Bristol has delivered good times for NASCAR legend

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR STAFF
jbirchfield@starhq.com

   Bristol Motor Speedway is a magical place for one of NASCAR's true legends.
   Junior Johnson addressed members of the media at Bristol's Holiday Inn reliving stories about good times as both a driver and car owner on the "World's Fastest Half-Mile".
   "I have a lot of stuff that happened to me at Bristol," Johnson remembered. "I got to meet Rocky Marciano here one time. Me and him were doing a charity thing. What a treat it was to me the guy. His hand was about twice the size of mine, even though I was about six inches taller than him.
   "If you have the success like I have had at this race track, it's a great place. Bristol has always been one of my favorite places to win races, to go home and feel like you've had great success. Myself running here and knowing how the people are, it's a great place to race. I've enjoyed a lot of good times here. I've got the key to this city, but I haven't been able to find a bank that the key fits. "
   As a driver, Johnson went to victory lane only once. It was then Bristol Raceway, in the 1965 spring event. As an owner, the high banked track was his team's playground. Johnson's cars won 21 times at the speedway, easily outdistancing second place Holman-Moody which won eight races from 1963 to 1971.
   Besides Johnson's drive in 1965, four drivers won piloting cars for the "Last American Hero" at BMS. "Charging" Charlie Glotzbach in a white and red numeraled No. 3, in 1971 set a 500-lap race record that stands to this day.
   Bobby Allison in the Coke Monte Carlos swept both races for Junior in 1972.
   Cale Yarborough won nine times for the team from 1973 to 1980, including the only Bristol race on record where a driver led all 500 laps. Darrell Waltrip scored eight of his track high 12 wins in Johnson's cars. That encompasses a streak from 1981 to 1984, where the team won seven straight races.
   "I think I had the best drivers that anybody has ever had," stated Johnson. "Over a period of years, A.J. Foyt, (Mario) Andretti, they drove for me some. You take LeeRoy Yarborugh and Cale, those two were the most nervy drivers I had. Darrell was finesse driver, but he would trick you to death. He would hold back so much, he would almost lose the race.
   "I would say, 'Hey Cale, are you laying down on me?' He would say, 'Junior, my name is Darrell, it ain't Cale.' Bobby Allison was a great competitor. He had ideas on how he does things and you couldn't change him. But, he was someone you couldn't beat if he was right.
   "Most of them drivers I had in their prime and that makes a difference. Cale wrecked the first eight races he drove for us. My boys said, 'What are you going to do with that crazy fool? He's going to wreck every car we've got.' I said, 'He's going to learn every time you hit that wall, it hurts worse and worse.' All he wrecked those cars, he became one of the best drivers I had."
   Working with so many great drivers over his career that include contemporaries, Bill Elliott, Sterling Marlin and Terry Labonte, it was asked who of today's group of hot shoes would Junior take if he still owned a race team.
   "Some of them young kids, Earnhardt, Busch and Kenseth are going to take the sport a long ways," said Johnson. "Probably, I would take Tony Stewart. Tony fits my mold. I like his spunk and he says what he means. His dad taught him the right way to win races. You've got to have that.
   "You can't have a laid-back type of guy, who is going to keep his mouth shut and walk off when somebody says something. You have to stand up."
   Behind the wheel, Johnson is arguably the greatest driver in NASCAR history that never won a series championship. He won 50 races, but had an all-out style that wasn't conducive to racking up points. His best finish in a points battle was sixth.
   As an owner, his team racked up six Winston Cup titles, three with Yarborough and three with Waltrip. A member of several auto racing hall of fames, Johnson was called the greatest stock car driver of all-time by SPORTS ILLUSTRATED in 1998.
   His background, growing up in the hills of North Carolina right across the mountains from Carter County, included running moonshine. The whole time he was a major player in the sport, up until the mid-90's, his house overlooked the race shops made of brick with metal doors.
   Also on the property were his chicken houses and the fields where he kept cattle. It can not be said that Junior Johnson lost sight of where he came from.
   "It's a great sport," said Johnson. "But, you can get hung up in it. I did it for 45 years and that is a long, long time. I thought about driving the automobile. I kind of created things nobody else had done, but let me tell you, I tore up a bunch of them too."
   While it's true that Johnson was one of the pioneers of the sport, many people don't know he was an outstanding baseball player. At the age of 15, he was throwing fastballs in the high-90's. His career as a hurler ended when he turned over a farm tractor and broke his arm. The diamond's loss was the speedway's gain.
   As a racer, Johnson was one of the great. With 139 owner wins, Johnson stands second all-time behind only Petty Enterprises.
   His team was a training ground for several of the top mechanics in the sport, earning the nickname Ingle Hollow University, a takeoff on the location of his Wilkes County shops.
   He is credited with bringing the Winston sponsorship to NASCAR and for inventing several of the preparation rituals that teams use today.
   "We had six or seven cars and two or three of them stayed ready all the time,"
   Johnson said about when his teams were winning titles. "I was in Richard Childress' operation last week. He wanted to show me around. Probably they had 150 or 200 cars setting on the floor. He said they had 275 motors in the cycle, being built and overhauled.
   "But, he runs three teams. He's got two Busch teams and he builds motors for the local-type guys. It takes several million dollars to run an operation like that. I think it's been pushed out of reason. Where it goes, nobody knows. I was successful in racing and I'm happy with what I'm doing now."
   Now retired, he watches the sport from outside. Johnson made some an observation about the business of the sport and how things have changed.
   For this area, the popularity of racing at Bristol brings added responsibility.
   "You have challenges to build more motels and have more facilities to handle people," said the legendary car owner. "Back when I started we would drive the race cars from track to track. I would be gone for two weeks from Virginia, up to New Jersey, New York, over into Canada, race ten races before I would go back home.
   "We hauled everything we would use in the trunk. Sometimes, we would stop at a service station and overhaul the motor. You had to go to the junkyard and get parts. That's how we raced.
   "It was a very funny atmosphere where you traveled. I remember my brother would go with me and we would be greasy and nasty where we just left the race track and I would want to stop and he didn't want to go in a restaurant the way we looked.
   "Back then there weren't all the motels, you pretty much had to live out of the service station bathrooms. Most of us raced because we liked it. The bigger races only paid about $1000. One time we raced 70 some races one year and now these guys are raising cain about 36 races.
   "Today, the people have all the elaborate things like buses at the race track. They have airplanes that go everywhere. The price of racing is probably around the $20 million bracket when you get around to it.
   "Half of the stuff you don't see is the souvenir sales. That's most of the money comes that they do what they want to with. I've seen it come from the bottom to the top. I have an opportunity to get back in it in a limited way, but I doubt if that will happen."