RICHMOND, Va. _ Less than a month before the grand opening of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, the legendary Junior Johnson sat down with a group of reporters from the NASCAR Citizens Journalist Media Corps on Saturday at the Richmond International Raceway.
A member of the inaugural class of Hall of Fame inductees, Johnson has been a leading figure in the sport since its very inception. Running from the law as a bootlegger in Wilkes County, N.C. taught a young Johnson how to handle a car, how to find speed and how to win. NASCAR provided the opportunity to make a career out of it.
His story is that of NASCAR, an average man living an extraordinary life finds success in a sport he helps grow nationally. He has inspired numerous books and even a feature film called "The Last American Hero," staring Jeff Bridges. His tenacity and know-how when it came to building winning cars and championship caliber teams set the example for others to follow. However, with so much money involved in the sport these days, Johnson does not believe his story could happen again.
“When I did it I did it with knowledge and skill. Now they buy the knowledge,” Johnson said. “It’ll never be the same as it used to be because of the money.”
Overall, it seemed Johnson was troubled by the affect the money has on the ability of smaller teams to compete. Common knowledge, wherewithal and an ability to play just outside the rules was how Johnson ran his teams and in today’s NASCAR, that just can’t be.
Scoring five championships, 132 wins, 436 top-5s and 577 top-10s as a car owner, Johnson’s common knowledge led to results and ultimately the money needed to be successful.
The kind of wrench-turner that always had a trick up his sleeve, Johnson does not feel it is right for NASCAR to fine someone for a violation before it hits the track. Often, if a car fails inspection prior to hitting the track – even for the first practice – a fine is levied on the team. With such little wiggle room under the current inspection process, Johnson feels NASCAR has crossed the line and established a slavery-like system in the garage.
“You have to replace money with common knowledge,” Johnson said. “NASCAR has a cookie cut inspection and if you vary from that, it does not bother them to hit you with a heavy fine. The only way you can beat them is you have to work on your car and get it better than the other guys. They won’t let you do that.
“There are a standard of ethics the way you need to work together with people to get along with everyone, besides slavery,” Johnson said.
While he did not have many kind words for the rules NASCAR now has in place, the future Hall of Famer did point to the spoiler as one area of improvement. Citing the dangerous aerodynamics of the rear wing that, in his words, turned the cars into airplanes when turned around, Johnson said the move to the rear spoiler was, “about the only thing [NASCAR] did in a long time that made sense.”
For the small group gathered Saturday morning at the Richmond International Raceway, Johnson took time to tell his story and offer his views. In most sports, the men that laid the groundwork and paved the way are long gone. Luckily, NASCAR has the unique opportunity to learn from men like Johnson while they are still around.
At 78-years-old, Johnson is part of a select group of men that have seen NASCAR grow from the disorganized jumble of promoters and racers to the multi-million dollar sport it is today. With the induction ceremonies for the NASCAR Hall of Fame coming up on March 23, generations of new fans will be able to learn the amazing story carved out by men like Junior Johnson for years to come.
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