By 1960, Junior Johnson, a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s inaugural class of 2010, had already been racing for seven years – and had been running moonshine for many more years than that.
For him, racing in NASCAR was still a hobby. Making and transporting illegal liquor, a family tradition begun by his father Robert Glenn Johnson, provided nearly all his family’s income.
And it was a healthy income. The elder Johnson had established what was estimated at over 1,000 stills throughout the Wilkes County, N.C., area.
“We had reached the point where we could transport our liquor in 18-wheelers if we needed to,” Johnson said. “Fact is, we did that a lot.”
Despite the sometimes lengthy hard – and clandestine – work required in the moonshine business, Johnson found the time to race. It was never enough to compete for a championship – he rarely competed on a full season’s schedule – but it was enough to become successful.
By the start of the 1958 NASCAR Cup Series season, Johnson had won five races competing on limited schedules. When the campaign began, Johnson was teamed up with car owner Paul Spaulding of Syracuse, N.Y.
During the next two seasons Johnson’s reputation as an elite stock car driver skyrocketed. He won 11 times in 55 starts, giving him 16 career victories as the 1960 season approached.
In 1959, Daytona International Speedway, the 2.5-mile, high-banked racetrack conceived and built by NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., conducted its first race. In a nail-biting finish, and one properly recorded as part of NASCAR lore, Lee Petty won by inches over Johnny Beauchamp.
In Spaulding’s No. 11 Ford, Johnson wound up 14th, 11 laps down.
Johnson eagerly anticipated another crack at Daytona. But there was a problem. After just two starts in 1960, Spaulding quit as a car owner.
And Johnson, who was scheduled to drive for Spaulding in the second annual Daytona 500, was out of a job.
“I didn’t have a ride and it looked like I wasn’t going to get one,” Johnson said. “I was gonna have to stay home.”
But something happened.
Johnson got a last-minute phone call from the established, and reputable, crew chief and mechanic Ray Fox, who asked Johnson if he would come to Daytona and drive a Chevrolet owned by John Masoni, owner of the local dog track.
Originally, Fox did not accept the task of preparing a car for Masoni. But Masoni was determined to have one in the Daytona 500 and told Fox that whatever amount of money it took to prepare a car, he would double it.
That was enough for Fox and although the deal was struck just days before the race, he assembled a crew, built the car and called Johnson.
Johnson accepted, but not because he knew he could win the race. Fox’s No. 27 Chevrolet was woefully behind in horsepower and not very likely to be successful in competition against the Fords, Oldsmobiles and Pontiacs of the day.
“I told Ray I was pretty much wasting my time,” Johnson said. “He told me he would continue to work on the car to try to make it faster. So, I hung around.”
When the next practice session began, Johnson decided to adopt a new strategy. He would get behind one of the fastest Pontiacs to learn where it was quickest on the track and perhaps become aware of what it might require to make his Chevrolet keep pace.
So Johnson tucked in behind Cotton Owens’ No. 6 Pontiac and quickly made an interesting discovery: his Chevrolet never fell away from the Pontiac. It was never outdistanced. It was as if it was magnetized to the rear bumper.
“Cotton came up to me afterward and told me that the Chevy was really moving and that Ray had really helped make a difference,” Johnson said. “Yeah, my car was right there. But I wasn’t sure it was all because of Ray.”
To determine what was making the difference, Johnson ran the Chevrolet alone on the track and learned that it remained its slow self.
But when he drove directly behind a faster car, the Chevrolet was its equal.
Johnson could not have known it, but what he discovered, quite by accident, was the phenomenon known as “the draft.”
When racing behind a faster car that propels through the air, a slower one – free of wind interference – can maintain the pace.
Then the slower car can easily pass when it drops free and is pulled through by the air slipstream.
The 500 itself was full of wrecks, some of which Johnson narrowly missed. On the 170th lap, the rear window of leader Bobby Johns’ No. 3 Pontiac blew out, forcing him to spin into the infield grass and thus opening the door for second-place Johnson (who indeed was drafting).
“I was long gone after that,” Johnson said “I had no business winning that race. I am amazed that we won. The Chevrolet was down on horsepower. It had no business even being in that race.
“And I was lucky to miss all the wrecks. I think speed had something to do with it. We were going faster than ever at Daytona, at 150 mph or more, and that might have spooked some of the guys.
“Not me. Hell, I’ve run faster than that on the highway.”
The draft, in one form or another over the years, remains a significant competitive factor in superspeedway racing, particularly at Daytona and its sister track, Talladega Superspeedway.
And, although he never planned to do so, Johnson discovered the phenomenon.
Otherwise, he certainly would not have won the most significant race of his 50-victory career as a driver.
Chances are he would have been home – perhaps tending to a still, grooming his car or planning the route for yet another high-speed foray into the night.
About the author
Steve Waid has been in journalism since 1972, when he began his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. He has spent over 40 years in motorsports journalism, first with the Roanoke Times-World News and later as publisher and vice president for NASCAR Scene and NASCAR Illustrated.
Steve has won numerous state sports writing awards and several more from the National Motorsports Press Association for his motorsports coverage, feature and column writing. For several years, Steve was a regular on “NASCAR This Morning” on FOX Sports Net and he is the co-author, with Tom Higgins, of the biography “Junior Johnson: Brave In Life.”
In January 2014, Steve was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame. And in 2019 he was presented the Squier-Hall Award by the NASCAR Hall of Fame for lifetime excellence in motorsports journalism. In addition to writing for Frontstretch, Steve is also the co-host of The Scene Vault Podcast.
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