NASCAR icon Junior Johnson, whose rich history as a driver, mechanic and team owner began as a moonshiner outrunning the law in the NC mountains, has died, NASCAR said Friday. He was 88.
Johnson's death was confirmed by the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, N.C., according to NASCAR. Johnson's health had declined and he entered hospice care this week, NASCAR said.
"Junior Johnson truly was the 'Last American Hero,' " NASCAR Chairman and CEO Jim France said in a statement. "From his early days running moonshine through the end of his life, Junior wholly embodied the NASCAR spirit."
Johnson joined Bill France Sr. and Jr., Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty in the inaugural NASCAR Hall of Fame class in 2010. He was honored as a driver and team owner. Johnson also contributed to the Hall of Fame -- and set up to his own specifications -- an operational moonshine still.
"I'll tell you, this is a big, big deal to me," Johnson told The Charlotte Observer at the time. "It's the greatest thing that's happened to me in this sport. You just don't know how it feels to be one of the five people selected to go into this first class."
"Few have contributed to the success of NASCAR as Junior has," France said. "The entire NASCAR family is saddened by the loss of a true giant of our sport, and we offer our deepest condolences to Junior's family and friends during this difficult time."
Born Robert Glenn Johnson Jr. in 1931, the man everyone called "Junior" hailed from the small community of Ronda, N.C., near one of NASCAR's charter tracks, North Wilkesboro Speedway.
His racing at first was as a moonshiner against deputies.
"The good whiskey runners were kind of cocky about it, like good race drivers," Johnson told the Associated Press in 1991. "I guess I was pretty cocky."
As recounted by NASCAR on Friday night, Johnson was never arrested on the road. "He was convicted of moonshining in 1956 after authorities staked out the family still," according to NASCAR. "President Ronald Reagan pardoned him on Dec. 26, 1986."