Higgins' Scuffs: Junior Johnson and the banana-mobile

- Contributor
Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013

Nowadays NASCAR generally lowers the boom on teams that try to circumvent rules covering body configuration of the sanctioning body’s race cars and trucks.

Even the slightest variations, fractions of an inch, aren’t tolerated and often lead to heavy fines, suspensions and probationary periods.

NO variance is abided.

Imagine, then, the reaction officials would have if a team showed up for a race with a car as obviously and wildly illegal as a Ford that Junior Johnson brought to Atlanta in 1966 for the Dixie 400 on Aug. 7. There likely would be wholesale blowing of fuses.

The incident that lives in NASCAR lore comes to mind as the AdvoCare 500 looms at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sept. 1.

The profile of Johnson’s car looked like nothing that had been manufactured in Detroit.

The front end and hood sloped downward, the roof was cut very low, and the rear end was raised. The windows were designed so narrowly that it looked impossible for a driver even as slight as Fred Lorenzen to squeeze through into the cockpit.

The No. 26 vehicle was painted yellow, the primary marketing color of Johnson’s sponsor, Holly Farms Poultry.

Not surprisingly, the color and shape in combination quickly led to a nickname—“The Banana.” The car also was called “The Magnifluxed Monster” and “Junior’s Joke.”

Also of strange design that week at the track then known as Atlanta International Raceway was a Chevelle fielded by the imaginative Smokey Yunick for driver Curtis Turner. Stock car racing historian Greg Fielden had a vivid description of that machine in his splendid series of books, “Forty Years Of Stock Car Racing.”

“The front of the body shell was neatly handcrafted,” wrote Fielden. “There was a raised lip at the rear of the roofline and the wheels were positioned off-center in the body cutaways.”

Despite the glaring discrepancies, both the Johnson and Yunick cars passed pre-race inspection.

Meanwhile cars entered for Ned Jarrett, David Pearson and LeeRoy Yarbrough were ruled unacceptable unless several changes were made.

Barry Alvarez and Cotton Owens, the team owners for Jarrett and Pearson, respectively, refused to alter their cars and angrily withdrew. Owner Jon Thorne and Yarbrough were expelled outright because their car had blocks of wood in the springs which were designed to fall out as the race wore on, lowering the car for an advantage in handling.

Owens had been more ingenious. His car was equipped with a cable which Pearson could pull during the race to lower their Dodge.

“I refused to change my car as a matter of principle,” stormed the normally easy-going Owens. “The principle being NASCAR allowing two cars to flaunt the rules while blowing the whistle on others. I realize that Lorenzen and Turner are valuable as drawing cards, but that doesn’t make it right.”

The wails of protest—and the interest of fans—increased when Turner sped to the pole at 130.244 mph in the Chevelle and Lorenzen qualified third in the Fairlane fielded by Johnson, formerly Fearless Freddie’s arch rival.

Both Turner and Lorenzen led stretches of the race on the 1.5-mile track near Hampton, Ga. But they were sidelined back-to-back, Turner on the 130th of 267 laps by distributor problems and Lorenzen on the 139th lap by a crash resulting from a blown tire. Lorenzen finished 23rd in a 42-car field, Turner 24th.

Richard Petty triumphed in a Plymouth, edging runnerup Buddy Baker’s Dodge by 2 seconds.

Johnson explained after the race that he had built the Fairlane “Funny Car” at the request and to the specifics of prominent Ford team owner John Holman.

Rumor has persisted through the years that either Holman was tipped to what Yunick was doing and responded with an equally outlandish creation, or vice versa. NASCAR ordered that neither car ever be brought to a track again.

When Lorenzen crashed, some wag in the press box had cracked, “It’s hard to drive a banana at 145 miles an hour!”

Even Johnson chuckled when told of that line.

To the contrary, there’s no laughing now in NASCAR when body measurements aren’t precisely on the money.