Junior – The Best of What Was
When I walked through the gate into the Atlantic Rural Exposition Fairgrounds race track that Sunday afternoon in April of 1963, I knew from reading the Richmond newspapers’ advance stories that a guy named Junior Johnson would be in one of the cars to watch during the Richmond 250 NASCAR Grand National stock car race.
Junior Johnson, his Ray Fox/Holly Farms #3, and a team car
What I didn’t know was that Junior and Joe Weatherly would put on a spirited, race-long battle that afternoon, and it would end only in the closing laps when engine in the Ray Fox-owned Holly Farms-sponsored #3 Chevy would explode, and the car would end up backed halfway through promoter Paul Sawyer’s white board fence around the track.
That Johnson-Weatherly duel in my first-ever race would make me a lifelong fan.
I had come to the race prepared to cheer Weatherly, because he was a Virginian like me, and because he’d brought the previous year’s championship trophy home to the Old Dominion. Sadly, less than a year later, “Little Joe” was dead.
Johnson, thought, made the bigger impression that spring afternoon almost 57 years ago, leading the most laps and driving with an abandon that you couldn’t help but admire. Junior quickly became the other guy earning my cheers, and it stayed that way for the rest of his driving career (even when he switched to Fords) and when he became car owner.
When he walked away from active involvement in 1995, racing ceased to be as much fun.
The legend behind the wheel
Junior Johnson deserved to be in the first class of NASCAR’s Hall of Fame. Nobody else is ranked as high both as a driver (50 wins) and a car owner (132 wins, including 13 of his own). He was a Grand National “regular” for only nine years, and he won at least one race every one of those. (I put “regular” in quotation marks because Junior never tried to run every race – his best points finish was sixth.) As a car owner, he helped Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip to their greatest years, and he had only two seasons – both at the end of his career – when his team failed to win a race.
Still, that wasn’t the whole story. What made him Tom Wolfe’s “Last American Hero” was Junior the moonshiner, Junior the good ol’ boy, Junior the mechanical genius (and regular cheater), Junior the sharp businessman, Junior the all-around nice guy.
When Junior raced the famously rule-stretching “Yellow Banana” Ford in 1965, templates (much less lasers) weren’t part of the NASCAR inspection process.
Junior Johnson had a personality that you – as a fan – could put up on your wall and revere. He was one of US . . . with all our best traits.
He walked away from the sport before he turned 65, and I think that a good part of the “why” he left is that he saw more clearly than the rest of us where things were headed, and he wanted no part of it.
That in turn ties into the real downer of this article: the sad reality that Junior Johnson would stand NO CHANCE of making it in NASCAR today:
- Convicted criminal.
- No money.
- Less than matinee idol looks.
- Less than English teacher grammar.
For that matter, neither would Weatherly, Fireball Roberts, Herb Thomas, Rex White or many others. All they could do was drive the crap out of a race car at the local level and have somebody recognize that talent and give them a shot at the next level. Ask Bubba Pollard how well that works today.
Maybe that plays an even bigger role than the charter system, the driver development programs, the insane rules and the point system nobody understands in why it’s gotten so much harder for this fan to feel connected to the sport today.
Junior Johnson, I will miss you for the driver you were, the owner you were, the decent human being you were, and all you stood for in racing the way it was.
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
Here’s a really obscure history lesson that came to mind when I was remembering that first race I attended. What we know today as Richmond Raceway (formerly Richmond International Raceway) has had perhaps more names than any track on the NASCAR Cup circuit, and the one from the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s that includes “Atlantic Rural Exposition” is the most complicated.
Where in the world did that goofy name come from?
Well, it was like this. During World War II, several things happened to the Virginia State Fair, which up until the way had been held on land just off a main Richmond thoroughfare called “The Boulevard” (and as of earlier this year, Arthur Ashe Boulevard). The Diamond, Richmond’s minor league baseball part, sits on the property today, along with a couple of other athletic facilities.
During the war, fairs were suspended, but preparing for their eventual resumption, the fair corporation purchased land outside of the city for a new fairgrounds. This was the Strawberry Hill Farm. Then, still during the war, the majority owner of the fair corporation died.
At this point, a group of Virginia livestock businessmen decided to purchase the fair corporation and the new property, but their plan was not to continue the fair. Rather, they subscribed to an idea championed by a Virginia Tech professor to make Richmond the Chicago or Kansas City of the East with a major livestock market. They planned to hold a major cattle and other livestock market on the Strawberry Hill property and call the enterprise the Atlantic Rural Exposition.
Initially, a one-mile racetrack was to be built as part of the enterprise, but the speedway turned out to be a half-mile, where Indy-style “big cars” ran he first race in 1946.
This is said to be a photo from one of the first Richmond races. Check out that guard rail!
After a couple of years of financial underperformance, the exposition backers realized they needed the revenue from a fair, and the Virginia State Fair was re-born, albeit still with the clunky Atlantic Rural Exposition name. The track was stuck with that name, too, until Paul Sawyer succeeded in giving a more race-track-like name 20 years later.