Stock car racing legend Junior Johnson, 78, has been called many things in his life: pioneer, champion, farmer, bootlegger, jailbird, folk hero and businessman.
Next month, Johnson will add a new title to that list—hall of famer—when hes inducted into the inaugural class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, N.C., along with fellow racing superstars Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Richard Petty, and NASCAR founders Bill France Sr. and Jr.
"This is something I cherish," says Johnson of the distinguished honor.
In the stock car racing world, Johnson is a giant. His slew of accomplishments includes 50 wins as a driver, 132 wins and six championships as a team owner, and racing innovations such as drafting—driving closely behind another car to increase speed and fuel efficiency—and driver-to-pit crew two-way radios.
"Junior epitomizes NASCAR," says Eli Gold, who hosts the NASCAR Live radio show. "Besides being a magnificent driver and hugely successful team owner, he is a walking, talking history book. He is also the embodiment of the moonshine days, which obviously begat the sport."
Johnson—born Robert Glenn Johnson Jr.—grew up in Ingle Hollow, N.C., a Wilkes County mountain community too small to be listed on most maps. By day, he tended his family's copper moonshine stills; at night, he cruised the countryside delivering the shine, a type of liquor made from corn.
Since the product was unregulated, and since poor farmers who distilled the homemade liquor couldn't afford or didn't want to pay taxes on it, federal agents pursued those who made, transported and sold the illegal booze.
Johnson, like many early stock car racers, honed his driving skills by outrunning revenuers on winding mountain roads. He became well-known for his ability to build faster cars than those driven by law enforcement agents; for his signature 180-degree bootleg turn; and for exploits such as placing police lights and sirens on his car to elude roadblocks.
In 1956, Johnson's luck ran out, however. A fledgling race car driver at the time, Johnson was arrested for operating an illegal still and was sent to federal prison in Chillicothe, Ohio.
After serving 11 months of a two-year sentence, he returned to racing and began accumulating the many wins and championships that comprise his now legendary NASCAR career. He also gave up moonshining. Until recently, that is.
In 2007, Johnson became part owner of Piedmont Distillers Inc., a moonshine maker in Madison, N.C. (pop. 2,262). Soon after, his signature brands, Midnight Moon and Lightning Lemonade, were born.
"The recipe we use is my dad's," Johnson says. "The only difference is we triple-still it and take all the impurities out. There's no aftertaste. It's smooth."
And, the products are legit. Piedmont Distillers, the only licensed maker of moonshine in North Carolina and one of only a handful in the country, pays taxes on the spirits it sells in 23 states.
"Who ever thought you'd be able to go into a state-run liquor store and buy Junior's hooch!" says sportscaster Gold, with a laugh.
Johnson's latest venture, as well as his other business interests, such as Junior Johnson's Country Ham and Pork Skins, are well-suited for the retired race car driver, who nowadays spends most of his time working on his 278-acre farm in Hamptonville, N.C.
"I can't just chase a thousand head of cattle around all day; that'll wear me down," he says about his need to dabble in enterprises off the farm.
Johnson's farm, where he lives with his wife, Lisa, and their two children, Robert, 16, and Meredith, 14, is just three miles from his childhood home, smack dab in the middle of the county once known as the Moonshine Capital of the World.
Only now, the respectable rebel is a moonshiner and a hall of famer—with nothing to hide.