day: “Everything that’s green is mine.”

True then; not so today. In 1992, in a divorce that rocked two communities – NASCAR and Ingle Hollow, Junior and Flossie went separate ways. Junior and his second wife, Lisa, have two children, Robert (11) and Meredith (9). They live a few miles from the house Flossie and Junior shared across Somers Road from the Pit ‘n’ Go, now shuttered and closed. In the divorce, Flossie got a good chunk of the home and racing shop property and the chicken houses that once were such a defining element for Junior. The Tyson chicken sign on the side of Somers Road now reads “Flossie Johnson”.

Junior and Flossie seemed to be the eternal NASCAR couple. Although Johnson’s racing success made them rich, they grew into their later years as the same Mom and Pop-type figures generations of NASCAR travelers had come to know. Twice-yearly visits to North Wilkesboro for races were highlights of the season for quite a few NASCAR regulars because of breakfast – ham biscuits, grits and gravy – at Flossie’s table.

Every June, around Junior’s birthday, Flossie prepared a big spread in the backyard of the house, and folks like bluegrass legends Doc and Merle Watson stopped by to celebrate.

“The divorce was a shock for the employees,” says Mike Hill, a Johnson racing lieutenant for 15 years. “Nobody could believe it. Junior and Flossie were like mother and father to a lot of people around there. We’d be down in the shops working trying to get cars ready to go to Daytona, and we could hear Merle and those guys crank up in the backyard. We’d get in a hurry so we could go up there and join the festivities. It was a good time back in those days.”

Hill remains close to Junior and Flossie. He lives in a house across the road and up the hill from the Pit ‘n’ Go. Hill bought the house from Johnson in 1987 and now can look down on the former Junior Johnson and Associates shops that once made Ingle Hollow one of the most important addresses in racing. Some of Johnson’s cattle still graze on Hill’s property. “I told him he could keep cows on it as long as he lives,” says Hill, who now works for Evernham Motorsports. “It’s good seeing him now and then. He’ll come over with his backhoe and dig a trench for me.”

Although Johnson is much the same mountain man who raced and won both as a driver and owner from 1953 to 1995, his marriage to a much younger woman and the birth of his children brought changes. Hill points out an illustration:

“Everybody in racing that has a family has issues,” Hill says. “You work so much, and you’re away so much. I could see that he didn’t quite understand issues I was having. Now he has a family. I think he understands where I was coming from back in those days. The house I bought from him had a swimming pool in the backyard. He told me, ‘You need to let me take my front-end loader and fill that in. All you’re going to be doing is throwing money into that hole the rest of your life.’ I said, ‘Junior, if my children hadn’t already seen that hole out there in the backyard, we could do that. I can’t fill that hole in and have my children looking up at me and saying you’re a mean man for filling up our swimming pool.’

“Junior later had children of his own. I come out one day, and his kids are out swimming in our pool. Next thing I know, Junior is over in his backyard digging a big hole. I took off over there. I said, ‘Junior, what are you doing? Don’t you know you’re going to be throwing money into this hole the rest of your life?’

“I think he understands where I was coming from as far as family goes. His family has changed him.”

Wolfe rolled into Wilkes County 40 years ago and saw Johnson as the last of a breed, a man who had made the most of life, a survivor of late-night whiskey runs through the North Carolina mountains and of high-speed tomfoolery on the high banks of Daytona. And a man who still hunted ’coons with some of the best hunting dogs in the county.

“Much of the original attraction of the story was that here was a guy who ran moonshine whiskey and the idea that he had learned to drive as a race driver from that experience,” Wolfe says. “It was a very romantic kind of thing. He was very open about all that.”

Johnson’s ties to illegal liquor production and delivery are well-documented. A frequent target of federal agents, he served time in federal prison, as had his father for similar offenses. Moonshine was a Johnson family business. It paid the bills, as it did for many others up and down the spine of the Appalachians.

“You either did it and had money to live off of, or you didn’t do it and bummed off the people who were making it,” Johnson says. “If you weren’t do the hauling, you were furnishing the stuff to do the hauling with. You were involved. It was about all the industry there was here.”

This was new territory for Wolfe, who had left work on a story involving actress Elizabeth Taylor to pursue Johnson, a fact that continues to amaze Junior. “Why would you leave Liz Taylor to come and see me?” he asks.

On his first trip south, Wolfe flew into the airport in Winston-Salem and discovered that no rental cars were available. He had to rent a pickup. It was perhaps one of the more unusual sights of that North Wilkesboro race morning – the dapper magazine dandy from New York City traveling to the track in a truck.

“It just struck me, my God, I had never seen anything like this in the South in my life,” Wolfe says of the scene. “Look at all these cars. I remember it was a bright day, and the sun was exploding off all the shiny surfaces. I guess I got interested in the idea that there was a new South and that the passion for the automobile was really the symbol of it. People in the country appreciate cars a lot more than others because they have more use for them because they’re always traveling. There’s also more room to maneuver them – and race them, as it turns out.

“In my childhood, when I was 7 or 8, we’d drive every weekend from Richmond to this farm my father owned in the Shenandoah Valley. Every trip we saw a wreck on the side of the highway. People just loved the speed. The roads, most were two lanes. People didn’t know yet that the speed was crazy. They just loved to drive fast. A lot of stuff came back to me about that. Even though I was far from being at home, a part of me felt at home in that environment.”

Wolfe had little knowledge of stock car racing but had been a childhood fan of midget-car racing at the city stadium in Richmond.

“I used to go there faithfully and watch it,” he says. “I loved it. I loved breathing the atmosphere, the fumes. There was nothing between you and exploding gasoline. And drag racing was a really big deal in Richmond, at least among people I knew. It was just after the Second World War. People had been denied cars [during the war]. They weren’t being produced. Everything was going into the war – all the steel, all the manufacturing. When the war was finally over, things exploded on the automobile front. When my family bought a 1946 Chrysler, I thought I was in heaven.”

Now, Wolfe almost is. Recognized as one of America’s finest writers, he lives in a 14th-floor apartment on East 79th Street near Central Park, within walking distance of the best of New York. Casual couches, a grand piano and a large coffee table carved to look like a stack of books highlight the living room. All around, wall bookshelves are full. The latest is Wolfe’s new heavyweight novel, “I Am Charlotte Simmons”. A dependable producer of bestsellers and known for his solid white suits and unusual sense of fashion, Wolfe has written about astronauts, architecture, modern art, surfers, Black Panthers, the elite uppercrust of Atlanta society and – of course – Junior.

Wolfe and Johnson both became American icons – each in his own way – many years ago. “He just made his money without working like a dog like most of us,” Johnson says.

Wolfe received $800 for the Esquire story. He said he spent at least twice that much traveling in pursuit of its details.

“The story there is bigger than stock car racing itself,” Wolfe says. “That’s always the way it struck me. That’s the way I wrote it, trying to bring the South into it. What is this courage these drivers have? Where did it come from? Is there some place you can just go get it? As it turned out, you could go to the South to see it. Anybody want to go put your life on the line at the track? Oh, sure.

“I’m not aware of that car excitement being written about in so many words the way I did in that piece. I thought it fit. The way people looked at Junior Johnson as a heroic figure – a lot of people in that area said, ‘He’s one of us. He’s Ingle Hollow.’ He’s the lost provinces of North Carolina. He’s all that. And he’s a champion. I mean, what a figure. When I was interviewing him, he was talking about the incredible speeds the cars were getting. I remember him saying he didn’t know how much further that could be pushed. I can’t imagine Junior being afraid of anything.”

That courage comes through in Wolfe’s writing. His focus could have been any number of other things, and there must have been the temptation to produce another “the South is all about racing and yahoos and hillbillies” story. That would have been the easy road.

“It could have been a jokey kind of story,” Wolfe says. “I could have used the accents in a funny way, but I just tried to be correct in the use of accents and pronunciations. I thought I was looking at something significant as well as an exciting story. In a way, it had a semblance of direct connection with the soil at that time. These were farm boys who would just drive the hell out of automobiles.”

Johnson pronounced himself very pleased with the story, saying that Wolfe could have taken other approaches that would have been something short of special. “You know how the women get around those race cars,” he says. “I figured he’d write a story about the women as much as anything because back then they were as wild as a damn rabbit. And I was wild. There’s wasn’t much I hadn’t done. He could have written a story about me that would have been nasty and probably would have been true. He didn’t go after the dirt. It was a great story. I understood what he was trying to do and where he was coming from. He was acquainted with a different class of people.”

Although it’s easy to imagine a scenario in which a New Yorker rolls into the North Carolina outback and has trouble getting along with the locals, Wolfe said he had no difficulties.

“Wilkes County is a different animal from anywhere else in North Carolina,” Johnson says. “They’ll tell you the truth whether you like it or not. I think that’s what Tom got. I think he went back with a story that was the truth, not a made-up hillbilly-type story. His story is basically spot-on as far as what this county and area and people are. Believe it or not, he’s the only one who’s tagged it.”

Although Wolfe poked into virtually every facet of race cars and into every corner of Johnson’s life, he didn’t make the attempt to take the last step toward an understanding of racing – hopping in a race car. “I never thought about it,” he says. “It would have been a great experience. But I probably wasn’t the kind of guy they wanted to take.

“I wore a necktie.”