North State Journal’s 100 in 100 series will showcase the best athlete from each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. From Alamance to Yancey, each county will feature one athlete who stands above the rest. Some will be obvious choices, others controversial, but all of our choices are worthy of being recognized for their accomplishments — from the diamond and gridiron to racing ovals and the squared circle. You can see all the profiles as they’re unveiled here.
If fate and foolishness hadn’t stepped in, Robert Glenn Johnson Jr. might have gained fame and fortune as a baseball pitcher. But a broken arm, suffered while horsing around on a tractor he flipped over, ended that dream when he was 14.
So instead of playing baseball for a living, Johnson went into his family’s two businesses — farming and moonshine.
He was especially talented behind the wheel of a high-performance car, which he used to outrun the authorities at high speed while delivering illegal alcohol to customers throughout the mountains of Western North Carolina.
Legend has it that Johnson was never caught on the road. He was, however, arrested and convicted of bootlegging following a stakeout of his family’s still in 1956. He had already begun transitioning his driving skills to the track by then, having won five NASCAR races in 1955 before spending a year in jail in Ohio.
He returned to competition following his release, earning a reputation as one of the fiercest competitors on the Grand National circuit. His fearless style helped him win 50 races with 148 top-10 finishes and 48 pole positions.
“I was crazy, I think,” Johnson said in 2015. “I’ve never been scared in a race car, any other kind of car, because I thought I was a good enough driver to handle it. And I was.”
Johnson’s most significant victory came in 1960 at the Daytona 500. Not only was it his first superspeedway win but the native of Ronda also discovered and later perfected the technique of drafting that is still used to this day.
In 1966, while still at the top of his game at the age of just 35, Johnson retired from competition, saying that he’d accomplished “about everything I’d hoped for.” While he never won a series championship as a driver, he earned six as a car owner with Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip behind the wheel. He also had success with drivers Terry Labonte, Geoff Bodine and Bill Elliott.
Johnson’s list of superlatives is a lengthy one. He was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1991 and the NASCAR Hall of Fame as a charter member in 2010. He was selected as one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers and a stretch of U.S. Highway 421 in Wilkes County is named in his honor.
But perhaps his greatest tribute came from Hollywood in 1973 when Jeff Bridges played a character based on Johnson’s life in the film “The Last American Hero.”