For a good chunk of his career, it was impossible to catch Junior Johnson when he was in a race car. However, it was quite possible to catch Johnson when
For a good chunk of his career, it was impossible to catch Junior Johnson when he was in a race car. However, it was quite possible to catch Johnson when he was not in a race car, which is exactly what federal agents did on a clear night in 1956. When Johnson walked into the woods of Wilkes County to light the fire on his father’s moonshine still, he found the law waiting for him.
Some of NASCAR’s first drivers, if you didn’t know, were bootleggers, driving souped-up cars to avoid revenuers, who were trying to arrest them for not paying taxes on their liquor. But those liquor-making habits weren’t quite out of NASCAR’s bloodstream in the early days. Hence, Johnson, who’d won five races during his first season in 1955, ended up spending much of the 1956 season in a federal penitentiary in Chillicothe, Ohio.
After he got out, he went on to win 50 races as a driver and six championships as an owner. In the early 1980s, he filed a request for a pardon. It wasn’t until December 26, 1986, that President Ronald Reagan issued one. Reagan had a thing for granting pardons to sports figures — he later granted one to Yankees owner George Steinbrenner for a campaign finance violation. But this one wasn’t an overtly political move. Reagan was a Republican. Johnson was a lifelong Democrat.
No matter. Johnson later called the pardon the “best Christmas gift I ever got.” The pardon, however, didn’t erase all evidence of the crime. In 2007, he lent his family recipe to a distillery in Madison, which went on to make Midnight Moon Moonshine. To market it, the company used his mugshot.