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Country boy backs into city life, enjoys Charlotte

Friday, Oct. 12, 2012
Saturday’s race What: The Bank of America 500, fifth of 10 races in NASCAR’s Chase for the Cup, racing’s version of the playoffs. Where: Charlotte Motor Speedway, Concord. When: 7:30 p.m. TV: ABC, WSOC-TV channel 9.

Junior Johnson walks out the front door of the beautiful home in the exclusive Quail Hollow neighborhood to which he and his family moved this spring.

He doesn’t wear the overalls that were once a trademark. This would be a better column if Junior wore overalls.

Alas, Junior wears jeans.

Around him are some of the houses that entice golf fans to point and gasp every spring during the PGA’s annual stop at Quail Hollow Club.

Please notice the title: Quail Hollow is not a country club. Quail Hollow is a club. There is no country in Quail Hollow.

Yet here is Junior, country as a campfire. He ran moonshine and won 50 NASCAR races, was a brilliant mechanic and a brilliant team owner. He is a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s first class. Although he’s traveled the world he’s never lived far from his Wilkes County roots.

Make a wrong turn?

“I was going to the hospital (Duke University Medical Center) and had a back problem,” says Junior, who at 81 still has a full head of white hair. “You know, I guess (from) hitting the walls and wrecking and blowing tires. I caught a staph infection. Like to have died but I beat it out. I just wasn’t able to go back to work.”

Junior couldn’t allow his showplace of a 150-acre farm off The Junior Johnson Highway in Yadkin County to turn shabby. So he and his wife, Lisa, and their son Robert and daughter Meredith moved to Charlotte. Robert is a freshman at Duke, Meredith a junior at Charlotte Country Day.

“I had a lot of good days there,” Junior says of the farm. “I want to keep ‘em there. My health won’t let me do it and the children don’t need to do it. We want them to go forward and not backward.”

We walk inside the house and talk in a stately little room. Seeing him here, in this place, among furniture from France, does not feel right.

“If you told me Junior was moving to the neighborhood I would have said, ‘No, no, no, no,’ ” says Quail Hollow neighbor, and NASCAR team owner, Rick Hendrick. “He needs to be in the country with his cows.”

Maybe he brought some of the country with him.

You bring your forklift?

“I don’t even have a shovel,” Junior says.

He has a burro.

Can I see it?

It’s with his horse about 20 miles south.

Race team owner Felix Sabates is a neighbor.

“We don’t have overalls in the neighborhood,” Sabates says. “But there might be a few burros.”

Neighbors have been friendly, coming by with invitations and food. Maybe Junior looks hungry. When he left the hospital in March his weight had fallen from 230 pounds to 160. He’s back to 180 and would like to gain a few more.

He’ll get the opportunity.

“They got so many good restaurants here in Charlotte,” Junior says. “We don’t settle on any one place because they have different kinds of food, got all kinds of restaurants, you can just about get anything that you want.

“I used to come to Charlotte a lot, just drive all the way to Charlotte to eat dinner. It’s just a special city; I think the best city in our state.”

Junior still gets up before 6 a.m. He’s as active as his health permits. He walks his dogs, two Chesapeake Bay retrievers and a Rhodesian Ridgeback.

He stays active with the Hall of Fame. He appears on behalf of Midnight Moon, the successful and legal moonshine that bears his name. He goes to the store. People point, ask for autographs and wonder what he’s doing in Charlotte.

“If people don’t see you (they) put you aside,” says Junior. “Get kind of stale, you know. I can’t do that.”

When he’s better able to walk distances he plans to buy two Carolina Panthers suite-level tickets. He’s excited about the Charlotte Knights moving downtown.

Junior gets a phone call and, as he excuses himself, I look around the room. There’s a picture of Junior with President Obama, one with President Clinton and, on the other side of the room, with President Reagan. You want the vote in N.C.? You go to Junior.

“Anybody who thinks Junior sat up in the hills and didn’t know what was going on doesn’t know the man,” says Hendrick.

Junior often was the smartest man in the room. He was confident enough not to have to prove it.

Beneath the desk at which he sits is a bearskin rug.

“People ask me how big the bear was,” Junior says after his telephone conversation ends. “Big enough to knock the motor plum back at my feet in the car.”

It’s like this: In 1957 Junior and the fellows are driving to Boone in his new black Pontiac. Bear runs down a hill. Bear meets Pontiac. Bear dies and car is totaled. Junior brings bear to taxidermist.

Law confiscates bear.

“The game warden put me under bond for hunting out of season,” says Junior. “And I had to go to court and they found me guilty and fined me. And I got so dad blamed mad that I appealed the thing. I told ’em if they was gonna fine me I wanted them to pay for my car.”

The bear watched from the courtroom floor, the fine was rescinded and he and Junior have been together 55 years.

Bear rugs are country, right?

Overalls are. Junior kept four or five pair. He hasn’t worn them.

But he will if he feels like it.

Sorensen: 704-358-5129;; Twitter: @tomsorensen

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