Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Is 'The Last American Hero' a first-ballot Hall of Famer?

Two legends collided when author Tom Wolfe famously chronicled NASCAR driver Junior Johnson in a 1965 Esquire article entitled 'The Last American Hero.'

The piece married Wolfe, a pioneer in the literary New Journalism style of reporting, with Johnson, the South's most famous bootlegger.

With Wolfe's status long affirmed by the establishment, now it's Johnson's crack at racing's official greatest honor.

Today, NASCAR Hall of Fame voters will gather in Charlotte to pick the first five inductees. The winners will be enshrined in the new facility, scheduled to open next May.

Observers agree on three first-ballot favorites: drivers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, and NASCAR founder Bill France, Sr. They are among 25 nominees, which include Johnson.

Part of Johnson's legend came from the track: Hands-down, he's one of NASCAR's most successful drivers and team owners.

But the other part comes from his story, of running moonshine along the mountain roads of Wilkes County, about 90 minutes north of Charlotte.

Johnson's tale is well-known, in books and television shows, even an outdoor drama called "Moonshine and Thunder - The Junior Johnson Story." A 1973 movie shared the title of the Wolfe article.

Wolfe's Esquire piece explored how Wilkes County came to be known as the "Bootleg capital of America." At one point, Wolfe describes Johnson standing at his family's Ingle Hollow homeplace as he "motions his hand out toward the hills and says, "I'd say nearly everybody in a fifty-mile radius of here was in the whiskey business at one time or another."

Johnson, who served time for his role in the business, could say the same thing today.

Earlier this year, state agents charged Dean Combs, a former NASCAR driver and crew chief for Johnson, with making moonshine.

Agents and Wilkes County sheriff's deputies said they found a 300-gallon still in a shop building on property owned by Combs, 57. The still was behind a go-kart track near the North Wilkesboro Speedway, not far from Johnson's home.

But that's where the parallel journeys of Johnson and Combs end.

Shortly after the raid, court records show, Combs pleaded guilty to possession of non-tax paid alcohol and making alcohol with a permit, both misdemeanors. Other charges were dismissed.

Recall what happened to Johnson, now 78. In 1956, after federal agents caught him working his father's Wilkes County still, he was sentenced to two years in federal prison in Ohio.

If Wolfe had a vote today, he might remind NASCAR's Hall why that's reason enough to pick Johnson, a man with a story from another time:

"And the Detroit P.R. men themselves come to the tracks like folk worshipers and the millions go giddy with the thrill of speed. Only Junior Johnson goes about it as if it were...the usual. Junior goes on down to Atlanta for the Dixie 400 and drops by the Federal penitentiary to see his Daddy. His Daddy is in on his fifth illegal distillery conviction; in the whiskey business that's just part of it; an able craftsman, an able businessman, and the law kept hounding him, that was all. So Junior drops by and then goes on out to the track and gets in his new Ford and sets the qualifying speed record for Atlanta Dixie 400, 146.301 m.p.h.; later on he tools on back up the road to Ingle Hollow to tend to the automatic chicken houses and the road-grading operation. Yes."

- Doug Miller

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